GEORGE TOWN, May 17 — Dancer and choreographer Datuk Ramli Ibrahim needs no introduction. After all, he has been cultivating the art of Indian classical dance in Malaysia for the past three decades.

Trained in classical ballet and modern dance, the 61-year-old is well known for his captivating performances in Indian classical dance, particularly in Odissi.
He founded Sutra Dance Theatre back in 1983 and launched Sutra Foundation in 2007 to cultivate more interest in traditional dance and the performing arts.
He was recently in Penang to attend Naga Women — a presentation by Masakini Theatre – which features solo performances by his friends, Sabera Shaik, Rajika Puri and Anita Ratnam.
Here, he talks about his hopes for the performing arts industry and Malaysia.
In his own words:

  • Since I came back to Malaysia in 1983, it has been an incredible journey covering many areas… not just dance but theatre, traditional works, contemporary works. I have a strong commitment to all arts, and not just commitment but interest… a kind of being possessed by one’s calling. My calling is as a dancer, a choreographer, a teacher of the dance and I have presented, conceived of many, many works ranging from traditional indian classical dance to contemporary modern dance.
  • My work and personal life is very interrelated… because of my devotion and obsession with my work and art form. I actually do a lot of my work at the dining table. I go and have a holiday, at the same time I work. And so it’s difficult to separate Ramli the personality from Ramli the artiste.
  • We have done so much, when I look at the areas we have performed… we have performed in 131 cities all over the world. It’s just an incredible array of activities that Sutra Foundation is involved in and I am, of course, as chairman, I am the one that keeps the ball rolling and spearheading these things. Also, I’m in great admiration of what the George Town Festival has done in pushing George Town’s image as a cultural brand, cultural city. Work that Joe Sidek has done… I was in the first one.
  • I think Kuala Lumpur needs to have a festival. A strong cultural arts festival. We have pitched and gotten the KL International Festival in September this year — for the whole month of September. Sutra is one of the big curators of the dance and traditional component and we are responsible for over 14 productions plus some exhibition and lecture demonstrations and things like that. It’s the first. It has the title of “Diverse City” because KL, unlike the other South-east Asian cities, it has an incredible diverse population, just like George Town to a certain extent.
  • I’ve always been compassionate about animals. Sutra is littered with strays we saved, whether it’s dogs or cats. And plants. We’ve always loved animals, plants, cooking… it’s all part of the life is art, art is life kind of thing. And lately, because of my connections with the Orang Asli, the other thing that we are doing is getting more and more involved with some of my friends who are Orang Asli, especially the Temiar… So we are having a lovely interesting cuisine of the Temiar and inviting a number of chefs. I invited 60 people or so to a sit down dinner with the Orang Asli. Six Temiar women from the Orang Asli village of Perak will cook for us. There’s a bit of entertainment too.
  • We have a number of outreach programmes. We have an outreach programme in Kuala Selangor, in Ladang Sungai Chor, in Kajang. This started about three years ago and they are already producing dances and they perform regularly in their own places. The way we do it is go through the temple and also through the sekolah kebangsaan Tamil, this is where the young talents are. These are the centres where the community congregates. So, in Kuala Selangor, I teach at the Subramaniam Temple, a very popular powerful temple where during Thaipusam, more than 150,000 to 200,000 people would go to the temple before they go to Batu Caves. And also we teach at the sekolah jenis kebangsaan Tamil at Ladang Sungai Chor and in Kajang. I teach Odissi specifically.
  • Trying to get young people to be committed is more difficult now. Because it’s the age where everyone wants instant gratification. Everyone wants quick results and the nature of the classical arts, whether it is music or dance, is that you need to do it slowly… it’s like cooking over slow fire. It’s not something that just happens fast.
  • I think I need to say something. I feel we are in the crossroads of many things. I think politics is so important because politics governs everything else. Joe is able to go forward with the George Town Festival because he got the greenlight straight from the top, from Lim Guan Eng himself. That’s how it happens. And this is a test for the KL International Festival. There is a political will from two areas… there’s the state government, the DBKL and the federal government… it’s whether they want to release the flood of creativity in KL through the festival and let us do it. I think creativity is always with the people and not with the ministry… It’s important to realise that.
  • There’s such an incredible traffic of global travel, people know what’s happening everywhere at the drop of a switch, at the push of a button. They know what’s happening everywhere. Most people… urban people are very savvy like that. Of course, there are the “el sickos”… the sick ones… that’s why I don’t have a Facebook or any social media account because you spend too much time on social media where much misinformation is happening and you have to deal with sick people. It’s true. My Sutra Facebook is handled by my company. I’m just too busy working. I don’t function virtually. I’ve got my feet on the ground and I noticed a lot of people I respect don’t waste their time on this because you can actually be in emotional turmoil because of all this. It’s like junk food.
  • I am very concerned by the direction that Malaysia is heading, you know with the hudud and all, of course, I’m not… I’m for a much more universal law. I hate absolutism that happens in any form. And I feel that one has to be careful that Malaysia does not regress through this kind of medieval thinking and you know, I mean, one has to be very careful. Actually, people like myself who have seen it, find we are going towards a kind of conservatism that is not good for the country. I am very, very concerned.