It was written in the stars, as far as the timing for Ambong-Ambong’s upcoming Celestial Conversations goes. After all, few could have imagined the reignited fervour surrounding outer space, following the successful and historic landing of India’s Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft’s Vikram lander near the little-explored south pole of the moon — a world first for any space programme.
India’s emergence as a space power to be reckoned with, buoyed along by the euphoria surrounding Chandrayaan-3’s success (incidentally, chandra is Sanskrit for “moon”), also offers an interesting contrast to what was happening on the ground. Millions were cheering the space mission on in their own way, holding special pujas to ensure a safe landing while holy men were reported lining the banks of the sacred Ganges, blowing conch shells in celebration once the landmark south pole landing was completed. It is this same contrast that guests can look forward to at Ambong-Ambong’s Celestial Conversations on Sept 22. Mirroring India’s triumph, which melded the sacred with deep, complex mathematics and science, the upcoming event will, likewise, feature the dualities of two Malaysian icons: dance legend Datuk Ramli Ibrahim and astrophysicist Prof Emerita Tan Sri Dr Mazlan Othman.
There is little need to introduce the two Malaysians, of course. Mazlan is inextricably linked to space science in the country, including being director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and founding director-general of Angkasa, our National Space Agency, as well as current senior fellow of the National Academy of Sciences Malaysia. Ramli is founder of the renowned Sutra Dance Theatre and such an ardent champion of the ancient Indian classical dance form of Odissi that India has honoured his efforts and contributions on several occasions, including with the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi award, the country’s topmost recognition for the performing arts, and the Padma Shri, one of its highest civilian awards, presented by two previous presidents of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee and Shri Ram Nath Kovind respectively, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.
It was upon discovering the deep friendship between these two immensely celebrated individuals that banker-turned-hotelier Amran Ahmed was inspired to bravely approach them with a novel and ambitious idea: an evening of dinner and discourse at Ambong-Ambong, his Langkawi resort, fusing the topics of art, dance and outer space.
The seed for the event was planted when the distinguished astrophysicist, Malaysia’s first and the key driving force responsible for helping send the country’s first astronaut into space, hosted a talk at Ambong-Ambong sometime back. “It was called Destination: Mars and the discourse centred on scientific exploration, probing humanity and man’s place within the cosmos, particularly with respect to humans inhabiting Mars in the near future,” Mazlan says.
“Yes, it was a great opportunity to collaborate with Prof Mazlan,” Amran agrees. “The talk was fascinating and the subsequent conversations that followed were intellectually rich, with topics that ranged from space tourism to humanity’s future on our planet. And it was during one of these conversations that Datuk Ramli Ibrahim’s name surfaced. As a globally acclaimed dancer and engaging speaker, his involvement, together with the professor’s, as intellectuals and leaders in their respective fields, would be interesting … given that the viewpoints between the sciences and the arts would unveil insightful exchanges. Thus, Celestial Conversations was born.”
On her decision to, once again, co-host an event in Langkawi, Mazlan smiles, saying, “Ambong-Ambong’s captivating surroundings stir the notion of integrating artistic and cultural elements with scientific discourse that would surely enhance the evening’s encounter. This idea sprouted from the belief that an open discourse concerning the universe and philosophy can facilitate profound insights into our existence and our relationship with the cosmos. Therefore, Celestial Conversations stands as an inclusive platform for intellectual discussion that will bridge diverse knowledge domains while featuring distinctive viewpoints.”
And on the unusual decision to team up with the legendary dancer, she points out their decades-long friendship and shares how she is “familiar with his artistic works that touch on Hindu cosmology”.
“Moreover, he has been a global cultural figure for over four decades. He has made significant impact through his international performances, most notably through dance. He has also gained great recognition as a speaker, using dance and applying metaphor and traditional mythic concepts to tackle philosophical questions. This versatility offers a unique perspective that greatly enhances the scientific discussion,” she adds.
Ramli, meanwhile, has shared how he will present Shiva Nataraja, the Dance of the Universe, from a metaphorical standpoint. “I will speak of Lord Shiva as Nataraja, who danced the universe into being. Dance is metaphor and Shiva Nataraja is the ultimate metaphor of the Dance of the Universe.”
The universe is His body,
His language is the sum total of sounds,
The moon and the stars are his ornaments,
To that pure spirit — Shiva — I bow.
“The above is the Shiva Dhyanam, a prayer to Shiva known to all dancers. But we shall play it by ear also,” he adds puckishly. “I am sure Mazlan will impress the guests with her scientific data but I intend to connect them with the psychological landscapes of our minds. I will use allegories and I may touch on mystical questions regarding the quests of seekers and the myths of origin that the ancient Indians once explored. It is the general belief that there is nothing in the universe that cannot be discovered within our own mind, body and spirit. After all, Hindu cosmology is vast. The Rig Veda, the oldest of all the sacred texts, speaks of the speculation of the existence of the heavens in abstract terms. For example, what caused the unmanifested to manifest? And how did the desire to manifest come into being?”
Mazlan says guests can be assured of the rare chance to listen and participate in what will surely be a highly stimulating, thought-provoking panel discussion.
“We want to delve deep into cosmic wonders while connecting art and science in a way that will spark further curiosity,” she adds.
A star-gazing session is also on the cards, should the heavens prove cooperative, and a special guest chef will be flown in to curate an eclectic eight-course degustation menu prepared just for the night.
Amran says: “The menu will take inspiration from Ayurvedic principles, focusing on the fundamental concepts of the six tastes, or rasas. Each is integral to our physiological balance, overall health and general well-being. It will be a symphony of flavours to reflect the remarkable diversity of culinary experiences we as Malaysians enjoy throughout our lives.”
To hold such an event in the Malaysian capital would already be deemed ambitious. So, bringing together these two great minds to a paradise island resort is a coup on another level altogether.
“Langkawi holds a special place in my heart,” says Mazlan. “Its narrative goes back a few hundred million years, with many hidden stories yet to be uncovered.
Ambong-Ambong uniquely captures Langkawi’s essence. From the vantage point at Rimba Sky, amid the treetop canopy, you might find yourself sharing the space with dusky leaf monkeys, hornbills flying across your view or white-bellied sea eagles circling overhead.
“Every viewpoint unveils a captivating tale. Looking westward, the sun sets behind Pulau Tepor, painting the sky with hues of red and amber. To the north, Gunung Machinchang is visible on a clear day, with its rugged contours steeped in a likewise ancient history. Langkawi is enchanting and invites us on a journey through time to explore its many hidden treasures. It promises a wealth of untold stories and mysteries waiting to be unearthed.”
It is a sentiment Ramli echoes. “I’ve always loved Langkawi. When I was working with the shamans of Kelantan to stage Main ’Teri in Kuala Lumpur, we brought Kelantanese musicians and performers to rehearse at the Bon Ton Langkawi. Sutra would visit the island annually, performing at the Tanjung Rhu resort. We were present when Langkawi was just starting off as a tourist destination. And, yes, while Langkawi is a conducive place for deep, meaningful discussion, it doesn’t mean we can’t also have fun while there!”
All this, of course, is music to Amran’s ears. He acknowledges Langkawi is indeed “an extraordinary destination”.
“Those who have truly immersed themselves in it can attest to its uniqueness. It is a haven at which to replenish the spirit, invigorate the senses and rediscover our bond with the natural world. As Mazlan says, Langkawi holds many more hidden stories yet to be uncovered.
“In some ways, the island offers the perfect counterbalance to Kuala Lumpur’s dynamic cityscape. While the capital boasts busy lifestyles amid towering modern structures, Langkawi exudes a rustic, laidback charm. And much like the diverse perspectives of Mazlan and Ramli, KL and Langkawi present a harmonious dichotomy, each offering a distinct environment to pursue life’s equilibrium.”
On who should attend Celestial Conversations, Mazlan is to the point as ever. “Anyone who is intrigued by the universe, life and its mysteries, or simply enjoy deep conversation should attend.
“Additionally, those with an interest in dance and the arts … and, of course, Ramli Ibrahim fans,” she says, half-jokingly.
“My presentation, juxtaposed with his, will offer two very contrasting approaches to the meaning of the universe. This event aims to provide an engaging evening that combines science, arts and culture. It is a chance to connect with like-minded people while expanding your own thoughts, not to mention blow your mind as you unlock the mysteries of the universe.
“Besides, it is hard not to enjoy Langkawi’s beauty while having the privilege to experience the unforgettable Malaysian hospitality of a place that only Ambong-Ambong can provide.”
The spark that triggered this unique dance and science retreat might have been inspired by outer space. But anyone lucky enough to be present at Celestial Conversations will surely find themselves over the moon.
'Ambong-Ambong Soulscapes: Celestial Conversations' with Datuk Ramli Ibrahim and Professor Emerita Tan Sri Dr Mazlan Othman will take place at Rimba Sky, Ambong Pool Villas, at 6.30pm on Sept 22. To book, email [email protected].
This article first appeared on Sept 4, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.