RAMLI IBRAHIM – Finding His Bliss

The temples of Orissa have come to Istana Budaya. On a huge gauze screen that stretches the entire stage, images of temple carvings are being projected. Through the screen, you see the whole set, made of massive arches and a ramp, emerging slowly from the depths. It is festooned with gorgeous temple statues. When the set stops moving and the gauze floats away, the statues come to life – each of them doing their own thing, and then suddenly they are in unison, and off they go again.

I am at the Gala Premiere night of Spellbound, directed by Ramli Ibrahim, recipient of the Fulbright Distinguished Artist Award 1999 and renowned as the man who made classical Indian dance trendy. Though seven years late, this is Ramli’s and his company Sutra Dance Theatre’s debut at our national theatre. With 22 dancers, truly fabulous sets and lighting (Sivarajah Natarajan), and musicians from Orissa, this Odissi dance presentation is simply outstanding. The choreography is so complex and beautiful it keeps you on edge all the time. Ramli has outdone himself again.

The second half of the show uses the screen again. This time, instead of unpainted stone temple sculptures, one sees vibrant, colourful depictions of scenes from Indian miniature paintings of Radha and Krishna. The joyous energy and skill of the dancers are wonderful to watch. However, RamIi, perhaps due to having cast himself in one too many items that night, looks noticeably tired.

Perhaps this entire Spellbound project, which also includes a nationwide tour ending in Singapore on March 5, has taken its toll on him. Touring is very difficult and the logistics are mind boggling. And it does not pay at all. Yet this is the fourth time he is taking Sutra on tour. Ramli believes it is worth it – to reach out to audiences who do not have access to such shows. The response from audiences in places like Bukit Mertajam and Teluk Intan, turning up in the thousands, is overwhelming and heartening. In jaded KL, it is hard work to get just a hundred people for a show sometimes.

“I am ready to take a sabbatical,” Ramli says. He wants to travel, to watch, to absorb, to recharge his batteries. Having celebrated the big 50 two years ago and then receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards 2003, a break seems timely.

From Jungle to Lake Gardens

Just a stone’s throw away from Istana Budaya, and nearer to Titiwangsa Lake Gardens, is the magical place called Sutra House. It is Ramli’s haven for the arts. Walk through the rather austere high wooden gates and you discover a truly charming oasis. A simple spacious wooden-floored studio opens out onto the lawn and trees.

The Amphi-Sutra, a magnificent theatre in the garden, is surrounded by a riot of foliage and made out of discarded wooden railway sleepers.

The wall spaces are cleverly used for displaying artworks, a living gallery. Upstairs, you find a wonderful library cum study, with slanting shelves, and an airy dining and kitchen area with huge wooden shutters rescued from destroyed old shophouses. This house, which belonged to Ramli’s father, didn’t use to be so pretty.

Ramli had founded Sutra Dance Theatre in 1983, after returning from Australia and mesmerising Kuala Lumpur audiences with his first local performance. The company was based for a while from his home in Petaling Jaya. Then he moved it to a kampong house in the orang asli area of Sungai Penchala. Though it is presently home to Ikea, it was a jungle then: “I found a 14 foot python in my oven once!” For 12 years, he performed under a durian tree, but only during non-durian season, of course.

At around 1987, Ramli began using his father’s house at Titiwangsa as a studio for rehearsals and classes. “But it had no atmosphere at all,” Ramli says. The cost of rescuing and remodelling the old corner house –  nobody in the family wanted it – into Sutra House is about RM400,000. Including the purchase of the land, the total is about RM1 Million. They moved in officially in 1998 and are still paying the bank for the loan.

The present worry of ensuring enough funds for Sutra to function is ever pressing. It costs RM30,000 a month now just to exist. Every new show incurs considerable additional costs. Seeking corporate and other private sponsorship is a constant chore. In the early days, Ramli often had to rely on a couple of thousand ringgit from the ‘Sabhas’, Indian associations. They were among the few institutions that readily supported him. But they wanted their banner at the back of the stage, which did not fit in with the aesthetics Ramli had envisaged for his performances.

Then Ramli collaborated with the Ministry of Culture Arts and Tourism, producing breathtaking epic productions (like ‘Pesta’, and ‘Citarasa’ in 1986) that fused traditional Malay dance with contemporary dance. They were huge hits, but he was not invited to do many more such collaborations. The lack of commissions must have been a blow.

The government now seems more willing to support private performing arts bodies. Still, Ramli feels that organisations with a proven track record – of quality productions that have enriched the country’s cultural palette over the years – should be nurtured, be given grants so that their day to day costs are covered, so that they can focus on creating without worrying about the rent at the end of the month.

From Military College to Hello Dolly

As a child Ramli Ibrahim excelled in painting, singing and dance. But because he was bright, he was ‘thrown’, to borrow his word, into the science stream. He laments the fact that the best brains are never pushed into the arts and our education system does not instil a love for the arts in our young. This is a loss to the nation, he feels.

In any case, it didn’t stop him from taking part in a lot of Malay dances for school concerts at the very macho Royal Military College. Ramli started training seriously in Jazz and Classical Ballet while he was a Colombo plan scholar, studying Mechanical Engineering at the University of Western Australia, Perth. Within two years he was performing professionally with the West Australia Ballet Company in musicals such as Hello Dolly and The Boyfriend.

As soon as Ramli graduated, he auditioned for the Australian Ballet School, Melbourne. He was the only one from the whole of Western Australia accepted. “It was the best thing I ever did,” Ramli says. “Two years in the Diploma course – just focussed full time on dance and nothing else.”

I asked if he had a long term vision then, working toward becoming the living legend that he is today. He answers an emphatic, “No. I just follow my bliss, my path. Which is dance with a capital D.”

And what a path it has been. He became a member of the Australian Ballet, was subsequently picked by celebrated choreographer Graeme Murphy to play Nijinsky, which led to him becoming a founding member of the Sydney Dance Company in 1977. While in Sydney, Ramli became a surfer dude, having the luxury of just performing, training and later, enjoying the beaches. A lifestyle he will never be able to enjoy again, he realises ruefully. It was hard work: both dancing AND ensuring one had that perfect, chiselled, tanned body without a hint of a bikini line.

From Orissa to Kuala Lumpur

Ramli’s mentor, James Murdoch, would introduce him to the movers and shakers of the Australian arts world. Ramli would cook for them and then sit and listen as they discussed their work. Life was full and good, a blur of performances – an astonishing 250 a year. He had already started taking classical Indian dance classes, but it was only after his first trip to India, to the city of Puri in Orissa that he became mesmerised by the ancient dance form of Odissi. This journey affected him to the core. He got a scholarship from Australia to do a year’s study of this exciting dance form that was being rediscovered after centuries of obscurity. There was no looking back.

Important influences included his friendship with fellow Malaysian dancers Down Under: Chandrabanu, who was already very involved in Bharatanatyam, and Azanin, an authority on traditional Malay dance. After returning to Kuala Lumpur, Ramli was relieved to find soul mates here in exciting new actor Mustafa Noor, dancer Azanin and singer Khairani. With the help of friends he decided to venture forth on his own. Ramli and Sutra went from strength to strength, establishing the Sutra Festival, the Alarippu to Moksha Festival, which brings Indian dance schools to a bigger audience, and the Under the Stars series, which showcases outstanding new and established dancers.

Ramli and his company have made a name for themselves as well as Malaysian dancers on the international arena. He is rare among local performers in that he frequently takes his shows on tour out of the Klang Valley and across the seas. He has been a pioneer in how a private arts institution can survive and flourish. But he can also be a tyrant, in his quest for perfection, and in his demands for uncompromising commitment from his dancers and other collaborators. He is always thinking out of the box, usually with fantastic results, though sometimes not so; but he is not afraid to push the envelope, to experiment, and to, at times, fail.

From Apostate to Saviour

There were difficult times for Ramli Ibrahim as a Malay Muslim man performing and teaching what some perceive is a Hindu form of worship. He had had to undergo interrogations by the religious authorities. He recalls being hauled up into Pusat Islam in the mid 1990s facing some 10 people and being warned inter alia that should he have a heart attack and die while he was dancing as Shiva he would die an apostate. There was pressure to dress more conservatively, in keeping with perceived Islamic mores. But Ramli and his male co-­dancers at the time (like Guna and Mavin Khoo) continued to wear their tiny loin cloths and nothing else if Ramli felt that was what suited that particular presentation. “Dance should be a celebration and liberation of the body,” he says.

In 1992, he even rushed to Kelantan when the PAS state government banned Mak Yong, Menora and other ancient local art forms for being un-Islamic. He found the dancers and musicians in a desperate state. He immediately studied and wrote articles about their work, took photographs, documented whatever performances they could surreptitiously put up, braving police raids. Bringing them to KL and a new bigger audience, he raised awareness for their plight and money for their survival. In the process he says he became filled with love for Malaysia and her traditional art forms. He worries about their continued survival. They need to be living contemporary art forms, they should be performed in the open at the Lake or Titiwangsa Gardens for the masses.

Naturally, teaching is a major part of Ramli’s life. It’s a source of regular income and also a way of discovering new stars for Sutra. But he does not limit his teaching to potential stars. He teaches anyone who would like to dance, from tiny kids to grandmothers. Many of the older women who begin his classes find that it is very empowering and liberating – a cathartic experience. Once they reach a reasonable standard, they are encouraged to perform to the public at festivals like Alarippu to Moksha. This year, the festival was on at the end of January. It was a voyage of discovery for me – to see seven vibrant dance schools from around the country take part with dancers of all ages, sizes and shapes, of many races and religions. Sutra prodigy January Low led a team of all Chinese dancers doing Odissi, and Natyakalamandhir from Ipoh presented a whole Bharata Natyam show on the passion, not of Shiva or Krishna, but of Jesus Christ. The breaking free of Indian Classical dance out of communal and religious confines is something Ramli is justifiably proud.

Dr. Dinanath Pathy from Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa, was in town to catch Spellbound at Istana Budaya. An authority on Odissi, he says that Ramli has created a new identity for Odissi, making it a more visual and accessible dance form compared to what it has been in its home state. Orissa has not seen such a large number of dancers in a contextual dance drama using Odissi before. And this is something unique, even cutting edge, that has evolved in Malaysia due to Ramli’s genius.

And so Ramli continues on his path led by his bliss. And it was sheer bliss that led the audience on Wednesday the 18th of February to leap to our feet in a standing ovation after Sutra’s breathtaking finale presentation in honour of Aditya the Sun God. Against a simple backdrop projected with images of moving water, the sets all returned to the depths of Istana Budaya. It was just the dancers, the musicians and us, the audience. Magic.


Chacko Vadaketh is an actor who most recently appeared as Othello on Singapore TV, and locally in the Instant Cafe Theatre Road Show. He is currently producing M! the Opera written by Saidah Rastam and Jit Murad. He is also a great dancer at weddings.

First Published: 24.02.2005 on Kakiseni

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