Malaysia’s dance legend breaks down cultural barriers
There are very few places in Kuala Lumpur where you can listen to the silence – and Sutra House is one of them. Beyond its solid gates, even the air feels different as if the magic of Datuk Ramli Ibrahim’s mesmerising dances lingers in the air.
Filled with greenery and artwork, Sutra House is where Ramli works his magic in dance. It is his studio and art gallery, performing space, and the heartbeat of Sutra Foundation. Ramli is arguably Malaysia’s best-known dancer, beloved for his dazzling artistry. At 63, his fluid strength and grace remain evident in his poised movements, even when in casual jeans.
Famed for establishing Indian classical dance, in particular Odissi, as a widely appreciated art form in Malaysia and beyond, Ramli’s creative talents also extend to choreography, teaching, sketching and painting, and to his work in community empowerment.
For the breadth of his achievements, he has received numerous awards, including one from the Malaysian King in 2013. Ramli has been on the Malaysian dance scene for more than three decades now, and was instrumental in breaking down cultural barriers as a Malay male dancer with a talent for Indian classical dance.
Although his name is synonymous with Odissi, his work is far more varied and diverse. Trained also in classical ballet and contemporary dance, he has truly embraced dance in all its forms, from the traditional to modern.
One of his best-known productions was Quintessence, a collaboration with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in 2014, where he choreographed a set of dances to Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite.
“We are not just about Indian classical dance although people can be forgiven for thinking so. We are also very contemporary, using the classical tradition as a point of embarkation,” he said. Even his classical Indian dance can be immediately recognised as being Malaysian, he said. But Ramli isn’t too interested in plastering labels on his work, though. He said the form that each production takes depends on that particular work.
“Modernity can exist within traditional forms,” he said. “In that way, the traditional form becomes alive as it goes through evolutions. It’s not stultified in that form.” This continuous evolution is something that he has been exploring in his 40-plus years on the stage, from the time he was a student in Australia.
After graduating from the Royal Military College in Kuala Lumpur, he went on to study engineering in the University of Western Australia in Perth. But the lure of the arts proved too great. “Right from the beginning, I knew I was going to be an artist but the system slots us into boxes. Still, my calling for the arts was very intense,” he said.
It was then he took up formal classes in ballet, contemporary dance and Indian classical dance, in particular the Odissi. His 14 years in Australia were a productive time, and he reluctantly returned to Malaysia after his permit to stay expired in 1983. Yet despite his reluctance to leave a flourishing career, he felt a deep reconnection with Malaysia.
“When I came back to Malaysia, I was so happy. I felt a reconnection with my cultural psyche,” he said. “But at that time, there was nothing very much here in terms of dance.” That, though, gave him a chance to become a pioneer, and in 1983, he set up the Sutra Dance Theatre, followed by the Sutra Foundation in 2007 to run educational and community programmes that would cultivate the love for dance and the performing arts.
His career now spans an astounding 40-plus years, with his dance troupe having performed in over 150 cities globally, including in Carnegie Hall in New York, at Singapore’s Esplanade and at the Sydney Opera House.
To Ramli, though, dance isn’t just an art form, wonderful as it is for its ability to transport the audience into another world. Instead, dance can be a tool for community empowerment. And towards this end, he devotes much of his energy to Sutra Foundation’s noble work, of which he is justifiably proud.
Under the auspices of the foundation that he chairs, Ramli spends quite a bit of time in two far-flung small towns in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur to teach dance to young pupils. “This makes the Indian community proud of their culture; we want to empower them through their culture,” he said.
In November, he’s leading a six-day festival of dance at the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple in the small fishing town of Kuala Selangor. Dancers from nine dance institutions in Malaysia and Singapore will perform in this festival aimed at bringing the arts to the community.
As captivating as his dancing is, Ramli’s influence goes well beyond the arts, and has had a strong impact in challenging social attitudes, changing perceptions and empowering the marginalised. It’s been quite a journey over four decades. Or in his own words, it has been “a journey of passion, to the limits that it would take me.”