Days of dancing

Straddling classical dance forms sure invites criticism. A lot, in the case of dancer Ramli Ibrahim. But giving up has never been his answer.

This year among the Padma Shri awardees was an internationally renowned Malaysian dancer, Ramli Ibrahim. For his contribution to Indian classical dance forms odissi and bharatanatyam, which he has been teaching and performing in Kuala Lumpur, he was given the award.

Ramli Ibrahim set up the Sutra Foundation in Kuala Lumpur 35 years ago, where he has been imparting training in bharatanatyam, odissi and modern dance. It is a performing arts centre, a storm of activity with a stage and seating for an audience of 200, a training school, a rehearsal space, an information centre, and also an art gallery.

Ramli is the heart of Sutra. He is a household name in India among odissi dancers. His regular visits to Bhubaneshwar and appearances in Konark and other dance festivals have won him love from the Odiya community. Besides, his performances across India have established him as a leading odissi exponent. His Sutra dance repertory’s performances are eagerly awaited by the lay and the cognoscenti alike. He is happy that he has received this recognition. In his own country, the government has awarded the similar honour of Datuk.

“But life has not always been a bed of roses. Having earned a degree in engineering in Australia, I was drawn to dance and studied classical ballet. I joined Sydney’s Ballet Company as a dancer, where Graeme Murphy, the choreographer, specially choreographed the role of Nijinsky for me in a ballet called Poppy, based on the life and times of a Frenchman, Jean Cocteau. It was exhilarating. But when I saw bharatanatyam, I was swept off my feet. I studied in Chennai under Adyar Lakshman. Then destiny led me to Odisha, where I studied odissi under Guru Deba Prasad Das. Since then, I have never looked back,” he recalls.


Ramli Ibrahim receives Padma Shri

Here come the problems

Being a Muslim must have posed problems while studying Indian classical dance forms? Ramli says: “Yes, I did face difficulties. The wave of fundamentalism in the early 90s changed the free-thinking so pervasive in the society in those days, and I was branded an apostate. My affinity to wards Indian classical dances goes back to the 60s, when the Malay peninsula was a more liberal place famed for its rich music, art and dance traditions. I am the product of that age.”

In 1983, when he made his debut in Malaysia, Ramli performed to a packed audience that included some ministers of the present-day government. Both bharatanatyam and odissi were applauded. But soon, fundamentalist elements hit back. There were also times when his dance performances were stopped.

Once, Ramli had to face an inquisition by Jakim, the government Islamic body formed as per the shariah, on his salutations to Hindu gods (Ganesh and Shiva) in his dances.

During his childhood, Ramli’s father Enrik Ibrahim bin Hj Mohd Amin (who was trained as a teacher) was a leading literary figure in Malaysia. He encouraged Ramli to read. Ramli was thus familiar with all the Malay hikayat (stories). At the age of nine, Ramli was a regular guest on 20-minute radio shows where he recited poems and sang.

He recalls when he started teaching Indian classical dance at home, his mother Hajjah Kamariah Md Zin, a housewife, was teaching Quran in the next room. When she aged, Ramli asked her to retire and offered the money that she might need. She told him sarcastically she would stop teaching when he would stop teaching Indian classical dance. But neither his father nor his mother ever objected to his teaching Indian classical dance.

He had his critics both in Malaysia and India. In Malaysia, they criticised him for basterdising Indian classical dance with his modern dance training. He remained unperturbed by such observations.

His imaginative use of space, time, movement, exquisite lighting by his colleague-painter and light designer Sivarajah Natarajan, and odissi dance techniques of high level were much appreciated. When his female dancers performing in Odisha did not cover their blouses with scarves, traditional Odiyas were upset, forgetting that the sculptures in Konark and elsewhere have not shown such inhibitions.

Such criticism died down and his outstanding creative choreographic works won critical acclaim.

In particular, his collaboration with Odisha’s leading painter, writer, and cultural commentator, late Dinanath Pathy was a boon in works like Ganjam and Amorous Delight, based on Amaru Shataka.

Collaborations

Ramli’s international tours with his talented dancers have been successful. Be it New York, or Paris, Pondicherry or Patna, he receives unreserved appreciation.

At 65, he does not look his age. He follows a disciplined regimen for morning exercises and yoga.

After my visit to Singapore last November, I spent a week at his Kamaria residence. I went with him to Sutra Foundation every morning to watch the classes he took. The company had to be present on time. They followed his ballet instructions, movements that made their bodies flexible. Then they repeated dance numbers in odissi and in contemporary dance. There was no respite.

After a long run

He now gives lectures at institutions and universities, and commands respect as a national figure in Malaysia.

“He has avoided joining the establishment instinctively knowing that he will be trapped in the strictures of roles unwanted, diverting and limiting. His vision has been that of a nationalist, who nevertheless gets succour from his profound nationalism,” says his admirer and internationally renowned musicologist and art historian James Murdoch.

Ramli laments that there is not enough art appreciation in the country. He believes appreciation for culture should begin in schools and be supported by the government.

In a lighter vein, I ask him what the greatest misconception people have of him in his own country. He says it’s that he leads a glamorous life. As an intellectual, he is keen that the young generation in Malaysia would understand the value of dance as an expression of culture. 

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