A curved figure, slender yet strong, draped in a colourful saree and an elaborate bun decorated with Seenthi crowns her head. This breathtaking figure is an Odissi dancer. She moves with grace and precision, her fingers elegantly curved in various mudras while her eyes belies emotions that her body narrates through the Indian classical dance that emerged from the ancient Hindu temples of Odisha in India. She dances across the stage, her feet stamping to the beats of the mardala (a two-headed barrel drum) intertwined with the lilting notes of the flute and elegant strum of the sitar. As an enraptured audience admire her every move, it is evident that this is no mere dance as her fluid form channels the spirit of centuries of Odissi dancers before her – and it is a tale worth telling.
To immerse oneself fully into the roots of this exquisite dance, a sojourn to the birthplace of Odissi is called for. This is how I found myself in Odisha, an unassuming coastal state on the eastern seaboard of India. And my guru to this historic land is none other than Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, the doyen of dance, the maestro Odissi, who returns to Odisha with Sutra Dance Theatre to perform the tale of Ganjam at the Konark Dance Festival, one of the biggest dance festivals in India. It’s also no secret that Datuk Ramli is a stalwart of Odissi. Since his introduction to the dance in the 1970s, he has been one of the strongest advocates for Odissi and this decades-long dedication has earned him numerous accolades, including a Lifetime Achievement Award recently bestowed upon him by the Karthik Fine Arts in Chennai, India.