Malaysian dance luminary Ramli Ibrahim on the evolution of Odissi and his connection with India

Malaysian dancer Ramli Ibrahim reinvents the Odissi dance form in this special show 
Ramli Ibrahim
Ramli Ibrahim

In the world of classical dance lies a deep cultural link between India and Malaysia, courtesy of two very well-established dance organisations, Rudrakshya Foundation in Bhubaneshwar and Sutra Foundation in Kuala Lumpur. And at the centre of it are their two stalwarts, Guru Bichitrananda Swain and Ramli Ibrahim, respectively, who have established themselves as one of the frontrunners of the new-age revolution in Indian classical dance, especially Odissi. To give us a glimpse into what evolution the ancient dance form from Odisha has gone through in this era, they have co-directed a unique production called Odissi on High, to be presented at Narada Gana Sabha next week. 
Ahead of the performance, we caught up with Ramli, a pioneer in not just classical dance but an accomplished ballet and modern dance, performer too, who told us how this collaboration came to fruition, and what his other projects are in the pipeline. Excerpts: 

Tell us more about your collaboration with Rudrakshya Foundation. 
I have known Guru Bichitrananda for a number of years and had wanted to present him in Malaysia. Odissi on High was an opportunity that finally made this happen. Though the present-day Odissi was reconstructed in the last 60 years or so, the elements were ancient and Kalinga exercised a strong cultural and economic influence with Southeast Asia. I am positive that Kalinga also exported its dance to Southeast Asia. Our collaboration represents a continuing trend and a thread of a globalisation spirit that had already taken place ages ago.

What’s Odissi on High all about?
It’s mainly an exploration of pure dance and this is done with great verve and audacity as the tagline implies. Therefore, the approach is not anecdotic or based on a storyline. However, each pallavi (a pure dance presentation without any sung lyrics) has its own ‘mood’ and this will be apparent to the audience as soon as the show commences. What is fresh is the way metaphors and allusions are incorporated into the pallavi like moving collages of ‘deja-vus’ — one’s memory is triggered by images which come and go and reappear again in a different context within the pure dance paradigm.

A scene from Odissi on High
A scene from Odissi on High

Introduce us to the dancers in this production. 
There are five male dancers from Rudrakshya. They are quite outstanding dancers — I saw them performing a work by Guru Bichitrananda Swain called Tala Taranga and fell in love with it. I then decided that the Malaysian audience should see the boys in this dance. Then I had the idea of presenting a series of pallavis performed by both the dancers of Rudrakshya and Sutra. We invited two of the boys from Rudrakhshya, Santosh and Sameer, to come first to teach the pallavi that I had chosen as a solo work. It was initially difficult to get into the Rudrakshya style as it was intricate with a lot of embellishment. This is not the same Odissi aesthetics from the Debaprasad school which we do, as it is more austere and less filigreed than that of the Kelucharan Mahapatra school. However, the Sutra dancers persevered and managed to get the hang of it. Then, the work has to be deconstructed and re-arranged according to the creative demand and response of the group composition. This process is repeated for all the pallavis that we feature for the production. However, we kept Tala Taranga, as it is perfect as it was originally created for the five boys.

Did you face any challenges during rehearsals?
The main challenge was to get both dancers from Rudrakshya and Sutra together. They need to work together and perform as an organic group. As you know, the distance was a problem and therefore we needed to work very quickly to consolidate the concept and form the group compositions. Fortunately, the dancers got along very well and they are now friends and work as a team.

A scene from Odissi on High
A scene from Odissi on High

What’s the target audience?
I think Odissi on High appeals to both the younger and also the aficionados of Odissi. It’s so refreshing, as they will not have experienced this kind of dynamics and treatment of traditional Odissi. There is also the motion graphics as we use a large LED screen with complementary images to augment the mood. And our award-winning lighting designer, Sivarajah Natarajan, completes the most exquisite lighting for the dancers. Even those coming to dance for the first time will enjoy this production.

Will you see the production in other cities soon?
Odissi on High had a total of 10 performances in Kuala Lumpur itself, which is a record. It also toured other cities of Malaysia. By the time we perform in Chennai, we would have performed in Bhubaneswar, Kolkata, New Delhi, Mumbai and Pune. Our last performance would be in Bengaluru. But I think this won’t be the last tour of Odissi on High. I am confident that we shall have other requests to stage it again.
What are your upcoming projects?
In Sutra, we have many performances and exhibitions lined up for the year. We are rather full until the end of the year. At the end of May itself, we shall present a Bharatanatyam performance titled Embattled, Emboldened & Empowered, by two of our senior dancers, Revathi Selvam-Karthik and Suchitra Narayanan.

A scene from Odissi on High
A scene from Odissi on High

What are the other projects from India that you have collaborated for?
We have worked with many projects in India; we have just come back from performing at the Kumbha Mela at Prayagraj. India is one of the most exciting places for us to perform and we have performed in more than 70 cities in India in the span of four decades that Sutra was formed.

Tell us about the opportunities for you that await in India?
As far as India is concerned, it has, by far, more enlightened cultural policies than Malaysia. We, therefore, wait for initiatives from India for many of our larger future projects. Funding and patrons, which artists are dependent upon for future projects, would depend on government, corporate CSR allocations and, not to underestimate support from enlightened individuals and artistes themselves. Most of all, future projects are fed by the passion of our collaborating artistes who believe that the community needs the food for the soul, which comes from the input of the arts. This passion has to be continuously kept alive!

May 14. At Narada Gana Sabha. 6.30 pm. Entry free. 

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