Communities in step with nation


Datuk Ramli Ibrahim of Sutra Dance Theatre tells R. Gowri of what he hopes to achieve with its outreach programme
IT’S 7am on a cool Saturday morning in late October and 9-yearold Kirthana Sukumaran knows there is no lounging around in bed today.
She may not have to make the trek to her school in Klang this morning, but Saturdays for her still mean an early rise and shower.
But she’s not complaining.
An hour later, the small, slender girl is seated in her parents’ car, making the 47km journey to the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple in Kuala Selangor. By 8.50am, she’s already at the temple hall, together with 59 other students, waiting to perfect the stances and steps of an ancient dance from the State of Odisha in India. Some 72km away in a suburb of Petaling Jaya, it’s also an early start in the home of a respected figure in the Malaysian performing arts scene. A session of yoga, breakfast and then the drive to Kuala Selangor. It’s a trip made each weekend by Datuk Ramli Ibrahim of Sutra Dance Theatre to give the youngsters of Kuala Selangor and nearby towns the opportunity to learn the 2,000-year-old Odissi.
On this Saturday, Ramli’s students in Kuala Selangor are practising with a new earnestness. It’s Oct 19 tomorrow, and the girls are to perform at Yayasan myNADI’s fifth anniversary celebrations. To be held at Puspanita Putrajaya, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is to attend the event. A NEW CONFIDENCE Not all the students here will be on stage but everyone rehearses studiously for up to three hours. Kirthana, closely following the instructions of guru Ramli, delivers the movements of the graceful, languid dance with beautiful bhavas (facial expressions). “What’s happening tomorrow?,” I ask her during break time.
“I will dance before the Prime Minister,” she tells me. “Are you nervous?” No,” she answers, looking rather surprised at the question. Mathuri Raja Bhalu, 16, of SMK Seri Tanjung Sungai Buluh, one of the senior students, echoes the sentiment. “The feeling when I dance, it’s like I’m in a totally different world. Before a dance, I’m like ‘Oh my God, I’m so scared’ but once I start to dance, it makes me totally forget about what or who’s around me.” Mathuri took dance classes for a year at Sutra’s Titiwangsa centre. She then joined the Kuala Selangor classes and now also helps Ramli with the warm-up sessions for the junior students there. “My mother was adamant I take classes under guru Ramli as she had learnt under him for a year.
She admires his dedication.” Her sister, aged 14, also takes lessons here. I ask if dance has brought anything significant into her life. Mathuri smiles widely. “I used to be a timid girl, scared to be in the public eye. But once here, I was able to bring out my qualities as a leader and guide others.” She and her sister live with their working mum. “With these classes, I have this other option, of making a living from teaching dance if no opportunities to further my studies arise.” Her eyes soften as she says: “Dance gives me a second chance in life still, for a bright future, and it has really changed me.” Mathuri feels the outreach programme has brought awareness of Indian dances like the Odissi to smaller towns such as Kuala Selangor and highlights the importance of keeping cultural traditions alive.
Some of the grown-ups in this town had not known anything about Odissi until their kids started here, she says, so this programme really helps educate so many, and also, broaden minds.
The government is keen to bring up the Indian communities living away from the city, Ramli explains, and in this Sutra helps. “Nation building encompasses building our communities, and one integrated aspect is building the cultural and artistic aspects of an individual.” He continues: “One cannot deny that culture and art have a strong influence on a person. I feel that the reason the women of South India are so strong in body, mind and spirit is because they dance.” Ramli is frequently asked to perform in India. In 2012, he was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award by the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, for his contributions to Odissi. “Another thing about an outreach programme like this is the seva (selfless service).
I tell my Sutra dancers that since dance has given them so much, they too need to give back to the community — through teaching, and by being roles models in their community.” The Odissi dance classes in Kuala Selangor, Ladang Sungai Choh and Kajang by Ramli are an outreach initiative of Sutra Foundation and supported with funding from Yayasan myNADI, ECM Libra and Sutra. Students pay a fee of only RM5-RM10 each. Some come from middle-class families, other from less privileged backgrounds and single parent households. Some of the parents and students can speak neither English nor Tamil, says Ramli. “We teach at a place where the community congregates — the temple, or a school. In Kuala Selangor, currently 60 students learn Odissi from me in the hall of the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple.
“I come here to Kuala Selangor once a week on Saturdays. In the late afternoons, I leave for Ladang Sg Choh to teach there. On Sundays, I drive from PJ to Kajang (Ramli’s hometown) to teach at SJK Tamil. This is how my weekends go,” says Ramli with a chuckle, “unglamorous but rewarding.” Ramli is well acquainted with Kuala Selangor. As a boy, he frequently visited his uncle, the then district officer of the town. Holidays were spent with cousins, exploring the beautiful hills, parklands and river. US-CANADA TOUR Even as Ramli devotes his time to nurturing and grooming young talents, he remains very active in the performance arena.
The following week, he was to embark on a US-Canada tour for performances of the well-received Krishna: Love Re-Invented. Cities include Houston in Texas, Edmonton (Canada), New York and Washington D.C. The production had premiered in December 2013 in Chennai and Mangalore, and in Kuala Lumpur on March 5 this year. The NY performances include two shows at the elite The Asia Society (on Nov 6 and 7), at The Cerebral Palsy Association in NYC, and in WashingtonD. C.atTheJohnF.KennedyCenter for the Performing Arts (Nov 9). Ten members of Sutra Dance Theatre are on the tour with Ramli, with Jegatheeswara dancing the role of Krishna.
After their return, they are on the move again, this time in India — Mumbai (Nov 20), and then Ahmedabad and Baroda with Hariharan as Krishna. Just how does Ramli juggle all these duties — as dancer, choreographer and teacher? “It requires a lot organisation and for tours, plenty of administrative work. People sometimes tend to underestimate the amount of time and effort it takes to cultivate and nurture an artiste, especially in programmes like the outreach where many have not even seen an Odissi performance. “I strongly feel that more young trained dancers should be willing to come out to share their art, their skills, and, as role models, inspire other young people to develop their potential.”