Ramli Ibrahim

By Hema Iyer Ramani >> source <<

“Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours
Another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone”.

These words written by an anonymous poet speak about the journey that Ramli has undertaken.

Ramli Ibrahim observed the dance of Nature even before he watched the dance of men and women- the dance of the leaves on the trees, the mirth of the waves on the sea, the joy of the flowers in bloom, the dance of the dark clouds before the rains – all these brought him great joy and happiness even as a child. It was no small wonder then that as he grew older and had immersed himself into the world of dance, Ramli grew to understand art in it most holistic way –which encompassed music, dance, visual arts, lighting and set design, choreography. Today, this has become his signature style, which is not only reflected in his dance, but in every aspect of his activities related to his work- even his publicity material, brochures, come out as collectors’ copies !

Blessed with a body that would instinctively sway to any rhythm, Ramli’s interest blossomed and he started performing Malay dance, as he began learning easy and small numbers. Ramli recalls, “My mother would often refer to tandak when describing a rather ‘senseless’ response of rigorous frolic demonstrated by my pet cat, or myself, when we would jump, pirouette and dance for no apparent reason. A spontaneous burst of movement, this tandak  was as joyous and as natural as laughter.” This natural joy has been the leit motif of his art.

After a disciplinary stint at the military school – the Royal Military college, Ramli moved to Australia, and it was here that realization dawned that dance was his calling. Ramli’s romance with ballet blossomed and he soon became the toast of the Sydney Dance Company, and he was the only male dancer in all of Western Australia. It was during this period that his artistic vision received nourishment, exposed as he was to a wide spectrum of creative energies – through books, art, music, scholars, poets, composers and artists. This laid the foundation on which he slowly and surely built his beautiful edifice called dance.

Australia also brought him in contact with the Indian dancer called Chandrabhanu and it was Chandrabhanu who lit up the path that led him to the late Guru Adyar K Lakshman. Learning the art of Bharatanatyam from the master opened up new vistas of imagination which honed his artistic expression , and he soon made great strides in dance, so much so that Australia was equally generous to offer him permanent residency. But Ramli was a Malay at heart , and so he returned to Malaysia because it was here that he felt that he truly belonged.

The Malaysian odyssey was not a cakewalk on home ground and it was an uphill task creating and establishing an interest for Indian performing arts in an unfamiliar terrain . Single- handedly, working tirelessly for very many years, he has managed to not only give a status to the art form, he also initiated an entire generation of the novice audience to taste and experience the saga of the Indian dance – Odissi tempered occasionally with the dance of the South of India, Bharatanatyam .

He continued his training in Bharatanatyam under Adyar Lakshman , and pursued simultaneously his journey in Odissi. Odissi also bought him in contact with a great teacher, whom he would never cease to admire – Deba Prasad Das. Soon, Odissi took over and invaded every nerve and cell of his very being. Fascination moved aside to breathe passion, fire, commitment and drive and Odissi became the force de rigueur of his life.

“The Indian dancer views the body as a temple within which the pure spirit resides. Just as a temple is decorated to house the Lord within, so is the body of the dancer beautified and decorated so that it can be a worthy vessel for the pure spirit within. The dancer’s body becomes a moving temple on whose sacrificial altar flowers, dance and music are offered as the highest possible gift for the Lord.” Ramli understood and ingrained this truth into his very system, learning to respect his body and spread this truth among his fellow beings.

Slowly he started imparting the knowledge that he had received from the Masters. Initially, he had a difficult role to play trying to convince parents to encourage their children to take up dance as a full time pursuit. Steadily, the number increased , and the focus was never to learn with the idea of getting ready for the arangetram, but to learn the art form in a holistic manner. The leisurely pace therefore encouraged training that involved yoga, ballet, exercises , Bharatanatyam adavus and Odissi tribhangas, besides gradually of course understanding and learning Music, rhythm, aesthetics of the art and choreography. It was with the arangetram of Geetha Sankaran in the early 90s that Ramli hesitantly , but bravely took the cymbals (taalam) to conduct the nattuvangam for the evening ! From then on, he donned the hat of the nattuvanar or Master, who would not only guide but also inspire .

Ramli soon became a face and a name that the dance world had grown to admire and love. This despite the fact that there was practically no support from the Government for performing arts. He therefore had to raise funds to keep alive the spirit of dance and his various dream projects. For his part though, Ramli always took care to see that he would live up to the image of the people who so loved him. Primarily a great dancer who has devoted his very breath for his all-consuming passion called dance, Ramli not only established himself as a dancer on the Malaysian scene, but also made a mark on the International map of dance. Blue-eyed boy of the media and the masses, celebrated and adored the world over, Ramli is the recipient of several awards and honours including the Sangeet Natak Academi award from India and Datukship from the Federal government of Malaysia.

Ramli did not want to rest on the laurels as a dancer of merit. He saw it as a mission to nurture an entire new generation, who would participate in fulfilling his dream- his gift to his beloved Malaysia- SUTRA. Ensuring the continuum of the legacy of the Sutra dance theatre which was born in 1983, Ramli established the Sutra Foundation in 2007 with the far-sightedness of someone who wished Sutra to exist in the timelessness of Art. The foundation strives to “perform a catalytic role in preserving, developing and promoting traditional and contemporary arts by moulding an aesthetically appreciative and sensitive society.” It would perhaps be appropriate to rephrase as I quote Eckhart Tolle when he says, “Unlike those ancient sutras, however,” Ramli’s Sutra “does not belong to any one religion or spiritual tradition, but is immediately accessible to the whole of humanity.”

His desire to bring in an amalgam of the varied arts- performing and the visual arts , has borne fruit with the establishment of the Sutra Foundation and the Sutra house. To Ramli must be given the credit of envisaging a magical haven for arts which was shaped out of an old house weathered with time! Ramli has established Sutra as the melting pot for varied cultural activities bringing vibrancy to the skyline of Malaysia. Known to be a generous host, Ramli throws open not only his home, library, the gallery, his cats and dogs, but also his very heart. Today, the space is hailed as the premium centre for arts in Malaysia. Sutra also boasts of a beautiful sunken open-air theatre where performances happen regularly. Much of his dreams are translated through his friend and trusted colleague, Shivarajah Nataraja, who is an artist and designer in his own right. So passionate is Shiva of dance that he translates a magical moment on to his canvas or captures it for posterity through the magical lens of his camera. His attention to detail and his aesthetic eye for the spectacular combined with his artistic creativity strengthen and enhance Ramli’s role at Sutra and all the varied productions that Ramli produces – lighting, sets, et al . The committed duo believes in team work so much that it is pure joy to see two magnificent artists rise above the personal self and work for a common goal .

Besides solo performances, he has always looked beyond himself, working tirelessly on group productions. He has constantly nurtured and trained many dancers to not only perform as soloists but also work in harmony as a group. Ramli has over the years choreographed a phenomenally huge body of work moving across varied styles like Odissi, Bharatnatyam, Ballet, Contemporary dance combined with stunning visual effects , incorporating creative lighting and set design.  These productions have received widespread critical and popular acclaim . “Choreography for me”, says Ramli, “is an individualistic preoccupation of finding a movement that is truly yours”. He goes on to explain that when one includes an adavu learnt from the Guru, and tries to incorporate a few changes in the course of a new production, it cannot be termed choreography – it becomes at best a dance combination of various movements!

Ramli acknowledges with humility the grace that he has been bestowed with from his Gurus, and with his heart full of compassion for the Arts he so loves, he admits : “The more I give, the more I get.” With this as his motto, Ramli surges forward to give more and more of himself and the Arts through Sutra , the dream he has nurtured and will continue to nurture.

A globe-trotter, performing at all major venues and festivals, he still remains at heart, a true Malaysian, always coming back to his homeland, where he is celebrated as the toast of Malaysia- a true son of the soil !

What are the issues and challenges faced by male dancer in the Asian region? What does it feel to be a male dancer in that context? What does the notion of maleness mean in that specific context?

RAMLI :“Professionally speaking, Asian male dancers in the serious arts field are marginalised and have less opportunity to practice their art. In most Asian regions, the number of professional male dancers is declining. From the beginning, the intake of male children taking up dance has never been encouraging and as a result there is always a scarcity of good male dancers. For most Malaysian male dancers, the dance profession is generally ‘discovered’ as a last resort in their career option.

Two major issues faced by male dancers are: firstly, the dance profession does not pay well. Classical dance is a difficult field where talent alone is not enough – there must also be hard work, passion, patronage and accompanied with a lot of luck. Secondly, there still exists a stigma to male dancing – it is still a field which parents regard more suitable for girls.

I am one of those lucky male dancers who has been able to function professionally as a dancer. But I have opened my options to embrace a wider scope – not only as a dancer but also as a choreographer, teacher and artistic director. The enrichment of one’s knowledge and nurturing one’s spiritual strength of the art form have developed one’s sense of confidence. This has paid off in my case – in the sense that eventually, one gains an insight that gender is not the main issue but one’s inherent worth and ‘meaning’ of the dance, that matters.

Therefore, I see Dance beyond gender and I feel the loss if males are deprived of the empowering presence of Dance or the Arts in their lives. The presence of the Arts, including Dance, plays an important role in integrating the total personality and psyche of a person.

A dancer is a vessel of his art. When he is interpreting his art, he becomes something larger than ‘personal’ self. This is true in Indian classical dance. This frame of mind enables him to transcend the gender specificity of the many personae and roles which he has to take on during a dance such as bharatanatyam or odissi.

Ramli Ibrahim, the celebrated dancer from Malaysia recently was on a visit to India, where he had the launch of his book titled,”Quintessential Sutra” in two cities in quick succession. The book was first launched at Pondicherry, where it was hosted by Lalit Verma of Aurodhan. Anita Ratnam presented the book at Pondicherry as well as at Chennai. The eclectic dancer played the role of a co-host too as she hosted it along with GRT Grand in Chennai. The book was released without much ado, and two doyens of Bharatnatyam took joy in receiving the first copies – Dr. Padma Subrahmanian and Lakshmi Viswanathan. Ramli mingled with the intimate and interested audience soon after the brief launch, signing the copies as they were being picked up.