“Aesthetics is a very personal matter. It’s something intangible and beyond simple analysis. At Sutra, one can experience this fact. Aesthetics is the defining feature of the dance company’s productions,” says Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, the Malaysia-born Odissi exponent, who will turn 70 on May 20.
Besides the singular distinction of introducing classical Indian dance to a large population in Malaysia, Ramli Ibrahim became a well known in the Indian and international dance arena with his stylised and distinctive approach to choreography. Along with his solo performances, his group works with dancers trained at Sutra began to draw attention.
These ensemble productions stood out for their blend of traditional and contemporary sensibilities, technical finesse, well-composed music, colourful costume, and synchronised movements. It was all about presentation, which helped establish brand Sutra as an institution that promoted dance in a holistic manner. According to Ramli, “the essence of group work is the exploration of space and the body.” He began to experience the beauty and joy in movement as a little boy. It led him to make dance his calling. He began with Malay dance but it was his move to Australia after a stint at the Royal Military College in Malaysia that proved to be a turning point in his life. After training in ballet, he began to perform with the Sydney Dance Company, and as the only male dancer in western Australia made great strides professionally.
“It was not just my exposure to different art forms, it was also my reading, and engaging with creative people that had a huge impact on my thinking and approach to art. Chandrabhanu, an Indian dancer based in Australia put Ramli on guru Adyar K Lakshman, who trained him in Bharatanatyam, which took him around the world. After meeting the pioneering artiste Indrani Rehman, and guru Deva Prasad Das and listening to the music of Raghunath Panigrahi, Ramli was drawn to Odissi. His tutelage under guru Deva Prasad Das saw him excel in this art form too, and he continued performing both Bharatanatyam and Odissi. “Eventually, my transition from Bharatanatyam to Odissi was smooth and organic.”
Fluidity of movements and impeccable technique have stood him in good stead over the years. Despite his growing popularity across the globe, he decided to return to his roots in Malaysia. “Deep down I realised I am the son of the soil. I was keen to take these arts to the next generation and launched the Sutra Dance Foundation,” says Ramli.
The initial years were tough — creating awareness about Indian dance forms and persuading parents to send their children to learn them art. But Ramli pursued relentlessly, and today the beautifully-designed Sutra is a place where students can discover themselves.
In his own way, Ramli has been pushing the boundaries of his creativity by collaborating with different artistes. His latest work ‘Jaya Ram’ was with guru Gajendra Panda.
“It is not just the coming together of two creative minds. These works evolve through a lot of give and take. We find favourable meeting points in our art that shape the production’s aesthetics.”
A recipient of awards such as Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi and Datukship from government of Malaysia, you understand what art means to Ramli Ibrahim, when you enter Sutra. A lush garden with terracotta figurines, artefacts at every nook and corner, a Gazebo and an open air theatre, it sends out the message that art is a life-altering experience that shouldn’t stop with training and performing. You need to build an environment that fosters it.