FINISHING TOUCH Datuk Ramli Ibrahim in New Delhi | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma
As “Amorous Delight” gets a mixed response, celebrated dance exponent Ramli Ibrahim talks about his latest production dedicated to love
A legend in his lifetime, Datuk Ramli Ibrahim needs no introduction to dance aficionados. Recently in the city to stage his much-acclaimed ballet, “Amorous Delight” under the aegis of Sutra Foundation in collaboration with Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, the veteran Malaysia-based dancer drew as much flak from the purists as acclaim from the contemporary dance community for his production which deals with the sensual side of love propped up by technical brilliance.
Excerpts from a conversation:
What inspired you to learn Odissi in the first place? I experienced a kind of epiphany when I first heard Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi sang Odissi in an LP album of the ‘70s. I was transported to another world by the melody of Odissi especially by Ragunath’s mellifluous voice. Later, when I saw the lyrical sensuousness of Odissi, I knew that the temperament of Odissi and that of the music resonate with my own. I had to learn the dance!
When and why did you feel the need to shift from traditional Odissi dance to contemporary Odissi as you like to call it? Actually the word ‘contemporary’ has caused a lot of confusion for artistes and dancers. For me ‘contemporary’ simply refers to the present or ‘now’. In Amorous Delight, we weren’t doing what is generally understood as ‘traditional’ Odissi i.e. mangalacharanam, batu/sthai, abhinaya, pallavi, etc. I did not want to cause confusion. Certainly, there is no mistaken that the Amorous Delight is Odissi. The content of the production is about interpreting the verses of the Amarushataka, the 9th century anthology on the subject of love and its many nuances and situations. The treatment of the production, not just from the point of view of the dance composition or choreography, but that of the lighting and projection, costume and presentation was very ‘contemporary’. In fact, there is even a strong underlying ‘modern’ sensitivity in how we approach the work. I always feel that modernity can exist within a tradition. In fact, they can feed positively on each other and can thrive in the same creative cauldron. But rest assured that I have not abandoned traditional format of presenting Odissi…
Is there anything like contemporary in classical dance style like Odissi? How do you define it? In the wake of dance discussions in the last decade, one sense that the word contemporary dance is used basically to refer to ‘contemporary modern’ dance. Undaunted by the word ‘contemporary’, many practitioners of classical dance styles such as Bharatanatyam have claimed that what they are doing are also ‘contemporary’, in the sense that they are engaging their followers in the ‘now’ as their works are being created in the present times. The confusion also happens when we define ‘modernity’ from a western perspective, which see ‘modern’ as antithesis to ‘tradition’. Modern dance movement in the west was a rebellion against classical ballet. This is not necessarily so in Asia. In Asia, traditional dances are being created all the time and are evolving into the present modern age. Look at Bharatanatyam and Odissi, which are mainly reconstructed within middle half of last century. Indian modern dance was pioneered by Uday Shankar. He was part of the Oriental dance wave, which was looking at the East for inspiration. Chandralekha was a modernist who took the baton even further. At the same time, Rukmini Arundale was also a modernist who functioned within a tradition. Rukmini innovated many traditional practices but made these innovations within the traditional Bharatanatyam tradition. Her innovations were eventually accepted by the tradition and her Kalakshetra school contributed to furthering the evolution of Bharatanatyam to what it is today.
What is the criteria for labelling your recent production ‘Amorous Delight’? I must mention that our major collaborator was the late Dinanath Pathy – an artist scholar who I consider as one of the great modern minds of Odisha. Pathy had given me a publication of ‘Amorous Delight’ based on the palm leaf illustrations of the Amarushataka (9th Century anthology on Love) in 2006, which he had co-wrote with Swiss indologist, Dr Eberhard Fiscer. This palm leaf pothi was exquisitely etched by the Sharanakula master of Nayagarh District (Odisha). His name was never known. The pothi is now in the possession of the Rietberg Museum, Zurich. When I first saw the publication, I was inspired by it and told Dinanath that we should one day collaborate on a dance based on the ‘Amorous Delight’ publication. This publication became our major reference and it had taken more than 10 years to materialise. For your information, it was the last major dance-theatre production undertaken by Dr Dinanath Pathy as he passed away a month later after the Malaysian premiere in 2016. This season of Amorous Delight was a tribute to his memory.
What is your objective behind producing “Amorous Delight”? Amorous Delight is a lyrical work. Sutra is known more for its vigorous and spectacular repertoire and is often associated with ‘tandava’ works. I thought that, for a change, we should do a work which would explore more of the ‘abhinaya’ (facial expression). The more subtle eroticism of love was therefore the perfect change after Ganjam which was last shown also at the Kamani. Ganjam was a ‘highly charged’ and an energetic production. Many had found Amorous Delight was different from what we usually do and therefore came like a breath of fresh air. Finally, I guess, the objective of creating a dance work is the same for all – a celebration of creativity for the dance-makers and the satisfaction to see the beauty of the dancers and dance come alive. Like love itself, the objective is a kind of moksha!
The basis of your production are Odissi paintings which in Indian classical context have spiritual connotations. How could you interpret it in mundane terms? The palm leaf illustrations are etchings, not paintings (patachitra). Though in the beginning in the Amarushataka, there is a homage to the Goddess Ambika who wields her flower arrows, releasing them on the nayikas and nayakas, the rest of the subject, which was love, was not spiritual or devotional at all. In fact, the illustrations depict relationship of hero-heroine in very human manner. Much of the illustrations are very erotic and there are many references to ratibandha or sexual poses, exquisitely etched and of great artistic merit. Amarushataka is one of many anthologies after the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana. Many of such texts had been created as an ode to sensual erotic love. I guess the true value is the inherent and authentic beauty of expressing a very human preoccupation – love!
If you only had to show the mundane as metaphor, then the basis could be any park, any bedroom, why Odissi patachitra? The subject matter of love is timeless. In fact, in patachitra there are also many illustrations of love in parks and bedroom of the time. This is also true of the illustrations of the Amarushataka. There are many park scenes (kunja) and bedroom scenes. In many ways, people of those times are less puritanical and celebrate love in a less hypocritical manner than we do now….