Malaysia Diary
- Dr. Sunil Kothari

October 12, 2011

Asia Pacific International Dance Conference
Theme Hybridity in Dance: Researching, Performing and writing Old and New Genres.
In September, from 21st till 25th, World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific had organized Asia Pacific International Dance Conference under the aegis of The Cultural Centre, University of Malaya, with help of National Department for Culture and Arts, Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture, My Dance Alliance and World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific, at Royal Bintang Kuala Lumpur Hotel. It was also a part of My Dance Festival (MDF) 2011.

My last visit to Kuala Lumpur was during ‘Odissi Stirred,’ an international Odissi dance festival and conference that the redoubtable Malaysian, world renowned Odissi exponent Ramli Ibrahim had organized three years ago. It was like 'na bhuto na bhavishyati' event and during my stay in Kuala Lumpur for the present conference, people were still talking about it with a pleasant nostalgia. It was more intense for me because I stayed at Ramli’s fabulous residence Camaria, named after his mother, reconstructed by the Dutch architect Joost, now settled in Bali. Joost has designed the house so artistically that one feels one is in Bali. The entrance with serpentine motif on the walls leading to the verandah, which according to Ramli, is symbolic of the lyrical grace of Odissi, the gazebo, like a manadpa, open square with large round stone, water body, trees and plants, the lush vegetation, and on opposite side the dining hall, between a spacious gallery, adjoining  a room for guests, and on first floor a terrace, Ramli’s drawing room, master bedroom, windows and trees - the high rise nearby apartments are concealed by the trees and one never feels one is in a city with high rise apartments. The feeling one gets is of a magical place in Bali!

Dinanath Pathy, another artist from Orissa, Shanta Serbjeet Singh, Leela Venkataraman and I had stayed there for nearly three weeks, enjoying the wonderful ambience. Dinanath Pathy and another painter colleague were busy painting and writing. It is a dream place. And one can never forget Ramli’s hospitality as a host. Ah, the peace in the morning, and the gentle breeze! Ramli’s devoted maid Anna serving us lovely coffee and breakfast. But I must stop here. I can only say “Thank you, Ramli.” It was one more memorable experience and a joy to stay there.

On the very first day, we were taken to Rim bun Dahan, at the home of architect Hijja Kasturi and his Australian wife Angela. Set on 14 acres outside Kuala Lumpur (KL), the compound of Rim bun Dahan is the centre of developing traditional and contemporary art forms. It features buildings designed by Hijjas Kasturi, as well as a 19th century traditional Malay house from Preak and a heritage Anglo-Malay house from Penang, in an indigenous South East Asian garden environment. Far away from the madding crowd, it is like a Tapovan, with tall trees and natural vegetation, exquisitely designed with basement hall where we had dinner followed by traditional Malay folk dances. The studios, the upper floor where dances took place et al are so well designed that artists who come there for workshops are inspired by the very nature around which acts like a catalytic agent for their creative impulses. In Delhi, we have Om Prakash Jain’s Sanskriti Foundation, where also one feels similar vibes.
The folk dances by young boy and girl students of the University were in one word, charming. We got glimpses of various performances including Asli (performed by Makan Sireh), Inang (by Masri, Lama), Zapin (by Tanjung Caboh, Pekajang, Mccayu Johor) and Joget (by Tandok Sarawak, Serampong Pantai). The boys were dressed in typical Malay men’s costumes with caps adorned with shining ornament and the girls wore lovely textiles and hairstyles with ornaments. They danced as couples and hands held diagonally, looking into the eyes of the girls, girls smiling and looking into boys’ eyes, moving swiftly in circles to the melodious music, beats of the drums, making formations which were absolutely lovely. In the end, all delegates were invited to join and we danced trying to keep our steps in rhythm and style following the young dancers. Ah, what a joyous evening we all had. 

Next day, the conference business started. The keynote address with the theme of ‘Dynamic Dialogues: Writing Dance as Tradition, Contemporanity and Fusion’ was delivered by Dr.Adrienne Kaeppler, a social/cultural anthropologist and Curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, USA. A great scholar, she brings to her presentation wonderful insights. She has published widely on the visual and performing arts. She has visited India several times and has taught at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She set the tone of the conference.

It was followed by the official book launch. Two books: ‘Sharing Identities: Celebrating Dance in Malaysia’ and ‘Shaping the Landscape: Celebrating Dance in Australia,’ Rutledge Publication, sponsored by Australia - Malaysian Institute. This is one of the most rewarding activities, highlighting scholarship and focusing attention of the diverse cultural traditions of different countries. One more book launch was also noteworthy - ‘Dancing the Malaysian’ by Dr. Joseph Gonzales, Dean of the Faculty of Dance at the Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan, ASWARA, (the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage). He is a brilliant scholar, dancer and a choreographer. Dr. Mohd Anis Md Nor, the retiring President of WDA AP after his eight year term, rightly observed that Joseph is his most favourite student and has done him proud as a teacher. One looks forward to reading the book and reviewing it. 

The session ‘Researching Hybridity’ by a panel of scholars from Norway consisting of Evil Bakka, Anne Fiskvik , Gediminas Karoblis and Siri Maeland, discussed ‘A Hybrid Dance’ in Copenhagen, Oslo and spoke about male solo dance, Halling performed throughout Norway in a colourful and broad range of local variants for many hundred years. The panel covered examples of intended and non-intended hybridity in traditional dance. According to the aim of the performance, the panel observed how different material has been inserted into Halling. Dr. Marina Roseman from Belfast, Ireland, has been studying Forest Movements of the peoples of the rainforests of peninsular Malaysia and demonstrated how Forest Movements have changed to Hybrid Music. She addressed the issue through the lens and sounds of intensive, long-term musical ethnographic research with Temiars, an Orang Asli or indigenous ‘aboriginal’ people of West Malaysia.

Alex Dea is an ethnomusicologist, a musician, has studied classical Indian music from Pran Nath, and is an authority on Javanese music and expert in information technology. A Chinese American living in Java, his study is amazing. He brought lot of humour in his presentation, ‘The wonderful mishmash of Central Javanese dance and music,’ screening examples of the Bedhaya dance in the Jogjakarta Palace, which have inclusion of a Chinese character, replete with costume; outside elements into Central Javanese performance culture, interactions of ‘non-narrative’ dance and music, Chinese fairy tales, a Westminster bells melody and a ballroom dance melody brought into the sacred ‘Sekaten’ gamelan celebrating Prophet Muhammad’s birthday! He showed examples of how even in menu, billboards, various hybrid influences are seen. A classic example was ‘T’ank you.’ It was an audience friendly presentation dwelling upon how hybridity generates humour.

Anwesa Mahanta

This conference saw a large contingent of Indian young scholars presenting their papers before a galaxy of senior scholars and dance authorities. From Guwahati, young Sattriya exponent Anwesa Mahanta presented a paper on Sattriya dances: ‘Familiarising the Unfamiliar: A Re-experience in the ideas of Hybridity in Sankardeva’s Concept of Ankiya Bhaona.’ A disciple of Guru Ghanakant Bora, and currently doing Ph.D in Delhi University, daughter of Prof. Pradip Jyoti Mahanta, she is a talented dancer and a scholar from the young generation. Since I am editing a book on Sattriya dances of Assam for Marg Publications, I was very keen to see her approach which borders on post-modern interpretation of Sattriya dances. Very commendable. She with help of several slides unfolded the backdrop of the form and dwelt upon Sankardeva’s strategy of acquainting the folks with the idea of faith in the unity of godhead while questioning the ideologies of caste hierarchy and other sacerdotal practices prevalent during 15th century. Sattirya dances as a construct of hybrid, set in a context, different social cultural milieu of history and the need to have such a hybrid form used for mobilizing spectators who observe, experience and practice it today. Even the text in Brajbuli is a hybrid text using Mythili and Braj bhasha, reaching out to masses.

Shrinkhala Sahai, currently doing Ph.D at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, under Bishnupriya Dutt, daughter of the legendary actor/director Utpal Dutt, is another bright scholar. Presenting her paper ‘Mediated Movements: An exploration of multimedia in contemporary Indian dance,’ she reviewed the contemporary Indian dance production using multimedia as an integral element on stage. She explained how it results in hybridization of performative expressions, gazes and spaces. Looking through lens results in an optical conflation of performative and spectatorial spaces wherein gaze is magnified. Productions of Bangalore based Attakkalari Centre for Movements Arts were referred to by her. Supported by few excerpts, her paper generated more curiosity and it would help to illustrate more examples which would further clarify the theme.

From Imphal, Manipur, Dr. Lokendra Arambam and young Manipuri dancer Khoni presented a paper titled ‘Dancing Others: Dancing Self: Coloniality, Hybridity in the Quest for Identity and Alternative Modernity of Manipuri Dance.’ Like Anwesa Mahanta’s approach, it was also an exercise in post- colonial modern interpretation of Manipuri dances. Under the British colonial rule and introduction of money economy, it became an object of gaze from other cultures which induced hybridization of dance to cater to colonial desire. Later, when it was ‘emancipated’ and assimilated into the post-colonial nation state, it was reproduced as a neo-colonially appropriated object. A new hybridity was the result under Indian aesthetic considerations. The context of misappropriations, negotiations, and attempts of self-recovery is experienced by this yet-to-emerge contemporary dance form in the borderlands of India and Southeast Asia.

Paramita Saha, dancer, choreographer, joint creative head of Sapphire Dance Creations from Kolkata during Network Sessions on Education, suggested to Education Network to work out a course of training of two years so that contemporary dance could become a part of the educational system. Her power point presentation about activities Sapphire Creations has undertaken for past more than 15 years was an eye-opener for many. The Education Network accepted her suggestions and they shall be collaborating with her for assistance.

The panel discussion by the Indian scholars on Research in Hybridity in Dance-viewing and doing Hybridity: dance in India had panel of Debanjali Biswas, AP Rajaram and Dr. Urmimala Sarkar, all three from JNU and presented an excellent panel on Hybridity. As mentioned in the brochure and abstracts of papers: Categorising dance in India under one definition has always been an impossibility. A nation with its nearly unfathomable varieties of cultural practices and existing dances and the hybridity thereof, India has interacted at different levels with different cultures in the world through diasporic exchanges, enculturation, and accultrative processes which in turn have generated both ‘globalised local’ and ‘localized global’ forms of dance practices. The panel chose to weave in different perspectives of hybridity in the dance dialogues between the binaries of past/present, masculine/feminine, rural/urban and proscenium/screen in contemporary India.

 Debanjali Biswas, a Manipuri dancer trained by Poushali Chatterjee in Guru Bipin Singh’s style, and pursuing her researches, proceeding to Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC under the guidance of Dr. Adrienne Kaeppler, presented a paper on ‘Whose dance is it anyway,’ exploring the concept of hybridity observed in the reality dance shows on Indian television, which are influenced by shows from the West. It provides the space for Bollywood, classical and regional dance forms as well as hip hop, contact improvisation, salsa, capoeira and ballet, thereby stirring chords with a diverse audience. She questioned the sensibilities from which the hybrid forms arise and are accepted.

P Rajaram focused on the search of the authentic in the dance movements of Kavadi Attam. It has drawn heavily from the local folk form Oyilattam. Having studied the form and performed as a practitioner and a dancer, Rajaram focused on the hybrid movements of the Kavadi Attam to look at the multi-ethnic participation in the event where each community finds a space through the social intermingling and exchange, helping the community to reaffirm the bonds of solidarity and mutuality of the multi-ethnic gathering. Rajaram is doing Ph.D from JNU and all these scholars have done India proud by their presentations in an international seminar of very high academic level.

Dr. Urmimala Sarkar, in her presentation ‘Hybrid Norms: Masculine vs Feminine in Indian dance’ laid stress on how most Indian classical dances are reconstructed to suit an urban and/or global audience and to attract students from surrounding areas. Hence they are tailor made to represent the social ethics/aesthetics and gender equations of the current society - with all the hybrid connections and influence thereof, while constantly referring to Natya Shastra - as a basic rule book. She pointed out that present proscenium stage is predominantly a ‘female space’ and a male dancer has to pay the price as he exists in and creates a space which is not a fully ‘feminine space.’ In this context, she drew attention to the performances by male dancer Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra where Guruji transcends and turns into Radha, and creates his own space without sacrificing his masculinity. Very thought provoking.

Dr. Urmimala Sarkar Munsi, who was holding position of Vice President for South Asia after I retired from that position, was unanimously elected Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific. Urmimala deserves our gratitude for her untiring efforts to establish India chapter of WDA AP on a sound footing for the past ten years, including holding an international conference in New Delhi in 2009, and as a co-chairperson for Research and Documentation bringing out two major edited volumes ‘Dance: Transcending Borders' and 'Traversing Tradition: Celebrating Dance in India,' a book of the Rutledge series on Celebrating Dance in Asia and the Pacific series. A disciple of Amala Shankar from the age of five, she grew up in Kolkata and looked after Amala Shankar's institute as a choreographer, dancer and administrator till 2004 and then moved to Delhi and is a Faculty on School of Arts and Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University and also Secretary of Dance Alliance, India. Her election as a Vice President of WDA AP is indeed significant. India is playing a very vital role and making its presence felt with so many participants from India. Our heartiest congratulations to Dr. Urmimala Sarkar Munsi for her achievements.

For workshop and dance performance in the evening as a part of the conference, three other performing artists featured were Suman Sarawgi, a Manipuri exponent, and disciple of Priti Patel from Kolkata, Odissi exponent Sharmila Mukerjee (WDA AP Karnataka chapter) and individually from Maharashtra chapter from Pune, Bharatanatyam exponent Shashikala Ravi, a disciple of Swarnasaraswati and Kalanidhi Narayanan. Thus the presence of the Indian contingent was very visible.

Other Indian Diaspora discussing the issue of hybridity were Piali Ray from Birmingham (Avanthi Meduri could not come, they were to make a joint presentation), who read the paper screening examples of performing hybridity by Sonia Sabri and Nina Rajarani’s choreographic works. Indian classical dances are restaged in UK, as South Asian dance forms. They enjoy unique mainstream public profile. Choreographers and dancers like Shobana Jeyasingh and Akram Khan recombine classical Bharatanatyam and Kathak with their contemporary post modern dance techniques, and push aesthetic and philosophical boundaries of Indian forms. The funding system has contributed to the elements of innovation in classical dance forms. Hybrid dance performances and choreographies have enabled South Asian choreographers to integrate themselves selectively into mainstream British culture and also help them articulate new, fluid identities as modern South Asian classical/contemporary choreographers working creatively in Britain today.

Raka Maitra is an exponent of Odissi and as a disciple of Madhavi Mudgal, she has performed within India and after settling in Singapore, elsewhere. She has explored possibilities of contemporary works and succeeded in creating a forum and space for a festival known as Graey Festival. She could not come on account of some visa problem, but sent her paper and DVDs etc, which was read along with screening of excerpts of the festival, which focuses on inviting dancers with training in Asian classical dance forms moving in new directions. During Graey Festival, vivisections of the body of works created by choreographers from India, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia were examined through video screenings of rehearsals, talks and performances.

The Malaysian dancer / scholar Premlatha Thiagarajan, currently doing her Ph.D at Irvine, California, USA, discussed about the Malaysian dance choreographers actively engaged in the process of creating hybrid dances since 1970s. She explained how blending and fusions of cultural experiences have contributed to hybrid choreographies. She screened excerpts of highly acclaimed contemporary works, “AlaRIPpu’ and ‘Get This Swaram’ of young choreographer Umesh Shetty and showed the process of exploration of Bharatanatyam in terms of structure and  vocabulary by blending movement patterns from other dance genres to create experimental work.

Because of the parallel sessions, it was not possible to attend all sessions and as happens in these conferences, one foregoes the other sessions. This year, in response to call for papers, more than 64 were received and the organizers had to accept only 34 or so. However, many attended even when their papers were not accepted and contributed to the discussion. 

My Dance festival had started long ago and we were catching up the tail end. In the opening night of divergent presentations, only the group dances of Taiwan left an indelible impression. Contemporary choreographic work from Singapore left me perplexed and frankly speaking, I could not take in so much of running and shrieking, trembling and shaking - it did not look that it would end.

The visit to The Temple of Fine Arts and a dinner there were a memorable experience. Temple of Fine Arts has moved into their own large, spacious building with a fine auditorium, named after Swami Shantanand with state of art up-to-date facilities. It was officially opened by the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, and Yab Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib Tun Kaji Abdul Razak on 4th July 2011. Whenever I have visited Kuala Lumpur I have invariably gone to the former place to meet the artists.

Tastefully decorated for the occasion and with display of Indian handicrafts and artistic things, souvenirs to sell, on the ground floor, TFA with Annalakshmi restaurant is a place on the Malaysian tourist map. It was in 1981 that Swami Shantanand Saraswathi started with two extraordinary dancing couples, Gopal and Radha Shetty, and Sivadas and Vatsala, who were the main forces in creating awareness and appreciation of Indian classical dances. Today the institute has turned into a major cultural landmark in the city where hundreds of young children, youth are taking lessons in classical dances and music and related activities. Each year, Swamiji collaborated with Gopal Shetty and Sivadas to write, choreograph and produce dance dramas that would draw talents from the students and this would give them the opportunity of making significant leaps in their arts education. In two decades, Swamiji with his devotees, created centres in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Johor Bahru, Malacca, Singapore, Perth, Chennai, Coimbatore and New Jersey.

We were all received by the organizers - among them I knew young dancer Umesh Shetty well, who had just returned from London after completing his MA in dance. His elder brother now devotes all time to management of theatre and has given up dancing. In Mumbai, nearly 50 years ago, I had known Gopal Shetty at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, where Guru Bipin Singh had with the Jhaveri Sisters presented several dance dramas. Gopal Shetty was a friend of Guru Bipin Singh and during my tenure at Rabindra Bharati University as a Professor of Dance, in 1983 Gopal Shetty and other dancers had paid a visit to Guru Bipin Singh’s residence at Kolkata (where I was staying). Our association with TFA goes a long way. Therefore, it was a pleasure meeting them all again.

After dinner, there was a programme of Indian classical dances by four visiting dancers in their individual styles and as a finale, all together creating a composite choreography of environment prayer with Akash Mangalam, Prithivi Mangalam, and so on. Individually, Debanjali Biswas presented dance in Manipuri inspired by Tagore’s songs. Suman Sarawgi danced Krishna nartan also in Manipuri, Anwesa Mahanta presented two numbers from Sattriya dances (seen for the first time in Kuala Lumpur), another Manipuri solo by Khoni from Imphal to the song “Nila Kamal dala Shyam” translated in Meitei language, and choreographed by Guru Amubi Singh many years ago for Uday Shankar’s wife, dancer Amala Shankar (who is happily with us today at advanced age of 93!). Sharmila Mukerjee (Odissi), Suman Sarawagi (Manipuri) and Shashikala Ravi (Bharatanatyam) together performed Bhumi Mangalam etc in their individual style. The dancers of TFA performed pallavi in Odissi and to the music composed by Raghunath Panigrahi for ‘Yugma Dwandwa’ for Sanjukta Panigrahi, in group form, which created nostalgia. The finale in Kathak by TFA dancers brought down the house with their chakkars, pirouettes and tatkar, footwork in a group format. When all dancers appeared together on the stage, the audience gave them a standing ovation. There was such excitement which I thought was similar to what happens, say, in Chennai or Delhi, after the dances by so many dancers.

In to the Centre, international dance collaboration between Battery Dance Company of choreographer Jonathan Hollander and Kuala Lumpur based Sutra Dance Company run by Ramli Ibrahim was also presented by My Dance as a part of the festival for delegates of the conference, on 24th September at DBKL Auditorium. It was the highlight of the festival. Ramli choreographed ‘Apres Midi d’un Faune’ (Prelude to the afternoon of a Faun) for Battery Dance Company black dancer Sean Scantlebury with his Sutra dancers Divya Nair, Rathimalar, Michelle Chang, Tan Mei Mei and Sivagamavalli to the music of Debussy, costumes by Dato’ Bernard Chandran and lighting by Sivarajah Natarajan. It was inspired by Nijinsky’s history making work created more than 10 years ago by Ramli, Ramli’s version as performed by himself in 1984 when he returned to Malaysia. Sean’s athleticism and sensuality inspired Ramli to revive Faun for this amazing dancer. He evoked the animal instinct by his sheer physicality. Placing his palms together to rest on his cheek on them, he created an illusion making audience see Divya Nair float like a feather when they danced together. A lithesome dancer, he commanded the stage as a frolicsome forest creature. The nymphs looked lovely with skirts like ghagharas and the choreography by Ramli kept the audience glued to their seats. In Karma, Ramli and Guna performed servants of the elusive Mistress Maya, who manipulates them in her web of illusion, Time and Death. Jonathan Hollander’s choreographed work 'Into the Centre' to the music ‘Alms for Shanti’ saw dancers of both the companies perform in a seamless manner. The programme note mentions that it imbibes the spirit of Kuala Lumpur alluding to the aspiration to find new creative spaces where all could come together. The series of vignettes devised by Jonathan celebrated the universal art of dance. A wonderful collaboration.

Jonathan’s choreography of Layapriya to the music of Finnish composer Eero Hämeenniemi, based on Karaikudi’s south Indian music using konnakol, khanjira, mridangam, morsing (mukhaveena) was indeed rushing towards various climaxes for an Indian music connoisseur. But one had to also understand what music the choreographer was using for movements which were not culminating into climaxes, teehais, the concluding three beats. Jonathan’s dancers Robin Cantell, Mira Cook, Bafana Matea, Carmen Nicole and Sean Scantebury performed with deep understanding and complete professionalism to the lighting by Barry Steele/Pat Dignan.

The last day of My Dance Festival featured among several groups, Odissi by Geetha Shankaran-Lam, her son and daughter. Formerly, Geetha was with Ramli Ibrahim, then joined TFA and now teaches independently. The Odiya pada “Kadamb tale bansi bajila re” was rendered beautifully. I had seen Ramli’s choreography three to four times. Geetha’s was more in solo form with intervention of her son Hariraam as Krishna and her daughter Sangametra as sakhi. The drum dance by the well known group of Kuala Lumpur stole the show and kept everyone tapping their feet. Dexterous and versatile, the group received great applause. The group dances with fan by children from a school were entertaining. From island Sarawak, the folk dance like number was colourful.
With the closing of the festival, we all departed to our respective destinations. My destination was Singapore where on the opening of first Navaratri night, I was to give an illustrated talk at The Temple of Fine Arts and had various other commitments. More about it in my Singapore Diary.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is dance historian, scholar, author and a renowned dance critic. He is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. He is honored by the President of India with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC. He is a regular contributor to and is a contributing editor of Nartanam for the past 11 years.


Dear Sunil Kothari Ji,
Thank you for this wonderful expression of your stay here in Malaysia for this most celebrated event. I am Geetha Shankaran-Lam, who performed in the closing of the festival. I was very honored to have you, Sir, amongst the audience that evening. My children are my legacy and that was the point of my participation in the festival though I was given a solo slot. Sunil-ji, there are many Indian classical dancers in Malaysia that may not get the necessary exposure or advertisement, but they do exist and do continue their daily sadhana to keep the flag flying high and more so to understand and delve deeper into the sacred meaning of dance and music. I thank you sir for this lovely recount of your visit and stay here. It was a pleasure to perform. Thank you. God bless.

Geetha Shankaran-Lam
(Oct 31, 2011)

Post your comments
Unless you wish to remain anonymous, please provide your name and email id when you use the Anonymous profile in the blog to post a comment. All appropriate comments posted with name & email id in the blog will also be featured in the site.