Ramli and I had first met a few weeks previously, at Sutra House, during a gathering of the Malaysian Art Institute alumni. I thought him charming. A vision in his South Asian clothing, and a good advert for an energetic life. I had long been an admirer of his performances, his zest for life and his unwavering dedication to dance, and all that that entails. I was delighted to finally meet him, though briefly, for a talk amidst the noise and furore of the art school’s celebration, which Ramli had hosted. Later, I was invited to attend his latest production and performance, Amorous Delight, hence the tickets. It had tried to rain, but nothing was going to spoil that enchanted evening.
Before the show, in the foyer, was a small exhibition of intriguing works by Odisha artist/designer Jyoti Ranjan Swain which were also centred around the spirit of love. Those mixed media images, in their delicate ink and gouache/colour on Mill-Waste sheets, were an unexpected, yet delicious, primer to the anticipated show.
The Sutra Dance Theatre dance performance of Amorous Delight gave homage to five verses (1, 4, 8, 40 and 74) from a collection of 100 Indian Sanskrit quatrains titled Amarushataka, by the 7th c. Indian poet Amaru. Some of the later palm leaf manuscripts (podi) were illustrated by an anonymous Master of Sharanakula (19th Century, Orissa, India). Dr Dinanath Pathy, along with Eberhard Fischer, had recently written on that very subject, for ARTIBUS ASIAE, publishers at Museum Rietburg, Zurich. Dr Pathy, resplendently elegant, was present at that night’s performance. A selection of illustrations taken from that 19th Century manuscript were projected as a backdrop to that DPaC Amorous Delight performance of the Orissa (Indian) dance known as Odissi.
There are many classical Indian dances. The oldest text of Nāṭya Śāstra of Bharata Muni (sanskrit) represents a detailed stagecraft manual, elucidating and observing how various dance styles; Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, and Mohiniyattam etc should look and be performed. The Nāṭya Śāstra suggests that there is “no axiom, no concept in the universe that cannot be expressed by the body”, so spake Ramil Ibrahim in a recent ‘Ted Talk. The Nāṭya Śāstra introduced the theory of ‘bhava' and ‘rasa’, vital to Indian aesthetics. ‘Bhava' meaning an emotional state or mood portrayed by the dancer/actor, while ‘Rasa’ “taste” or “essence”, referring to the sentiment that ‘bhava' has manifested by the actor, and therefore evoked within the audience. In the Nāṭya Śāstra ‘Odhra Magadha’ is mentioned, and may be identified as the earliest precursor of the present day Odissi dance style so beloved of the the Sutra Dance Company.
In the theater we heard, but could not see, the players of music. Ordinarily an Odissi orchestra might consist of a ‘pakhawaj’ (drum) player, a singer, a flutist, a sitar or violin player and a manjira (hand cymbals) player. Dancers are adorned in Odiya silver jewellery and an especial coiffeur. along with voluminous Sambalpuri (Western Orissa style) or Bomkai saris (from the Odisha village of the same name). They are often vibrant in colour and unique to the dance style.
The Amarushataka collection of semi-erotic poems deal with “delights and deprivations” of love, and the “dark anguish of union-separation”, according to one reviewer for The Tribune (2006), and tell of "the young beloved of slender body and bewitching face" with "enchantingly dishevelled tresses, the vermilion on the forehead smudged", "tiny beads of sweat shining as the earrings swing in playful rhythm”. The poems are intimate, loving, with a touch of the poet Rumi (Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi) echoing sweet forlornness in longing.
With the aid of superbly lyrical classical Indian music from Srinivas Satpathy, Guru Dhaneshwar Swain and Ramarao Patra, Sivarajah Natarajan’s evocative lighting triggered the imagination to set the scene for a powerfully memorable performance. Ramli and company were, of course, simply stunning in their performances. From the large bow-drawing gestures, to the minuscule kohl lined eye movements and quasi-erotic kinesics, the performers intrigued and delighted a most enthusiastic audience. We watched enthralled as one performer indicated that her glances and her smiles would adorn the doorway, waiting for her lover, her breasts glinting with anticipatory perspiration replacing water pots. It was bosom heaving, love lorn poetics, skilfully transposed into stunning dance far surpassing the wanton gyrations of Bollywood Hrithik Roshan/Aishwarya Rai or Tamil film Urmila Matondkar/Prabhu Deva couplings, or music maestro A.R.Rahman at his best.
The performances equalling those of Nijinsky and Nureyev dancing L'après-midi d'un faune (from Stéphane Mallarmé's poem) revealed éros and agápe, Greek expressions of love. Éros as passion, seeing and appreciating the beauty in another and aspiring to know a spiritual truth, perhaps a truth through that cosmic dancer Shiva, as the Nataraja, lord of dance revealing the cyclical nature of the universe. Agápe, Plato thought of as the highest form of love, the love of man for god, or God, also the love for a wife and children. In 1970, the Beatles had finally sung “In the end the love you take, is equal to the love you make”. A lot of love was make, figuratively, metaphorically that night, owing to the efforts of a wide range of people who brought Amorous Delight; Amarushataka to life.
After show the audience birds twittered, they chit chatted, taking group photos and selfies. Indian memories were still fragrant, chords still vibrant and the air of love still charged sweet and sour, even in the colder light of the foyer, where normally the suspension of disbelieve begins to unravel.
Be-costumed dancers mingled, smiled, posed for photo after photo in the still electric theatre foyer, the scent of Jasmine still sweet from the dance.
The Sutra Dance Company’s excellent performance of Amorous delight was a triumph of near erotica. Together, the skillful ensemble held the prancing reigns of sadness, exhilaration, romance in its grasp, leading the audience this way and that, but always steady. It was a full gamut of emotion, visual and audible, melding choreography, poetry, Odissi Sangita (music), lighting and poignant graphics. A sublime hour rushed past and in true theatrical tradition we were left, like Dickens’ Oliver Twist, wanting more.