I think eroticism is achieved by the power of suggestion: Ramli Ibrahim

Ramli Ibrahim

The celebrated Malaysian Odissi dancer, Ramli Ibrahim, recently presented the contemporary Odissi production Amorous Delight in India, and I watched it in Delhi. It had dance composition and artistic direction by Meera Das and Ramli, and was inspired by the ninth century Amarushataka, a Sanskrit anthology about shringara rasa. Leela Venkatraman was called on the stage to explain the concept of Amarushataka. The production was a tribute to Dinanath Pathy, a major visual artist, art historian, curator and educationist from Odisha who collaborated on the project. He passed away last year. This production was presented in collaboration with him and Ramli’s Sutra Foundation.

Afterwards, I interviewed Ramli on email about the concept, and whether there were any reservations about showing the sensuous choregraphy in India, where sensibilities are sharply divided in today’s climate.

How did you decide on this concept to make it into a production?

The inspiration came about when I first saw, in 2006, the outstanding publication of Amorous Delight based on the palm leaf illustrations of Amarushataka by the Sharanakula master of Nayagarh district, South Odisha (apparently, there were only two illustrations in Odisha – the other one was from Baripada). The study of the illustrations and the verses was published beautifully by the Rietberg Museum, Zurich, and co-written and analysed by the two great scholars, Dr Eberhard Fiscer and the late Dr Dinanath Pathy. Pathy had also been Sutra’s ardent collaborator and mentor. Pathy and I decided that we needed to collaborate with another like-minded Odiya choreographer, so that the work can be premiered in Odisha, due to funding problems. To cut a long story short, we decided to work with Meera Das, who is a talented and established Odissi dancer, teacher and choreographer based in Cuttack, Odisha. After much discussion about the music and the way the choreography should be approached, I came to Odisha and took part in Amorous Delight for its premiere at the Ganjam Festival, directed by Meera Das and performed with her dancers. Geethika Sree, a principal dancer of Sutra, came from Kuala Lumpur with me. However, the premiere in Cuttack did not make much impact.  It was rather lost amidst too many other works presented at the same time in the festival. Pathy was disappointed, but I assured him that I would bring out a stronger choreographic concept in the Malaysia premiere and requested to add more additional link music so that the scenes between chosen verses can be rendered seamlessly. The late Dr Pathy also worked on the images and drawings which were projected on the cyclorama. The images were created in Malaysia especially for the Malaysia premiere. Meera came to Kuala Lumpur to take the principal role of Ambika; the projection and lighting were fully conceptualized by Dinanath Pathy and Sivarajah Natarajan; additional choreography was created to further bring out the two dimensionality concept of the palm leaf-inspired choreography.  The production was very well received but with a grouse – that it was simply too short!  
For the second season of Amorous Delight in Kuala Lumpur, we had used 14 very young Odissi dancers from the Sutra Outreach Program apart from the 9 senior dancers. We also added the Shankarabharanam Pallavi, an authentically ‘old’ and charming work of the late Pankaj Charan.  I thought that the matrix of young dancers worked even better as the eroticism and palm leaf inspiration floated and became even more poignant within the innocent-looking and graphic formation of the young bodies. I had also enlisted the help of Bernard Chandran, Malaysia’s top international fashion designer, for the costumes. I was pleased with the costumes and thought the dancers carried Chandran’s costume well. The whole combination of choreography, lighting and projection, costume and dancing worked.

How did you deal with the choreography so that the dance was sensuous and graceful without being overly erotic? In this regard, did you choreograph differently for Indian sensibilities?

Yes, this was a ‘tricky’ issue as, at first, the tour was supposed to include Chennai and also Bhubaneswar. We were not anxious about creating a hullabaloo in Chennai and Delhi, but Bhubaneswar was ‘tricky’ as it is known to be less accepting of new ideas. There are people in Bhubaneswar who claim that I am the impure element in Odissi… Performing in Odisha has always been a challenge, but our last work performed there, Ganjam, was well received.  Both Ganjam and Amorous Delight had a strong contribution from the late Dr Dinanath Pathy.  On his demise, just after the Malaysian season of Amorous Delight, we decided that the second season would be a tribute to his memory and legacy. Therefore, I wanted Amorous Delight to be shown in Bhubaneswar, but this was not eventually to be so. Actually, Dr Pathy was even more a modernist and iconoclast than I am, and his concepts where eroticism was concerned were very liberating and appear to be too advanced by any standards. After all, Pathy was a modern visual artist who was aware of global trends. He was irritated by the hypocritical mindsets of many Odissi dance-makers who are comfortable dishing out the same mediocre works in badly organised festivals. Be that as it may, as we know, the line between vulgarity and eroticism is ever so thin. However, I was delighted when I went to Cuttack during its premiere and saw the work in progress, that Meera had already explored a lot of the eroticism that I was thinking of. She had done some lovely choreography in the nayika-nayak duets, which I thought was highly ‘volatile’ choreography. Amarushataka, after all, is about love and naturally, sringara/eroticism would be part and parcel of this rasa. I did not choreograph especially for India or Malaysia, but wanted an authentic work that I would be proud of. I trusted our own sensibility and artistic direction that the dance movement did not go ‘out of hand’ in projecting itself out of propriety (auchitya). I think eroticism is achieved by the power of suggestion rather than by literal treatment. But having said this, we were advised not to show it in Odisha for fear of any untoward controversy. But it would be a pity if Odiyans do not see this work as it is the last collaborative work with one of the great sons of its soil, Dr Dinanath Pathy. Amorous Delight is a poignant celebration of his artistic ideas and concepts. Pathy, though not a dance guru or dancer, was a theatre man who contributed much to liberating Odissi from its own shackles.

Pics: Anoop Arora