Datuk Ramli Ibrahim found his raison d’être in a song. That was 35 years ago. He remembers how the softness and lyricism of the music tugged at his heartstrings. After listening to the entire piece, the first question he asked himself was, “What would it be like to dance to this?”

Datuk Ibrahim was listening to the late veteran Indian classical singer Raghunath Panigrahi at one of his concerts in Australia. Panigrahi’s mellifluous voice had such a profound impact on Datuk Ibrahim that he left for India soon after to become a disciple of the famed Odissi guru, the late Deba Prasad Das.

Datuk Ramli Ibrahim

Datuk Ibrahim would go on to become known as the man who implanted the classical dance form in Malaysia. Today, his unparalleled vision for dance has elevated him to a position, where only a chosen few have ever made the cut.
Acknowledged as “living heritage” in Malaysia, the accomplished 60 year old artiste and choreographer will be bringing his dance craft to nearer shores, when he present his home production Krishna, Love Re-Invented to a select audience at the Al Sawadi Beach Resort and Spa, Barka on March 6.
During a brief visit to the sultanate before the event, Datuk Ibrahim spoke of his three decade-long journey that has seen the legendary artiste not only raise Odissi on the global platform, but also experiment with traditional Malay dances and modern ballet.
“Art has no boundaries,” Datuk Ibrahim said. “We created the barriers. As individuals, we function on many identities, so we cannot limit ourselves. The question one needs to ask is how deeply can you go there,” the artiste said, adding that as a Malay, his dedication towards an Indian art form still remains a subject of curiosity among many. “But why can’t I?” he asked.
“If something is authentically good, you find that people’s hearts will open to it. Fortunately, I was articulate enough to carry it off. Over the years, I have prevailed and my credibility as someone who is passionate about what he’s doing, has come through,” he said.
The road to realising his dream has, however, not been easy. The dancer confesses that while he was always interested in the arts, he wasn’t able to engage with it whole-heartedly as a child. “The problem with a lot of Asian countries is that they concentrate more on technological development. It does not matter if you are artistically inclined, but if you are good at studies, you are forced to pursue science. I was a victim of that,” he said, adding that earning a scholarship in mechanical engineering to an Australian university had almost forced him to put his plans to learn dance on the back burner.
Fortunately, the scholarship turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “It was in Australia that I found my true calling,” he admitted, adding, “Sometimes as an Asian, it takes you to come out of Asia to see what a wonderful tradition exists around you.”
It wasn’t too long before Datuk Ibrahim found himself dabbling between learning the Bharatanatyam dance form under a Kalashetra guru and performing for a avant-garde dance company in Australia.
“But Panigrahi’s music changed everything. I completed my degree, and decided to turn all my energy towards learning Odissi. I instantly knew that the dance form suited my temperament better. I couldn’t resist to follow my bliss.”
Citing his own example, he explains why it’s important to follow your calling. “The inner calling comes from recognition of your talent. You’ll realise that if you follow what you desire, you will find your reason for living.”
The veteran dancer qualifies the arts as having that ability to enrich mankind and help them “feel the depth of their being”.
“I believe that arts and culture provide the content for the psyche of the nation. It is an important instrument in nation building. But what is important is the content that is being labelled as ‘arts’. I cringe when the leftover third-hand content from the West, which is not even the best, is absorbed by our children.”
This brings the artiste to discuss the lack of sincerity among today’s youth in pursuing the arts. As the founder of Sutra Foundation – a leading institution that is sowing the seeds for a better future for the arts – the celebrated artiste understands the dynamics well.
“In my generation there was less distraction. It is not the same now. Today’s youth is never focussed on the present. It is a very fast generation and the knowledge is not as deep. It definitely irritates and worries me because I want to give them my knowledge, but they either don’t want it or aren’t ready for it,” he said. The deep, remorseful sigh that follows makes his disappointment more than just evident.
But while he is a conformist, he still believes that if you need to engage the youth in traditional dance forms, you have to constantly evolve, experiment and contemporarise.
“No culture is static. But you need to know the rules before you break them,” he argued.
And trust Datuk Ibrahim to have managed this time and again, with his innovative and successful productions across the globe. He follows a simple rule – learn to free yourself. “Creativity is not about discipline. The ideas will not come, if you are totally disciplined,” he said.
Like a true dancer, he elucidates this better when he lets his hands do the talking. “Take everything you have learnt out…,” he says, throwing his hands on either side before joining his palms together again, adding, “…then bring it all back together. That’s when the best ideas will come to you.”

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