Dancing to a different time: Tan Mei Mei

Published Date:

August 24, 2020

While doing her matriculation in Murdoch University, Western Australia for a degree in Mass Communication, Mei Mei, who was previously trained in ballet and piano, discovered a passion that has since led her to embrace a very different culture than her own when she was introduced by a fellow Malaysian student-turned-mentor to Odissi, an eminent Indian classical dance form that originated in ancient Odisha and rose to world renown in modern times as the signature style of Malaysia’s prestigious Sutra Dance Theatre, led by founder, esteemed cultural icon and champion of performing arts Datuk Ramli Ibrahim.

Upon graduation, driven by passion, with encouragement from her then mentor and Sutra senior dancer Sooraj Subramaniam, Mei Mei returned to Malaysia and began to formally pursue her love of Odissi with Sutra, setting out on a very different professional journey than those of her university contemporaries. Mei Mei established her position in the industry following an impressive debut in 2005 and has since flourished into a consummate artiste and a prima dancer at Sutra, noted for her mastery of technique. In addition to starring in all major Sutra productions, Mei Mei has advanced to the international circuit and performed with the company on tours in the US, Europe and India. Today, she joins her principal and guru Datuk Ramli and his select group of staff teachers at Sutra Academy in nurturing the next generation of talent.

Talking about her appreciation for the age-old art of Odissi, Mei Mei has illustrated to us a life enriched with diverse values and heritage, the power that art holds to bridge differences, the virtue of respect and the spirit of multiculturalism in true Malaysian spirit and style.

When did you realise that you have a passion for Indian classical dance?
I’ve loved Indian classical dance since I was little. I didn’t know what the different styles were called, whether Bharatanatyam or Odissi, but I loved their facial expressions, stamping and costumes just by watching movies. Growing up, I would always try to catch an Arangetram performance, the graduation performance by a student, whenever I could. It’s usually open to the public. When I first saw Sooraj at Murdoch, I immediately approached him and begged him to teach me the basics, and that’s how it started.

Seeing that Indian classical dance comes with such a long and rich history, did you have to do a lot of research to brush up on your knowledge?

So much of Indian classical dance is based on Indian mythology, so we are encouraged to read more about it. Master Ramli, himself, will also share with us his thoughts and give us guidance. It’s very useful for our better understanding of the role and story, especially because it’s so hard for us to imagine these gods and goddesses and portray them using just gestures, facial expressions and body language. Master Ramli has always asked us to add layers to our expressions because we play many roles; we can be an animal, baby Krishna, Rama in Ramayana, or the demon king Ravana. And you can’t just play them based on modern experience; you need to do your research and portray your character in context.

What do you like most about Indian classical dance?
I enjoy the whole process of getting into character, from learning the intricate dance steps to the Abhinaya, the art of expression, which I find particularly interesting and challenging because it needs to come from the heart. There’s also the whole process of getting fully dressed in costume and makeup, which puts you in a very Zen state of mind where you’re completely focused and present in the moment. At Sutra, we don’t wear pre-stitched dhoti pants. Instead, we use a full-length saree and tie it into dhoti pants.

Is there a growing community of non-Indian dancers?

You’d be surprised to know that there are actually many students of different racial backgrounds here. There are so many foreigners learning and performing Indian classical dance in India, including some famous ones from Japan and
Italy, to the extent of adopting their culture and practices. I think dance is universal and transcends racial and cultural barriers.
Did you get the support of your family when you started?

In Bharatanatyam, there’s a graduation ceremony called Salangai Pooja during which gurus wear these bells around the ankles of their students and give them their blessings before the students proceed to perform their debut. I went through that when I graduated in Bharatanatyam at another school where my parents watched me perform for the very first time. In their mind, Indian classical dance was like dancing around trees in the movies, so they were shocked to see me dance in my full costume and makeup. I was very lucky to have my parents’ support right there and then, when they realised that I wasn’t just doing this as a hobby.
Have you ever experienced any conflict between your art and your Chinese background, and how do you think Indian classical dance has enriched your life?

As a Buddhist and a Chinese, I don’t feel any conflict at all. I believe that, first and foremost, you need to have a good sense of respect for culture. When you have that, you’ll be able to see the beauty and values in any culture. In the Indian culture, for instance, when you touch a guru’s feet, it is equivalent to touching Mother Earth, or a mother figure. So I don’t find it a problem at all for me to touch my guru’s feet, because that’s simply a gesture of respect, a basic virtue rather than something religious. When I used to wear my saree to practise, mum would always asked, “Why can’t you wear your normal t-shirt and pants?” I would reply saying if you want to participate in someone’s culture, you need to fully embrace it.

Images and Article from Augustman : https://www.augustman.com/my/culture/breaking-barriers-individuals-showcasing-true-malaysian-spirit/

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