Ramli Ibrahim, 62, has succeeded internationally performing and presenting his dances and choreographic works based on traditional themes for more than 30 years. A cultural icon of Malaysia, his trans-cultural range extending beyond Odissi is indicative of his prowess as a creative artist endowed with vast gifts. With his latest choreographic work “Ganjam” staged recently in New Delhi in Odissi, he reaffirms his Guru Deba Prasad Dais’s Tridhara – three approaches of tribal, folk and classical trends drawing inspiration from traditions prevalent in Ganjam, southern part of Odisha, showing how tradition acquires modernity and a contemporary avatar.
Excerpts from an interview:
You were born in a liberal Muslim family. Tell us about your background, early childhood and love for Bharatanatyam and Odissi. You were already acclaimed as a versatile classical ballet dancer.
My father Encik Ibrahim Bin Hj Mohmmad Amin was a teacher and was interested in sports. Mother Kamariah was secretary of UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) Kaum Ibu. I loved sports and movement but was sent to University of Western Australia in Perth to be a mechanical engineer. I was a trend setter and used to model and was a formidable singer as a child.
I had escaped Royal Military College to train as mechanical engineer and was sent to University of Western Australia in Perth. Before I took to Bharatanatyam, I had joined Australian Ballet School in Melbourne and took rigorous ballet training. It was in 1977 that the renowned musician James Murdoch had seen me in Poppy ballet, based on life and times of Frenchman Jean Coctau, where Graeme Murphy, the choreographer had created a role for me of Nijinsky.
During that period I had seen another Malaysian Muslim Zamin Haroon, who had adopted Hindu name Chandrabhanu, in Melbourne. He was studying Bharatanatyam from Adyar Lakshman from Kalakshetra, who was visiting Melbourne. I loved it and the die was cast. I began studying under him and later on from Adyar Lakshman in Chennai.
How were the years when you performed in Chennai?
From 1980 onwards, I performed in Chennai. My ballet career was also on. At that time from London Kamadev was sent to study Bharatanatyam by Ram Gopal, Radha Anjali from Vienna was also studying under Adyar Lakshman. Swapnasundari was also taking lessons in Bharatanatyam. I regularly performed in Chennai at major Sabhas, and at Kalakshetra. And also in Malaysia.
Did you meet opposition?
I did. Remember in a multi-cultural society like Malaysia, the diaspora carried their traditional dance and music. So in spite of a state following Islam, there was no objection to cultural expressions of Indian Diaspora. Of course I did have to face many objections and had to undergo hardships, but I did not give it up. My fame as a ballet dancer won me intellectuals and artists from various disciplines in Malaysia. Several friends supported me including Indians settled there. As a Muslim performing Hindu dance forms drew sharp religious criticism at several points in my life. But I stood my ground. I argued that the Malaysian constitution and policies did not object to Indian Diaspora’s dances. Malaysian audiences loved my performances and presentation.
When did you decide to master Odissi?
That too was after seeing Chandrabhanu who had studied Odissi from Guru Pitambar at Puri. I had also heard mellifluous singing of Raghunath Panigrahi. I was drawn to the music and Odissi. In London when performing Nijinsky’s role in Poppy ballet, I had invited Ram Gopal who had performed before Nijinsky. He liked my dancing and when he knew I was studying Odissi, he introduced me to Indrani and advised me to go and meet her in Delhi, which I did and started learning under Guru Deba Prasad Das, whose style was different than that of Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra. There was certain earthiness and vitality. The present work “Ganjam” that My Sutra Dance Company has brought to Delhi has his strong influence.
How was the response to Sutra Dance Company that you established in 1980?
The response was overwhelming. I had earned sufficient reputation. My training in ballet had given me various insights into body movements. Some of the principles of ballet technique for strength, balance, leaps, sophistication I had dovetailed to both Bharatanatyam and Odissi. My understanding of space and time, choreography, presentation invested my style with modernity without in any way diminishing the core values and principles of Indian classical dance forms.
It is now a landmark in Kuala Lumpur and is famous for open air amphitheatre and the entire ambience as a creative hub.
Yes. Few devoted friends including painter, light designer Shivarajah Natarajan, and several supporters helped me to set it up. I had, fortunately, great advantage at Sydney Opera House where I had access to excellent music, records, and I was exposed to paintings, photography, had met great writers, poets, dancers and choreographers. I wanted to make it all accessible to young generation. Therefore at Sutra House we have multi-faceted activities going on. Exhibitions of paintings and photographs at the Gallery, which doubles as a rehearsal room and indoor studio for performance, a place for interacting with visiting dancers, choreographers, musicians, painters, photographers. My approach is holistic. Dance with inputs from allied arts and interdisciplinary approach brings to Sutra’s presentations contemporary and modern outlook, which places us on par with international standards. We put all our energies into making it a most unusual centre in Kuala Lumpur.
Any Governmental support?
None whatsoever! Arts have not been encouraged. But we have support from few corporates and patrons. They have stood by us and in spite of initial meagre financial support; we are able to carry on with commendable goodwill to the point that I am awarded Datukship, which is similar to Padma Awards in India. That means a lot. I am grateful for such honour. Indian Government has also honoured me with Sangeet Natak Akademi award for my contribution to Odissi. I have every reason to be proud of that honour. That Indians have accepted me as their own brother, an artist and my work in Odissi.
How do you view the role of Sutra in multi-cultural society?
My work has trans-national approach – Malaysia-India- South East Asia connections. The presence of Sutra and other such institutions like it act as antidote to the current extremist and absolutist cultural views stemming from quarters which see our global society from the blinkered eye of mono-culture. Sutra Foundation does not just promote Indian culture but all forms of cultural expressions, which contribute towards the positive empowerment of the individual, community and nation.