In the land of Kalidasa, the poet of Meghadoota
- Dr. Sunil Kothari
Photos: Tanveer Farooqui

July 18, 2011

When I received a call from Dalia Dutta inviting me to attend a three-day Odissi dance festival held under the aegis of their institution Chhandak at Indore on 30th June 2011, I was quite intrigued as I could not place Dalia Dutta. I asked her where we had met. She said she had been my student at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata. “I studied Odissi under Poushali Mukherji.  This was around 1986. I have been in Indore running the institution Chhandak for the past eight years and have been organizing annual Odissi dance festivals. I have invited Ramli Ibrahim and his Sutra troupe from Kuala Lumpur, Sujata Mohapatra’s disciple Taissia Shpulnikova from Moscow, and from Bhubaneswar, Bichitranand Swain’s Rudraksha artistes Manasi Tripathy and Rashmi Ranjan Barik, and Guru Durga Charan Ranbir’s Nrutyayan artistes including dancer Rahul Acharya to participate. Poushali Mukerji’s choreography of Bhanusingher Padabali will also be presented and this is for the first time that we are presenting our show on 1st July at Ujjain under the aegis of Shipra Sanskriti Sansthan at Shankul Kalidas Sanskrit Academy Campus. We are looking forward to your visiting us.”

I had never been to Ujjain or Indore in Madhya Pradesh even though during the ‘80s, every year I had been to Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal during the tenure of Shri Ashok Vajpeyi, for many seminars and festivals. I accepted the invitation and coordinated with Baroda organizers of Ghargharika, an institution sponsoring cultural performances under the dynamic organization of their director Tejal Amin, who had planned to have Ramli Ibrahim and Sutra dancers to perform Odissi at Baroda on the 4th and 5th July. 

Ujjain, where Mahakaleshwara temple brings every year hundreds of devotees, was the main attraction. This was also the month of Ashadh and I was humming the sloka of Meghadoota ‘Ashadhasya prathama divase; Kaschit kanatavirahguruna svadhikarapramatta’ - the Yaksha sending a message through the cloud to his beloved Yakshi from whom he was separated. I do not now recollect the name of the Hindi film, the song of which I still remember: “O Barsha ke pahale badal, mera sandesha le jaana” and it further had following stanzas the gist of which was like – when you stop over at Mahakaleshwara temple, please watch the dances of the temple dancers and let your thunder be in tune with the accompanying mridang.

Ah, there is none like poet Kalidasa. ‘Upama Kalidasasya’ - in figures of speech ‘upama alankara’ (simile) - none excels Kalidasa. I had studied Kalidasa’s play Malavikagnimitram in the first year arts and Shakuntalam in the second year inter arts at Wilson College in Mumbai in   the early 50s under Prof. Gajendra Gadkar. As a lover of Sanskrit, I had dreamt of visiting Ujjain at some point. And here was an opportunity also to meet the professors of Sanskrit literature: Prof. Parameshwar Narayan Shastri of Kalidasa Sanskrit Academy and Prof. Dr Mohan Gupt, Vice Chancellor of Maharishi Panini Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya and local dancers including Kathak exponent Dr. Rajkumud Tholiya at Ujjain.

Ramli and I were excited to pay a visit to Mahakaleshwara temple. Chandralekha had visited it and had managed to go near the Shivalinga and even touched it. She was thrilled. When she was choreographing ‘Mahakal’ work, she had told me that she had that rare luck of touching ‘time’ -‘Mahakala.’ Like all important pilgrimage temples, Mahakaleshwara also has a maze of barricades to control the crowds. You walk zig zag as it were for miles, and reach the basement and have darshan of Mahakaleshwara. Arati is at a fixed time and you have to wait for long, so we offered our pranams and left for the auditorium. The temple architecture is arresting and typical with several stories, but we could not spend much time there.

Like Shakespeare theatre festival in Stratford-upon-Avon, the birth place of Shakespeare, a seven-day festival is organized at Ujjain in memory of Kalidasa during which at least one play of Kalidasa in Sanskrit is presented. Classical dance performances based on Kalidasa’s works, dramatic presentations, seminars and other cultural programmes are organized in November   every year. Ratan Thiyam had presented some scenes of Vikramorvashiyam. Prof. Kamaladutta Tripathi, now at Benaras, was formerly in charge of this festival. He had asked me to meet Prof. Parameshwar Narayan Shastri for more details.  My friend Dr. Puru Dadhich, Kathak exponent and a Sanskrit scholar, is now in Indore after retirement and he told us many stories about the importance of several temples and festivals. It was a pleasure meeting him after a long time and learning from him that at one point, Bindadin Maharaj, the ancestor of Birju Maharaj and doyen of Lucknow gharana, had also performed at the durbar of the Holkars who ruled over Indore.

Indore was planned and built by Rani Ahalyabai Holkar, the brave Holkar queen. It lies to the extreme west of Madhya Pradesh on the bank of river Saraswati and Khana, which unite the centre of the city. It is now the commercial capital of Madhya Pradesh. It has avenues of Crystal IT Park, Diamond Park, Food and Apparel zone along the international airport with malls coming up everywhere, turning the city into another Singapore at night! Of course, Indore is well known for the Hindustani classical music tradition. From Dewas and Mahiar hailed great musicians like Kumar Gandharva. Ustad Amir Khan belonged to Indore. The painter MF Hussain was from Indore. And in recent memory, Kathak exponent Pratap Pawar, the first ‘ganda bandha’ shishya of Birju Maharaj, now settled in London, belonged to Indore.

Indore has been a cultural place and since Ujjain and Indore are like twin cities, the cultural activities have been a part of these historic places. Rukmini Devi’s sister was Principal in a college in Indore and under the aegis of an organization Fankar, many musicians and dancers have been regularly visiting Indore. Among celebrated dancers, late Kathak exponent Gopi Krishna used to perform at Indore often. “Dancers like Sonal Mansingh and Leela Samson and many artistes have given recitals in Indore,” informed the celebrated photographer Tanveer  Farooqui, who specializes in dance photography. It was indeed a pleasure meeting him and his wife Dr. Deepa Tanveer, who had studied Bharatanatyam and Kathak when young. Though extremely fond of dance, she has opted for a career as a doctor. The enthusiasm of the couple for performing arts is indeed touching. Tanveer’s exhibition of dance photographs titled ‘Active Meditation’ was held in Delhi at Lalit Kala Akademi, Rabindra Bhavan, last September. A great admirer of Avinash Pasricha, Tanveer loves capturing moments of dance in a unique manner and has won critical acclaim. 

Chhandak’s three-day Odissi dance festival at Ujjain and Indore
Dalia Dutta is a self effacing, quiet, unassuming but dedicated and sincere dancer and teacher. There was none imparting training in classical Odissi dance prior to her settling down in Indore   ten years ago. She established Chhandak with determination and invited her teacher Poushali Mukherji to conduct workshops. In no time, young dancers flocked to her institution. Regular classes were conducted with support of local wellwishers, parents and in order to expose young dancers to the beauty of Odissi, Dalia with the help of Directorate of Culture, Government of Madhya Pradesh, started the annual Odissi festival, inviting reputed exponents of Odissi including Ratikant Mohaptara and Sujata Mohapatra from Bhubaneswar, Sharmila Biswas from Kolkata, Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy from Nrityagram, and with regular workshops under the guidance of Poushali Mukherji, she generated an unprecedented enthusiasm among young generation of dancers in Indore.

Dalia Dutta’s students

Watching her students’ group performances, I was impressed by the way Dalia has worked out her training system. They perform together in a cohesive, uniform style of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, their presentation is effortless and does not look amateurish. At Ujjain, their Ganesh Vandana with majority of her acolytes performed evoking iconic images of Ganesha, with four arms, astride his mouse vehicle, holding weapons in four arms, his trunk holding the modak sweet, ears flapping and the sculpturesque images came to life. Dalia’s choreography has a sense of programming, uncluttered groupings and easy entries and exits. Nothing looked laboured. Their costumes were tasteful and they looked like a group of disciplined dancers.

Poushali Mukherji was my favourite student at Rabindra Bharati University. She was the only female dancer I knew who played pakhavaj with the temperament of a professional percussionist. Besides, she had displayed a flair for choreography while studying under Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. During the ‘80s at Rabindra Bharati University, every year we had one of the dance dramas of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore being staged during his birthday festival in May.

I had suggested to Poushali to choreograph Bhunusingher Padabali, with the set music by Gurudev. Revolving round Radha, Krishna and the gopis, the theme was a young choreographer’s dream. Poushali did an excellent job and at that time I had invited Sharmila Biswas to perform as Radha with other students of the University. We were invited to present it at The Music Academy at Chennai during their annual conference in 1982 or so. It was a runaway success. Late TS Parthasarathy, the secretary of The Music Academy, had lived in Kolkata and loved Bengali. He explained it in Tamil to the large audience and Tagore’s Brajbuli songs did not appear strange to Chennai audiences. Poushali has revived it during the 150th birth year of Gurudev. She trained Dalia’s disciples to perform it in an abridged version which was appreciated by the connoisseurs and lay audience alike.

The star attraction was Sujata Mohapatra’s Russian disciple Taissia Shpulnikova. She performed Patadeep Pallavi with élan proving that as a foreigner, she can enter the spirit of the form. With an attractive stage presence, but thorough grooming under Sujata, Taissia displayed her talent with confidence. There is no doubt that she is bound to succeed wherever she will go. The perfect resolution of sculpturesque movements as chiselled by  Sujata Mohapatra showed how Taissia has imbibed Kelubabu’s style and it was a pleasure to watch her dance numbers which are evergreen like Pallavi-s and poet Salbeg’s ‘Ahe, neela shaila’ in which Muslim devotee Salbeg seeks a glimpse of Lord Jagannatha. Interweaving episodes from the Puranas and the Mahabharata, the story of Gajaraja, an elephant being rescued, Draupadi being protected when being disrobed by Dushasana, and devotee Prahlada by Lord Vishnu when he took half -man and half-lion form to kill Hiranyakashipu, Taissia danced each episode dramatically. And of course the Ujjain audience loved Taissia’s Odissi.

Manisha Tripathy and Rashmi Ranjan Barik 

Taissia Shpulnikova

Durga Charan Ranbir’s disciples

Rahul Acharya
Duet by Manisha Tripathy and Rashmi Ranjan Barik of Rudraksha was well designed. Both complimented each other’s movements in Shankarabharanam Pallavi, with mirror images. In Mahakali abhinaya number, Rashmi Ranjan playing the demon and Manisha playing the Goddess Kali highlighted Durga Charan Ranbir’s style. Rashmi Ranjan Barik has a virile stage presence and as a male dancer he stood out in his impersonation of the demon characfter. In contrast, Manisha showed the tandava aspect when necessary and also the lasya aspect of the Devi with great ease. I saw their performance twice as they performed again at Indore and enjoyed it.

Next day on 2nd July at Indore’s Devi Ahalyabai Vishwavidyalaya University’s sprawling Takshashila campus, a large number of audience turned up despite the rains to witness Malaysian artistes of Ramli Ibrahim’s Sutra troupe. The Mayor of Indore, Krishna Murai Moghe, appreciated Dalia Dutta’s efforts in enriching the cultural life of Indore with Odissi.  The Shringara Pallavi and Dasavatara dance numbers choreographed by Dalia for the disciples of Chhandak were not only imaginative, but also well-crafted. I must confess that I had not expected such standard of Odissi in Indore. Dalia is fortunate to have such a large number of students who love to dance. 

Ramli and his dancers took over with their one hour long presentation of ‘Vision of Forever’ Odissi choreographic work which from the word go cast a spell. Ramli has re-worked the choreography of his guru late Deba Prasad Das and Deba Prasad’s disciple Durga Charan Ranbir. Ramli is an internationally renowned performer and choreographer. Reams have been written about him wherever he has performed winning audiences everywhere, be it India, USA, Kiev, Europe or Australia. With his abundant gifts, Ramli succeeded in investing the form with beauty and contemporariness, years of sound relentless training, repeated visits to Orissa, and a feeling of complete surrender to the spirit of Odissi form even though he hails from an entirely different background and religion.

He has been trained as a classical ballet dancer at Sydney Opera House Company and mastered the technique, enlarging his dance vocabulary and has mastered the way of presenting further enhanced by his lights designer, artist Sivarajah Natarajan. Add to it the well trained dancers of his company (among them Guna trained at Kalakshetra at Chennai) who contribute to overall design and visual appeal. Under Ramli’s vigilant eye, the Sutra dancers have audiences ‘eating out of their hands’ wherever they perform.

Opening with the group number, performing that memorable ‘thayi’ which Deba Prasad taught to legendary Indrani Rahman, one was transported to that magical world, when Odissi sprung on the dance scene. When dancers formed a group and bent forward, Guna reclining on them and followed by Geethika, Ramli entering and leading Geethika into rapturous Rageshri Pallavi, one was absolutely riveted watching their synchronized movements.

Ramli Ibrahim & Sutra DanceTheatre

It was a seamless presentation with apt commentary by Ramli when he explained the Shiva theme and the Tantrik aspect of Dashamahavidya woven into a tapestry of eye catching groupings, bringing to life the manifestations of the Goddess, one after another. The manner in which Ramli has re-worked the choreography in this theme has not been explored with such sensitivity even in Orissa. Kali, Tara, Shodashi, Bhuvaneshwari, Bhairavi, Chhinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi and Kamala appear in their terrific and delicate  forms - the devotee as performed by Guna, impersonating also the demon and surrendering to these manifestations is ‘a tour de force.’ Guna roars and shrieks, falls at the feet of the Devi, sometimes prostates before her, at times Devi tramples him under her feet, he rises and is lifted up by the dancers, rolls over the floor and prays, clinging to Devi’s feet - each manifestation has tremendous energy and vibration that electrifies the atmosphere when the goddesses reveal their magnificent form, one climbing over the other, in Yogic postures or like Gotipua performers, construct a human pyramid, Ramli draws from these diverse essentially Indian resources building up several climaxes. 

The shlokas reiterate the visual forms, dancers striking fearful postures, tongues lolling out and even ‘bibhatsa rasa’ is relished by the audiences. I cannot forget the depiction of Chhinnamasta,  “kare vame dharayanti svamastakam,” Devi decapitating her own head holding in left hand, all atremble, Bhairavi with ‘raktalipta payodhara,’ breasts besmeared with blood, ‘shavarudha, mahabhima, ghoradramstra hasnamukhim,’ Kali astride the corpse, voluminous, with protruding teeth, and laughing face. I can go on and on describing the images metamorphosed by Ramli with indelible visuals that strike terror and also reassure a devotee of Devi’s blessings. The shlokas have also Yantras which Tantrik practitioners evoke. All these charge the presentation into an unusual ‘ananubhuta’ - not ever experienced before - experience without taking away from any of the relish,' rasasvadana' (the rasa).

The Shivastakam of Shankaracharya has been embellished by Ramli into eight parts with appropriate nritta movements, so it alternates with Sanskrit text which transforms into poses with the male performer as Shiva and female as Parvati. An excellent device.  The renderings of shlokas permeate the presentation with devotion. It brings peace in the end. I saw at Indore, how the audience was mesmerized and gave a standing ovation. No wonder, as Indore had never seen anything like it and credit goes to Dalia Dutta and her husband Ambuj Datta for bringing these artistes to Madhya Pradesh.        


Though there were several hazards, financial and otherwise, both of them with their devoted students and parents did not give up, nor cancelled the festival. On the last day in the morning, a special lec-dem for dance appreciation was organized during which Ramli’s dancers showed how Odissi is different from Bharatanatyam. The song ‘Kadambavane Bansi bajila re’ both in mood and spirit brought the Vaishnava theme in contrast to Shaiva and Tantrik theme. Indore audiences said that Ramli and Sutra will have to come again as they want them to show more of their art. Bravo, Dalia Dutta.
Ghargharika’s presentation of Ramli Ibrahim’s Sutra company at Baroda
At CC Mehta Hall in the University campus, the institution Ghargharika and Mrs. Tejal Amin presented Ramli and his Sutra dancers for the first time at Baroda on the 5th July.

On the morning of 4th July at the Performing Arts Faculty of MS University, a special lec-dem was arranged by the dance department. Ramli showed how he has incorporated warming up exercises of ballet into physical exercises. Since at the dance department Kalakshetra style is taught, Sutra dancers and dancers of the dance department performed Alarippu together  underlining the uniform training of Kalakshetra in Bharatanatyam which is becoming globalized. Later on, Ramli showed how dancers improvised and depicted bhavas to Javanese music resulting into navarasas. The contemporary work titled Kamala to the music by Aruna Sairam, the church music and finale with Bombay Jayshree’s rendering was indicative of how a contemporary choreographer explores the dance vocabulary and diverse musical expressions.

‘Vision of Forever’ was presented by Ramli without an interval. Though I had seen it at Indore, the energy exuded by the dancers was so unusual that none would leave the auditorium long after the performance was over. The audience responded enthusiastically to the performance which acted as a catalyst to dancers who gave their best.  Since it was also a continuous performance unlike one item followed by another with description of the item, the audience responded positively.  Both the Shiva and the Devi Tantrik themes were spellbinding. A large number of leading senior painters and number of local dancers were present and gave rounds of applause whenever breathtaking visuals were depicted. The spontaneous standing ovation was well deserved. Viewing it the second time, I could see how like a slight turn of a kaleidoscope, Ramli weaves amazing patterns in his choreography. Yes, Baroda audiences also said they want Ramli to visit Baroda again and perform from their vast repertoire. A memorable experience.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is dance historian, scholar, author, and a renowned dance critic. A regular contributor to, Dr Kothari received the Senior Critic award last year from Dance Critics Association, NYC. 

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