Sutra Dance Theatre opens 33rd Konark Festival in Odisha, India with classic Odissi performance

Celebrating 65 years of diplomatic relations and cultural exchange between the two nations.

The 10-headed Ravana (All photos: A Prathap)

There is no limit to the richness of India when it comes to arts and culture. From the breathtaking sculptures found in Maharashtra’s ancient Ajanta Caves to the modern art so beautifully envisioned by legends like Raja Ravi Varma and Nandalal Bose, the country’s seminal dance traditions are also always top of mind.

The Konark Festival in Odisha (formerly known as Orissa) has traditionally served as a platform upon which the great depth and breadth of India’s millennia-old cultural art forms and traditions may be showcased. Now in its 33rd edition, the festival, held in the popular seaside destination by the Bay of Bengal, has never failed to attract the greatest classical Indian dancers from the most revered principal styles, namely Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Manipuri, Kathakali, Kuchipudi and Kathak. "Konark is indeed one of the most prestigious of India’s dance festivals," notes Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, founder and artistic director of Sutra Dance Theatre. "Though it features other classical dance styles, it remains a major platform for Odissi, particularly as the dance originated in the state of Odisha."

Set against the backdrop of the magnificent Unesco World Heritage Site of Konark’s 13th-century Sun Temple, which historians and archaeologists have long considered to be the culmination of the ancient kingdom of Kalinga’s acclaimed temple architecture, the Konark Festival draws dancers and enthusiasts from all over the world for five days every December. "Besides being one of India’s best-known temples, Konark has the richest depiction of dance sculptures, especially at the Natya Mandapa (dance hall). This hall has been an important source of reference for pioneer gurus and dancers since Odissi’s reconstruction some 70 years ago. Hence, performing in the precinct of Konark Temple has always been a dream for Odissi dancers," says Ramli.


Datuk Ramli Ibrahim (centre, holding flowers) flanked by the event’s chief guests and Sutra dancers and musicians at the Konark Festival 2022

Known for its lyricism and emphasis on bhakti bhava (which may be roughly translated as an attitude of devotion and surrender), Odissi is an intricate and complex dance form, with scores of mudras (symbolic hand gestures) used to convey a single scene with emotion and feeling. Its history may also be traced back several centuries, with archaeological evidence of the ritual dance form preserved in carvings found in the ancient caves of Khandagiri and Udayagiri, near Odisha’s capital city of Bhubaneswar. Odissi was greatly suppressed during the era of the British Raj (where its sumptuously sensuous moves caused moral outrage and indignation) and nearly died out as a result, but was fortunately saved and revived after India’s independence by a handful of visionary gurus, namely Gangadhar Pradhan, Pankaj Charan Das, Raghunath Dutta, Kelucharan Mohapatra and Deba Prasad Das, whom Ramli studied under.

As such, it was a particular honour for Malaysia and Ramli when Sutra Dance Theatre was handpicked to open the festival recently with its powerful and emotive presentation of Jaya Ram, whose critically acclaimed world premiere was held at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac) just three months ago.

The Ramayana, literally translated as "Rama’s Progress", is essentially one of India’s and South Asia’s two most treasured ancient epics (together with the Mahabharata) and whose saga revolves around the primary moral fables of duty, love and redemption. Jaya Ram is Sutra’s homage to the titular hero as well as its biggest Odissi production for the year.

Although a classic Odissi performance in every sense of the word, the creative Sutra team also cleverly infused it with elements of Ramlila and Rama Natakam, famous and dramatic folk theatre genres of South Odisha, to really evoke the valour of Ayodhya’s legendary warrior prince and to emphasise the purity and virtue of Princess Sita, whose beguiling beauty had led to her abduction by the rakshasa (demon) king Ravana.


The abduction of Sita by Ravana

The festival opened with a broadcast address by state Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, while both Culture Minister Aswini Kumar Patra and Sports Minister Tusharkanti Behera were also in attendance. Having last performed at Konark in 2017 with Ganjam, Sutra did not disappoint the international crowd who gathered at Konark’s sprawling open-air auditorium this year.

Sutra’s 22 dancers — headlined by the luminous Geethika Sree who danced the principal role of Sita; Vickneshwaran Gunasegar who portrayed the terrifying Ravana brilliantly; and an up-and-coming Hareen Loganathan as Hanuman — mesmerised the audience with their original movements while staying true to the storyline. Mention must also be made of the great Guru Gajendra Panda and his musicians: Satchidananda Das on the classical Odissi percussion instrument of the mardala; Jabahar Mishra on the flute; Jeeban Prakash Das on the sitar; and Sangita Panda and Satyabrata Katha on vocals, who were virtuosic in their live renditions of Jaya Ram’s complex musical passages and reconceptualisation of the Odissi music vocabulary.

Other stellar names in the 2022 festival lineup included Rajendra Gangani from New Delhi’s Guru Kundanlal Gangani Foundation for Kathak; Lipubam Upendra Sharma for Manipuri; Meera Das, another acclaimed Odissi exponent; and leading Mohiniattam performing artist Gopika Verma. "We were elated to have been asked to open this year’s Konark Festival, and what more to be able to bring so many young dancers to perform at this unique venue for the very first time. This rare experience will definitely be etched in their young minds forever," Ramli notes.


Rama and Sita at the celebration of his coronation

No stranger to the birthplace of his métier, Ramli has been a frequent traveller to Odisha for over 40 years now. "I first started visiting Odisha in 1978, when Bhubaneswar was a much smaller town and Konark not yet the busy tourist destination it is now," the Malaysian dance pioneer and Unesco Living Treasure muses. "Those early days are a stark contrast to what Odisha is now: a burgeoning economy, strewn with busy highways and boulevards with giant malls. I have always maintained that two of Odisha’s greatest offerings to the world are the Sun Temple at Konark and Odissi, both of which have always been intimately related. Sutra’s dancers have enjoyed the privilege of performing all over the world, from Carnegie Hall in New York to the Sydney Opera House. But to perform Odissi in the shadow of Konark is something truly special indeed, and definitely the ultimate for me, especially where Odissi is concerned."

There is a term in the Indian cultural world called rasika which is used to denote an aesthete, a connoisseur or an aficionado of the arts. Its etymology stems from the Sanskrit word rasa, which like the Malay word it inspired, means essence. Rasikas are said to be able to "taste" the aesthetic flavours of any fine cultural work, be it literary, visual or performing arts. There is no doubt that the famed nine rasas or navarasa in Indian mythology, encompassing shringara (love and beauty), hasya (laughter), karuna (sorrow), raudra (anger), veera (courage), bhayanaka (terror), bibhatsa (disgust), adbutha (wonder) and shantha (tranquillity), were well and truly present in Jaya Ram that night, providing a memorable feast indeed for the privileged rasikas who gathered by the Sun Temple that night.


Sutra Dance Theatre will end the year on a high note with further performances in India in conjunction with the Delhi International Arts Festival on Dec 29 and 30. For more information, see here.

This article first appeared on Dec 19, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.


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