Odissi on High: Moving with the Times

By Asyraf Naqiuddin

Odissi on High: Moving with the Times

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Images: Sutra Foundation

Malaysia’s legendary choreographer and Indian classical dancer Datuk Ramli Ibrahim talks about modernity in tradition ahead of upcoming performances next month.

Rukdrakshya Foundation dancers of Bhubaneswar (from left) Bichitra Behera, Samir Panigrahi, Jagyandatta Pradhan, Santosh Ram and Sanjeev Kumar Jena.

India has eight classical dance styles. Odissi, a dance-drama genre of performance art that originated in the Hindu temples of India’s eastern coastal state, Odisha, is distinguished from other dance forms by the importance it places on the tribhangi, or the independent movements of head, chest, and pelvis.

Following the country’s independence in 1947, Odissi experienced reconstruction during the 1950s, phasing into a heightened creativity in the 70s and 80s, levelling off into a cruise in the late 90s and now spawning a more disperse creativity since the early decade of the 21st century.

In addressing modern challenges faced by one of the world’s oldest performance arts, Ramli, who is Sutra Dance Theatre artistic director, joined hands with Rukdrakshya Foundation from Bhubaneswar to direct Odissi on High that opens with two famous pallavis, or pure dance, called Sankarabharanam and Kolabati composed by two major gurus Kelucharan Mahapatra and Debaprasad Das.

Ramli says Indian classical dances thrive on innovation. Image: Asyraf Naqiuddin

Both pallavis represent Kelucharan and Debaprasad’s stark contrast in styles – with the former metaphorically looked upon as Vishnu (The Preserver) and the latter as Siva (The Destroyer) in Odissi.

Simultaneously, they portend as barometers, in the way that they reflect the essential interplay of the undercurrent of creative psychic energy of the two masters running through the works at the time they were created.

On top of that, the show will also showcase a modern take on Odissi with new, innovative pallavis by gurus Bichitrananda Swain of Rudrakshya Foundation and Durga Charan Ranbir.

Dancers from Sutra and Rudrakshya Foundations (clockwise from top left) Santosh Ram, Geethika Sree, Vickneswaran, Priyanngka, Tan Mei Mei, Kirthana, Hareen and Samir Panigrahi.

Asked about bringing changes into the classical dance, Ramli told authenticity is subjective but an authentic experience is what matters.

“I got into trouble a couple of times for not sporting ‘a complete ensemble’ but I believe rather than looking at the physicality of the presentation, the spirit or the essence counts even more.

“As the world progresses, so does the art. In exercising authenticity or auchitya in Sanskrit, all the gurus imbibe the feel that represents the spirit of the land, people and music into a dance.

“Odissi performers play out stories about Hindu gods like Krishna and Shiva, spiritual messages and myths shared in India, among others. Today, we innovate the arts within the tradition. When you look at the totality of things and wonder about originality, you simply go back to Natya Shastra,” the 64-year-old said, referring to the compendium on performing arts compiled between second and fourth century AD.

The cream of the crop from Sutra and Rudrakshya will star in ‘Odissi on High’. (From left) Samir Panigrahi, Geethika Sree, Tan Mei Mei and Santosh Ram.

The works of these younger gurus highlight the spirit of their paramparas (succession of knowledge from their gurus). Under new re-arrangement, re-interpretation and performed by the combined efforts of Sutra and Rudrakshya Foundations dancers, these representative works are given another lease of creative energy and dynamic verve.

“The present repertoire is a reconstruction because the dance went through upheavals and loss of patronage so there’s hardly anything,” Ramli said, adding that Natya Shastra showed that Indian classical dance had already been developed since time immemorial.

“The dance that was formerly performed by devadasis (temple dancers) were gone when temples were abandoned. So, the dance maintained its existence as a folk element during festivals.”

However, such public performances were prohibited during British rule, linking the dance with immoral trafficking and prostitution.

Ramli, who received one of India top civilian honours the Padma Shri award recently, said as soon as India gained independence, pioneer gurus began reconstructing the performance arts.

‘Odissi on High’ is set to capture a modern take on Indian classical dance.

“Bharatanatyam was the first to experience this renaissance. You may see sculptures depicting dancers and musicians in old temples across India, but the dance is part of the national build up and I am proud to be part of that,” Ramli said.

“My guru, Debaprasad, was a major Odissi pioneer and architect of contemporary Odissi and I am now the director of the rare dance style.”

Describing tradition as a collective and modernity as individual innovation, Ramli said new things can transform into tradition in time and Indian classical dances “thrive on innovation”.

“I define modern in an indigenous form that can exist within the tradition as part of growth and continuity. Some of the gurus were great modernists and they change things within the tradition,” Ramli said.

“We don’t just dance the masters’ dance, we also create our own.”

Odissi on High will take place at Universiti Malaya Experimental Theatre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from July 5 till 8. Tickets are priced at RM50 each. For details, call +603 4021 1092 or visit

Universiti Malaya Experimental Theatre

GETTING THERE: AirAsia flies to Kuala Lumpur from various destinations. Flight info and fares, visit


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About the Author

Asyraf Naqiuddin

Having served various desks at Malaysia's oldest daily, Asyraf Naqiuddin believes there’s a story anywhere you turn that could inspire readers around the world. With a penchant for high-powered motorcycles, he hopes to one day get back in the saddle and cover the globe on two wheels.

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