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"I like reading your newsletters Aneeta. Thank you for sharing such wonderful stories and information with your readers," says Khurshid Khoree about the Great Storytelling Network Newsletter on
How To Tell A Great StoryGreat StoryTelling Network Newsletter Volume 16, Issue 2 - 25 February 2020
Dear [FIRSTNAME], Please forgive the fact that this newsletter is coming to you late...once again. Just when I thought things were getting on track, my mother fell ill again. So, I rushed to her and, mercifully, she's now home and healing. Anyway, in this edition, I share a special piece which is a guest blog post by Ramli Ibrahim. 2 1/2 years ago, I wrote a feature article about him ('Tapestry of Dance') which was published in the national newspapers. On a personal note, not only did Ramli agree to launch The Age of Smiling Secrets in October 2018, he also provided a review, which I had no hesitation printing on the cover of the novel. Here's what he had to say: A riveting tale of tragic destinies that dares to expose the flaws in our concurrent Civil-Syariah Laws. Lives unravel in a worst-case scenario when loopholes in the law, exacerbated by corruption and unscrupulous characters, combine to destroy the very fabric of lives of simple and honest folks. Today, Ramli has allowed me to publish the piece below and share it with you. I hope you enjoy reading 'Dance Weavers'. Happy storytelling. Aneeta Sundararaj This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Dance Weavers by Ramli Ibrahim
In April 2011, Sutra Foundation staged Odissi Stirred at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre. The newspapers reported that, ‘true to the art, the choreographer is inspired by the Odissi tradition and reveals its rural and folk charm, incorporating elements of its originality while transcending into modernity as the moves are mesmerisingly surreal and captivating.’ The production included a 20-minute composition commissioned by Sutra called Pallavan which was choreographed by Madhavi Mudgal. She performed it alongside Evocations by Sharmila Biswas. Many were unaware that this was the beginning of a paradigm shift. It was the first time that Malaysians saw odissi choreographed by women. Indeed, the word ‘choreography’ was either not understood or taken for granted. For a long while, the gurus and dance-makers of odissi tended to be male. Generally, male dancers learn odissi in order to become gurus; not many can compete with the women as dancers. Performing the standard solo repertoire of odissi, the women dancers were always the ‘par excellence’ interpretive vehicles of lyrical odissi, but hardly ever ventured into the realm of dance making in odissi. Until now. Triple Frontiers, Sutra Foundation’s annual production for 2020 features the odissi works of three women dance-makers from India: Sujata Mishra, Parwati Dutta and Meera Das. PUSHING BOUNDARIES The importance of this development in the evolution of odissi can fully be appreciated when one understands these dance-makers’ journeys thus far. Over the last five decades or so, they have steadily pushed the boundaries and ventured into new frontiers. In the late 1970s, very few Malaysians were exposed to odissi works. Those who were lucky enough, might have seen the spellbinding odissi performance of Dasavatar by Chandrabhanu when he first danced the powerful depiction of the ten incarnations of Krishna. However, it was through Sutra that the larger population of Malaysia became familiar with this exquisite Indian classical dance form from East India, which was based on the methodology of one of the three pioneer giants of odissi, Guru Debaprasad Das. The other two were Gurus Pankaj Charan and Kelucharan Mahapatra. The creative spectre of these three pioneer giants of odissi loomed large, such that few repertoires from their disciples would emerge and survive within the shadow of their genius. Their disciples, in the capacity of novice gurus and dance-makers, either did not want to or were unable to challenge the supremacy of their masters. In Odisha, experiments were usually met with vehement resistance. By the time the three pioneer gurus were no more, odissi has already consolidated its methodology of teaching. With the popularity of odissi world-wide, the new dancers-gurus also began to travel internationally and make their presence felt. Still, they were all mainly male whose focus was often teaching. QUANTUM LEAP Then came the quantum leap when a fresh and innovative repertoire from the younger gurus came of age. For example, Durga Charan Ranbir, Gajendra Kumar Panda, Bichitrananda Swain and Ratikant Mahapatra are among many male gurus who have been taking the creative mettle of creating new works. Aruna Mohanty exercised her creative talents and established herself as a dance-maker and director of import when she took over the helm of Odissi Dance Academy. Simultaneously, a fresh ‘branding’ of odissi dance and music was being established here in Malaysia. Soon after Debaprasad Das passed on, Sutra’s relationship with this parampara progressed into another phase. We commissioned several benchmark new repertoires from Guru Gajendra Kumar Panda, arguably Debaprasad Das’s closest disciple and performed them in Odisha, thereby creating a sensation. The next stage came about when Sutra enlisted the creative input of Guru Durga Charan Ranbir, another senior disciple of Debaprasad Das. We commissioned a number of strong works that further extended Sutra’s foray into this rare parampara. In the process, Sutra’s distinctive and innovative group compositions have influenced internationally how odissi is viewed in a large theatre and outdoor performing spaces. These have set us apart from others as a brand which is both unique and cannot be replicated, as yet. Therein lies the ‘Sutra Factor’. Within 35 years of odissi being first performed under the banner of Sutra, it became a favourite Indian classical dance performed frequently on stage both with local and overseas dancers. It also became a favourite with audiences, placing it on par with the more established bharatanatyam ULTIMATE GIFT Enter into the picture in early 1990s, Sujata Mishra, Parwati Dutta and Meera Das. Today, they run their own successful dance institutions in India and have dedicated at least three to four decades of their lives to odissi. They represent the two major paramparas of the late Debaprasad Das and Kelucharan Mahapatra. At the start of their careers as exceptionally gifted dancers, they were singled out by their gurus in the guru-sishya parampara tradition. They absorbed the style of their mentors, grew into the mould of their pioneering gurus and subsequently become teachers of odissi in their own right, imparting their hard-earned knowledge to their young students. Soon, they found that they were embarking on the less-charted territory of choreography and eventually contributing their own colours and hues to the creative fabric of the odissi parampara that had cultivated them. Sutra contributes its inimitable mark in Triple Frontiers to the works by these three women choreographers. Sujata, Parwati and Meera personally taught the senior Sutra dancers under my mentorship. Having learnt the repertoire as a solo form, the works now face another round of transformation as they are interpreted as group compositions (with permission of the three dance-makers). In order that all of Sutra’s talented dancers are featured in this new repertoire, more than 16 of its 24 dancers on stage will comprise of the young dancers from Sutra’s Outreach Programme. The result is an India-Malaysia collaboration of the highest order which simultaneously celebrates the talents of the Sutra dancers and the works of these outstanding dance-makers of odissi. Triple Frontiers is ultimately a gift by Sujata, Parwati and Meera. Ramli Ibrahim (25 February 2020) *** What: ‘Triple Frontiers’ (A celebration of 3 women dance-makers) Where: Auditorium PJ Civic Centre, No. 1, Jalan Yong Shook Lin, Petaling Jaya, Selangor 46675 When: 27 to 29 March, 2020. For more information, please visit:
Note: The Great Storytelling Network/How To Tell A Great Story will not be held liable for any direct or indirect losses or damages originating from the use of any information listed on our website or in our newsletter. By using this site and newsletter you agree to indemnify and hold all owners and representative parties of the Great Storytelling Network/How To Tell A Great Story harmless from any claim or demand originating out of your use of this website. Use of our website and newsletters is an indication of your complete understanding and acceptance of these Terms of Service. Thank you.
How To Tell A Great StoryGreat StoryTelling Network Newsletter Volume 16, Issue 1 - 22 January 2020
Dear [FIRSTNAME], Please forgive the fact that this newsletter is coming to you late. You see, towards the end of October last year, I said to myself, "Ah! December is coming and I'll have about six weeks free. I can have some time to rest and catch up." I think that the good Lord must have heard this and thought, "Hmmm... Aneeta thinks she can rest. Let's see if I can make this interesting." From the story in the last newsletter, you would have read that I had to manage health issues of dear ones, the shocking death of a friend too young to die, assignments to submit, deadlines for work to meet, the flu and severe allergies. Now, add to this another round of hospitalisation in the first two weeks of January because of pneumonia, coming to terms with the betrayal of a friendship, managing the entire household and my mother's clinic on my own and being involved in the arrangements for the launch of a book. There has been no rest and my plans to catch up with work had to be put on hold. Still, I managed to do a few things. 1. Last year, many people wanted to buy a copy of my novel The Age of Smiling Secrets directly from me. I always told them to purchase it online via the bookshop that keeps stock. Now, I've updated the site so that you can buy the book directly from me. Please click here for details. 2. I worked on two stories - the first is listed below ('The Wedding Estate') and is about something that fascinated me. I cannot include images in this newsletter. So, if you'd like to view them, please click here for the online version of the story.  The second is an interview with Mbeke Waseme called 'Magical Story Energy'. Please click here if you'd like to read it. I promise, I will try to send out the newsletter on time next month. Meanwhile, if you would like to share your news or stories, do let me know. I love hearing from you. Happy storytelling. Aneeta Sundararaj This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The Wedding Estate by Aneeta Sundararaj
One of the things that caught my attention early last month was a story about the wedding photos of the Hollywood couple Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds being removed from websites. Why had those photos caused such offence? The answer was because the wedding had taken place at a US plantation which was ‘a site that holds deep traumatic historical meaning for the African American community’. (1) I set about investigating this story a little more and found an online article about it in The Guardian where it was stated as follows: ‘In a letter, Color of Change wrote that “plantations are physical reminders of one of the most horrific human rights abuses the world has ever seen. The wedding industry routinely denies the violent conditions Black people faced under chattel slavery by promoting plantations as romantic places to marry…’ (2) How fascinating! Why? Because my immediate thought was that this can’t happen here in Malaysia. Off the top of my head, there are times we've gone on trips to an eco-resort built on an estate. Two years ago, I attended a traditional Indian dance recital in a state-of-the-art multi-purpose hall located on a hill in another estate. My cousin’s wedding was inside an estate temple because the bride used to worship there. If we cannot have our celebrations and holidays in places that were formerly estates, then where would we go? Hmmm... Today, oil palm is cultivated in many of the estates in Malaysia. At one time, the main product exported from these estates was rubber. I allude to this ‘conversion’ from a full rubber estate to sectioning it into different parts to create an oil palm plantation and establish a resort in my novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets. LIFE IN THE ESTATES What fascinated me about how offensive it was to have a wedding at a former plantation was that, as a descendant of someone born and brought up in the estates, I don’t recall suffering from any sort of trauma when recounting the history of Foothills Estate. In fact, I was deeply amused by observing my often-subdued elderly uncle become excited after reading my novel because he recalled playing near the stream I wrote about. Although I grew up in the sleepy town (now city) of Alor Setar, I know many people who knew well what life was like in the estates. My father was one such person. He told me fascinating stories of his life in Foothills Estates, Kulim. When it came time to craft my story, I chose to set it in the Foothills Estate that he spoke of. Of all the characters in the novel, the one that is closest to the kind of people my father described was Nagakanna. Made a ghost in the novel, Nagakanna features heavily in the edited version of Chapter 9 of the novel which was submitted for an anthology about indenture that was published in 2018 (please see below). Still, I am aware that historical accounts state that life in the estates wasn’t rosy. In a story that was published in the papers in Singapore, which one of my cousins very kindly saved for me, there is an edited excerpt from the book called ‘Journeys: Tamils in Singapore, 1800 – Present’ by Nirmala Murugaian. (3) She wrote:
The system of indentured labour in Malaya was different from that in the other British colonies… [I]n Malaya, the employers carried out direct recruitment through private agencies in India. The Malayan government’s role was to ensure that the employers adhered to the terms of the contracts. But even this was not always done. The method of recruitment and arrival for Tamils was also different from that of the workers from China…. …According to documents in the Government of Madras Proceedings in the Public Department 1870, the traffic [from India] was so profitable that recruiters kidnapped boys and women as well. … Unlike the Chinese labourers, who could move around freely on the island, Indian workers were isolated from the rest of the local population, housed in barracks and severely punished for acts of disobedience or for not doing sufficient work. Toddy shops and cinemas were opened for them, and many became addicted to toddy, known as the poor man’s whisky, and sought escape through Tamil films with themes of romance, betrayal and violence.
This seems to echo every harrowing account of what happened to those who were taken as slaves from Africa to America. HAPPY AND CONTENT LIVES Scrolling through the rest of the article in The Guardian I came across this: ‘There’s also persistent trope that black people were happy slaves. But most African Americans don’t find much joy in seeing plantations glorified and their human histories deemed a niggling inconvenience.’ Suffering from the kind of insecurity that only another writer will understand, I wondered if I’d glorified life in the estates? Had I dismissed this version of the human history of Foothills Estate? Had I glossed over all this suffering in telling the tale? After a long and protracted time of reflection, I came to two conclusions. The first was a reminder of something that came to mind during a discussion about indenture that took place in Kuala Lumpur last year. I was part of the panel and the event centred around the publication of an anthology called We Mark Your Memory: Stories from the Descendants of Indenture. (4) One panellist had a simple point to make: if we were going to help the poor, their colour, creed or faith shouldn’t matter. Another panellist, however, vehemently disagreed and insisted that we should concentrate on helping the Indians of Malaysia. Past governments had done very little for them. Marginalised, they had neither food, education nor a means of living. They were poor and miserable. Hopeless at public speaking, I said nothing. Had I the courage, I would have pointed out that if I were to guess, neither of them had what I’d call ‘personal history’ behind them. Their surnames gave me reason to believe that they were probably descendants of Indians born and brought up in the city. Their forefathers hadn't come to work in the estates, but the Malayan Civil Service. I, on the other hand, had forefathers who had spent their entire lives in estates. I should have said this: “My father once told me that the estate people didn’t know they were poor, marginalised and badly treated until those from the city came and told them this.” If only I’d had the courage … Second, I have never heard any descendant of indenture describe their forefathers as ‘happy slaves’ - in this case, ‘happy indentured labourers’. On the contrary, those who took the opportunities offered to them when Malaya gained its independence, prospered. They adapted to their new home and made happy and secure lives for their progeny. As for wedding photos, those sepia-toned and black and white ones of my relatives, together with modern coloured ones from the progeny of said relatives, taken at the same venue almost 80 years apart, share this – everyone looks rather content. Perhaps, it is wiser to continue to quietly contemplate this matter about abuses in a past era. For a start, I will choose to stick with the first-hand truth told to me by my father about his life when he was growing up. I will remember, always, how he half-scolded me when I told him that part of the story in my novel was set in the place where he once lived – “Don’t write bad things about Foothills Estate,” he said. “It was a very nice place to grow up.” References 1. Preston, S. Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’ Problematic Wedding Photos Are Basically Banned Online — Here's Why. December 8, 2019. [Accessed January 2020] 2. Jabali, M. Plantation weddings are wrong. Why is it so hard for white Americans to admit that? The Guardian. [Accessed January 2020] 3.   How Malaya became a 'death trap' for early labourers from India. The Straits Times. [Accessed January 2020] 4. The legacy of indenture in contemporary times.  [Accessed January 2020]
Note: The Great Storytelling Network/How To Tell A Great Story will not be held liable for any direct or indirect losses or damages originating from the use of any information listed on our website or in our newsletter. By using this site and newsletter you agree to indemnify and hold all owners and representative parties of the Great Storytelling Network/How To Tell A Great Story harmless from any claim or demand originating out of your use of this website. Use of our website and newsletters is an indication of your complete understanding and acceptance of these Terms of Service. Thank you.

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