Shaken and Served!
1958: In a
modest Youth Festival setting of Delhi, Orissi was first seen courtesy
two Oriya youngsters, Dhiren Pattnaik and Priyamvada Mohanty and at once
lapped-up and platformed by the two eminent critics of the day, Charles
Fabri and Mohan Khokar. "It was thanks to efforts of such serious critics,
that the pundits of the Sangeet Natak took notice of the form and later
thanks to them, Orissi got established," Lalit Mansingh stated recently.
By 1958, Indrani Rahman had made it a dance form to watch.
In the last 25 years, he has made Orissi an important and a major form to reckon with in Malaysia where the predominantly Tamil settlers of Indian origin would rather serve Bharatanatyam for dinner, instead of sambar! He has also trained several Orissi dancers of merit - Rathimala, Guna, January Low, Revathy, Tan Mae Mae, Nishah Devi - and inspired many more, He has created a solid space for Orissi in Malaysia and it is a major achievement to do so in an alien and Islamic country.
But Ramli will not be only remembered for all of above in history of Indian and world dance. He will be most remembered as a great artiste, who has served his muse, without compromise, with finesse and one who set new benchmarks in dance standards.
2008 was a 25 days extravaganza where over 140 Orissi dancers and gurus,
scholars and critics, rasikas and riveted audiences bonded. For 3 weeks,
Ramli’s Sutra Foundation, celebrating its 25th anniversary, mounted a grand
panorama of Orissi with help of major Malaysian companies like Maxis and
Petronas. A few Indian govt. agencies like the ICCR and Sangeet Natak Akademi
and the Orissa State govt., paid for travel costs of some Indian gurus
and groups but the brunt of organizing and delivering the festival fell
on Ramli and his team. While January Low (in addition to performing superbly
with the Sutra group) and team looked after logistics, Shiva Nataraja looked
after technical and hall requirements. Parent-volunteers looked after the
guests with genuine concern and supplied high tea every evening, in addition
to much other behind-the-door logistical support. Transport chiefs Mani
and Shaan (Shanmugham) handled all local transport with graciousness and
courtesy. Stirring Orissi 2008 has set new high in festival organization
and it will be hard to match these.
As Sunil Kothari failed to reach the seminar on time to be its first speaker, as billed (he was busy in Singapore attending Ratan Thiyam’s show!), Leela Venkataraman took to the mike and apart from dates and kings, she reconstructed some basic history of the period.
It was left to Shanta Serbjeet Singh, the senior-most dance critic present, to take the discourse to a higher and a more philosophical level. Shanta S Singh has a unique ability to cull layers of aesthetic and dance delights and present them in a very simplified way, attracting both the lay audiences and enthusing the connoisseur. Her humane approach to arts make her the most convincing and sincere speaker. She summed up the proceedings by saying, "Do one thing and excel in that, instead of multi-tasking."
Yours truly devised his presentation away from Orissi form because as many said, by that point in time (of the 25 days festival), Orissi was coming out of ears! I focused on pre- Orissi history and shared 3 short films, one very rare one on Ram Gopal from 1938. He spoke of two principal styles: Bharatanatyam and Kathak! No mention of Orissi because there was no Orissi way back then. A film on U S Krishna Rao also was platformed to reinstate how dance history got written. The role of critic, beyond the mundane and obvious one of writing reviews, was done away with and the historian in me wished to share the process of writing of dance history. The youngsters in the hall responded warmly while gurus like Minati Mishra and Gangadhar complimented on taking them back in time by showing rare films.
Rohini Dandavate from Columbus, Ohio, came armed with laptop charts and all on how to initiate art funding (easier attempted in America and Canada as that model rarely works or applies elsewhere), a point made more convincingly the next day when a professional fund-raiser, Vimala Sundaram, presented her model and how she and her team with Ayesha Harben put together the Stirring Orissi Festival for Maxis and got Sutra the much needed support. Her presentation was first-rate and showed she was a professional, not some armchair university types.
In all this, rebel-rouser, humorist, painter, author and now a promoter of Deba Prasad Das School, Dinanath Pathy, who has had many previous incarnations, spoke on some new trends in Orissi. He balmed the Oriyas for their complacency and focused on local and regional politics. He provided many a laugh in an otherwise serious dance debate and discussions. At every point, fellow painter, more renowned and more direct and more Oriya than all - Jatin Das - kept interrupting and pointing to other aspects of Orissa. Pathy’s son, Soubhagya was direct and crusty while conducting seminars. Alex Dea mumbled introductions and did no justice to the proceedings while Mohammed Anis Nor was delectable with his poise and panache for inducing laughter in a gracious manner. Joseph Gonzales’ voice is his fortune while Mario D’Cruz conducted her session well.
Sunil Kothari’s session was lame. After everything had been discussed for two days, to come 24 hours late and show some basic Gotipua stuff and steps (courtesy Guru Gangadhar Pradhan) and some sketchy version of the history of the form made little impact. Senior players of the Indian dance-scene should be better prepared for important seminars.
in days to follow, he was the only critic to be given a citation of merit
by Sutra! Shanta Serbjeet Singh is as senior as Kothari and either the
organisers should include all such stalwarts or not play favourites at
all, a lesson for the future. In return, on the near-concluding day Sunil
Kothari honoured Ramli…. while Leela Venkatraman provided the context and
The seminar concluded with a group discussion on how to make Orissi more relevant. Only Madhavi Mudgal made serious sense when she debunked lots of frivolous light-and-sound-make-performances bit, adding, "Just be at it and don’t try anything drastically different." The Nrityagram girls had a session of body-bending and leg-twisting to show how well-tuned their bodies were and in what good form they were in. It is strange when they dance, Surupa’s body looks so stretched and so stressed. All her veins of neck stand out, straining and her postures are over done. Bijayini smiles excessively, no matter what the sthayi-bhava of the item. But they are managed very well by Lynne Fernandez.
The evening group-shows had reasonable quality, though only two groups made real effort and brought in some fresh items that shone: Madhavi Mudgal easily shone like a finely-chiseled jewel for her excellent skills, high aesthetics and wholesome group. Each dancer is a perfectly-etched artwork. And Sharmila Biswas, is a critic’s and rasika’s delight, for she brings something new, some unseen aspect of the form and does it well. She is a genuine Orissi artiste.
ensemble had too similar types of items and same packaging. Some
cameos were rather overdone. Pavitra Reddy is the most relaxed dancer in
the group while Surupa tries too hard to match Bijayini’s effortless and
joyous deliveries. Their dance is very manly and virile. Good lights and
choreography are their hallmark.
The STIRRING ORISSI 2008 festival provided for much informal interactions and it was good to see youngsters Pallavi Das, Sonali Mishra, Arushi Mudgal, Diya Sen mingling. Sujata Mohapatra and Jyoti Shrivastava provided divergent strains while Ranjana Gauhar, oops, Padmashree Ranjana Gauhar (she made that point so often in the announcements that Malays thought Padmashree was her first name!) and Shreyasi De’s performance was nothing much to write home about. They just went through the Orissi paces and postures. Minati Das, the senior most Orissi dancers was hallmark of graciousness, good-manners and great art.
In the end,
one wonders where Orissi stands today? If these were the most representative
exponents of the form, (Sonal Mansingh, where was she?) invited from India,
Europe and America, then it can be safely said the best in Orissi now lives
and dances in Malaysia! Long live Ramli. The fact he invited, included
and encouraged all shades of Orissi to meet and merge, shows his own security
as an artiste, as an organizer and as a celebrator of art. Need more be
Ashish Mohan Khokar, reputed critic and dance-historian, editor-publisher of attendance and author of 34 books, attended and observed the Stirring Orissi Festival held in Kuala Lumpur.