Mastery of forms
For viewers of Sutra Dance Theatre’s creation, Krishna, Love Re-invented, the production was yet another illustration of the legendary Ramli Ibrahim’s artistic acumen. It also illustrated how he (62) successfully integrates the diverse influences on his life and the varied dance-forms he has been trained in.
Dancer, choreographer, Founder-Chairman of Sutra Foundation and Artistic Director of Sutra Dance Theatre, Ibrahim has been schooled in Malay traditional art forms, western ballet, Bharatanatyam and Odissi. Based in Malaysia, where he is acknowledged by the government as a Living Heritage, Ibrahim tours the world regularly with his dance troupe, dazzling audiences and wowing critics. He is regarded as Malaysia’s champion of dance, be it Mak Yong (dance-drama), modern or classical dance forms. Just two of the many recognitions he has recieved are the Sangeet Natak Akademi award from India and the Fulbright Distinguished Artist Award. Raised in Kuala Lumpur, he went to a military college and acquired an engineering degree, but his heart was in dance. “I wanted to follow my path to bliss. I knew my eventual destiny was to be a dancer.” He studied Mak Yong, underwent rigorous training in classical ballet in Australia and gave many performances and then made his way to India, where he learnt Bharatanatyam under Adyar Lakshman, followed by Odissi under Guru Debaprasad Das and Gajendra Kumar Panda.
Home of dance
He founded Sutra Dance Theatre in 1983 in Kuala Lumpur where he teaches and choreographs. Ibrahim has created over 40 much-lauded dance repertoires in the Odissi and contemporary format. He has around 200 students outside Kuala Lumpur as he feels it is important that the art is not confined to big cities. The Sutra Foundation was set up to nurture traditional and contemporary performing arts in Malaysia. Ibrahim is credited with making Odissi a widely appreciated art form across the country. Ask Ibrahim about what it takes to be a good dancer and he tells you it is hard work, intelligence, creativity and total involvement. Also, an artiste has to balance the ‘male’ and the ‘female’ aspects within himself/herself, the anima and animus. “Once you have become near-neutral, you can effectively inhabit the character and feel the rasa. This is especially true for Indian classical dance where an artiste dons many roles, sometimes in quick succession.” And, what makes a great dancer? “It’s someone who has taken on a marathon. To achieve greatness, one has to make a long-term commitment.” He adds that a great dancer is also one who is generous, “one must spread the beauty of the art.” Ibrahim’s Sutra has grown into an internationally known and respected dance company. There are many reasons for this. His formidable leadership skills, creativity, choreography, dedication as a teacher,and his talented group of student-dancers and technicians, including the highly competent lighting and set designer, Sivarajah Natarajan.
This leads to the question about his approach as a guru. Is he a hard taskmaster? He laughs and replies, “No. I am a very, very hard taskmaster. I demand complete involvement in and dedication to the art from my students. I accept students if I see the potential or a spark in them, and even if the person does not look beautiful or graceful. Also, a student should also have the intelligence to fully understand the aesthetics and nuances of the art. Unless the dancer has a depth of understanding of the theory and practice, the dance has no impact. Without this intelligence, the person is just a bimbo, and Indian classical dance is not about mindless dancing.” Ibrahim says he has little patience with a flippant attitude to dance. He does not tolerate those who enroll in class only to pass time or consider ‘dancer’ an impressive tag and are not serious.
“I tell them, ‘Dont stay here. If you want, I will give you a scholarship to go study elsewhere. Don’t waste my time and yours, and your parents’ money’,” he says.
The internationally acclaimed Ibrahim applies the same rules to himself. He says he is relentlessly pushing himself to betterment. “I am just as hard and uncompromising, actually harsher, on myself. I never stop being a student.” He reveals that he has a back injury that hampers his movements but he fights that pain so he can give his best during a performance. For any performing artiste, the question of how much time to give teaching and one’s own performances is a big decision. Ibrahim says he gives more or less equal time to both. “To be able to perform dance is a privilege. I cherish that.” Does he perform more of Bharatanatyam or Odissi? “I do teach Bharatanatyam and Odissi, but for performances, Odissi has become the choice. I do perform Bharatanatyam now and then, but only a few items, not the Margam.”
Odissi, Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance — he moves between these worlds with an effortless grace. Both Bharatanatyam and Odissi have gone global, and there are many forces contributing to their evolution, he points out. He also reveals that he watches other Indian classical dance forms like Kuchipudi, Kathak, Kathakali, Mohiniattam, and Mayurbhanj Chhau. He is particularly impressed by Aditi Mangaldas (Kathak), Sujata Mohapatra (Odissi), Vyjayanthi Kashi (Kuchipudi), Malavika Sarukkai and Rama Vaidyanathan (both Bharatanatyam). “I am amazed at the variety and beauty of the classical dance forms in India.” He deeply admires the “solo format of Indian classical dance.” “I consider it a task,” he says. To be able to hold the stage and communicate with the audience for two to three hours is a challenge, he feels. Ibrahim himself prefers group compositions in his work because of the scope it offers for complex narratives. As for contemporary dance, he says that he is happy we can define contemporary aesthetics from an Asian perspective and not a European-American viewpoint. Ibrahim believes there is no need to think of “contemporariness” from the stance of western sensibilities” anymore.