PETALING JAYA, March 12 ― The traditional Indian dance of odissi was once dominated by revered male gurus who helped shape the discourse of the artform.
But that narrative is changing today.
The shift in gender balance is best encapsulated in Sutra Foundation’s upcoming annual fundraising production Triple Frontiers which spotlights three Indian female dancemakers ― Sujata Mishra, Parwati Dutta and Meera Das.
It is the first time the foundation is staging works by female gurus.
The trio of female gurus who trained under three odissi pioneers ― Pankaj Charan, Kelucharan Mahapatra and Debaprasad Das ― started out as exceptional dancers three or four decades ago before establishing successful dance schools reflecting the styles of the masters they trained under.
Though experimenting with tradition was often met with derision, the women started wading into choreography after their gurus’ demise, carrying on the tradition of their respective parampara (house) while injecting their own mark.
For Sutra Foundation artistic director Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, female dancers taking up the helm of choreography is a natural transition and one that makes perfect sense.
“Eventually they become choreographers because the dancers themselves are female.
“Nothing is static ― what happens with dance, when more females are involved [is that] they transfer their knowledge and they create works,” he said during the launch of Triple Frontiers in Kuala Lumpur recently.
In that respect, female gurus and dancers carrying the torch of odissi is a welcomed change given classical western dance forms such as ballet have often been criticised for lacking female choreographers.
“I think the creativity has touched women not just from the dancing point of view but in making dance because they have set up the institutions all over, not just in India but in Malaysia too.
“In Malaysia, a lot of the women are in charge now,” said Ramli whose former student Geetha Shankaran-Lam who runs her own dance school.
He added that strong female dancers who become gurus usually compose and choreograph pieces but their knowledge transfer extends beyond the dancefloor.
“They’ve become much more analytical and vocal ― Indian dancers become good scholars and are very articulate and passionate about traditional dance,” the dance doyen said.
So are there any glaring differences between the works created by female gurus and male gurus?
“I don’t know, in all of us, I feel there is a balance between the anima and the animus.
“Some male gurus have a lot of female in them and some female gurus have got a lot of male in them,” he said.
The dance master said he often thinks about how female dancers would create if they had children.
“As a person I’m always asking that even for my dancers, what happens if they have the softness of becoming a mother.
“That equation is not as simple as that, I think the eventual thing is to find a balance between the male and female within and when that is somehow balanced that’s when the creativity and the sense of self become more holistic,” said Ramli.
Set to enchant classical Indian dance followers, Triple Frontiers is presented in a triple-bill format where each segment highlights one dancemaker.
There are seven pieces in total which Ramli describes as “very difficult” in terms of technical difficulty.
The performance will feature young dancers from the foundation’s outreach programme that has gone into outer cities such as Kajang, Rawang, Sungai Choh and Kuala Selangor to nurture young talents.
The foundation also launched its Friends of Sutra initiative where members can enjoy a wide range of programmes and benefits.
Triple Frontiers kicks off from March 27 with a Gala Fundraising Premier that will begin at 8pm at the PJ Civic Centre Auditorium.
Invitation is by donation of RM50, RM80 or RM150.
This is followed by two nights of performances on March 28 and March 29 (8.30pm), invitation by donation of RM40 or RM60.
Call 03-4021 1092 to book or for enquiries.