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From Malaysia to India, Ramli Ibrahim’s gift of sacred movement touches the soul



With bells on: Ramli Ibrahim as Krishna with the gopis in a performance at the Asia Society in New York, 2014; (below) at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, 2012


HE HAS BEEN SIVA AND KRISHNA, countless mythical heroes and ordinary humans. He has traveled the globe, telling their wondrous tales through the magic of rhythm and dance. Datuk Ramli Ibrahim is a changemaker, an innovator with bells on his ankles. For over 30 years this Malaysian dance pioneer has nurtured Indian classical dance and contemporary modern dance. He brings together past, present and future on the lit-up stage with audacity and shows that culture is meant to be shared, regardless of faith or nationality.

As artistic director of Sutra Dance Theatre and chairman of Sutra Foundation, Ibrahim has taught dance to generations in Malaysia and created cultural awareness through this art form in many parts of the world. He has received a Fulbright Distinguished Artist Award, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and three Lifetime Achievement Awards from prestigious organizations in Malaysia and India; and the Malaysian government has acknowledged him as a Living Heritage.

Although Ibrahim is Muslim, Hindu ragas and rasas resound in his soul. He has lost himself in the intricacies of Bharatanatyam and Odissi, portraying Hindu Gods across the globe. His very name, Ramli Ibrahim, is a blend of two cultures. A special champion of Odissi, he collaborates with international performers, East and West. Besides nurturing Indian classical dance in his home country, Ibrahim has taken it around the world, even back to India.

In ancient times, traders from India plied the oceans exchanging spices for gold in the lands of Southeast Asia, bringing with them their religions, arts and culture. In modern times, it is highly qualified technology and medical workers who have taken their art and culture, their Gods and food to Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia. Ibrahim explains, “There are many Indians in Malaysia, and Malaysia itself has had a strong influence on India for centuries. It was known as suvarnadwipa, the golden chersonese.”

I met Ramli Ibrahim at the Asia Society in New York, where he and the Sutra Dance Theatre performed their new dance drama, “Krishna, Love Re-Invented,” an enchanting performance of bhakti composed by Guru Deba Prasad Das, Guru Gajendra K. Panda and Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, with the concept, text and artistic direction by Ramli himself. The lighting and set were designed by Sivarajah Natarajan, a core Sutra member whose work illuminates all the group’s productions. The production premiered at the Music Academy Dance Festival in Chennai in January, 2014, then toured nine cities in Malaysia; the performance I witnessed was part of a 2014 US and Canada tour that took him to New York, Edmonton, Houston and the prestigious John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.

Says Ibrahim, “‘Krishna, Love Re-Invented’ explores the madhurya, the essence of love in its sweetest, honey-like appeal, related to the myth of the pastoral God Krishna, who is a personification of love. The underlying erotico-mystical spirit of love of the gopis for Krishna sends the message of joy and celebration, aiming to lift the spirit under siege of the many calamitous events of 2014.”

After the spellbinding show, I met with many of his friendly, vibrant dancers, still in costume, beautifully made up and bejeweled—Indian, Malay, Chinese—displaying the diverse nature of Malaysian society.

Early Training

Ibrahim has danced since childhood; but that was a time, he explains, when “Southeast Asian countries were concentrating on development and industry and everyone wanted to be an engineer or a doctor. Nobody wanted to be in the arts.” Good at school, “I was pushed into the science stream and placed in a military college.”

Later, at the University of Western Australia in Perth, “I knew what I wanted to do in life: I needed to follow my bliss. I pursued this path in the arts, specifically dance, because even as a child I knew I was a mover.”

Ibrahim first learned ballet and modern dance, but his interest in Asian civilizations, the myths, brought him to “look back to India as the mother country for Southeast Asia.”

He searched for solo dances that could really challenge him. “Being a Malay Muslim doing Indian dance, I knew I had to be better than others to succeed and get the accolades of connoisseurs back in India.” Indian classical dance is highly challenging, and he feels blessed to have danced in India in the 16th-century Purana Quila in Delhi and at the fabled temples of Khajuraho, where he was invited by the Khajuraho Dance Festival Committee to perform with the world’s best.

Though trained in Bharata­natyam, Ibrahim felt called by the Odissi style taught by Deba Prasad Das. In an interview with Uttara Asha Coorlawalla at the Asia Society, he explained, “Though I was exposed to the Kelucharan Mohapatra style of Odissi dance, I felt a more natural attraction to the style and composition of the late Deba Prasad Das, which tends to focus thematically on Saivite and tantric concepts and practices.… Throughout the Odissi dance world, the Kelucharan Mohapatra style of Odissi is dominant. But Malaysia is a unique spot in the world where the Deba Prasad style flourishes.”


At Angkor Wat in Cambodia, 2012

Sutra Foundation

Through the Sutra Foundation, Ibrahim presents a uniquely Malaysian interpretation of the arts: the Sutra Dance Theatre presents vibrant dance; the Sutra Gallery showcases the work of visual artists; and on the Amphi-Sutra stage, other performers can showcase their talents. Over the years Sutra has nurtured and presented many dancers and choreographers. As Ibrahim puts it, “The Sutra Foundation is an offering of the creative spirit that transcends all boundaries. It is a gift of the highest love to Malaysia.”

It is also about his love for India and about how he has managed a cultural embrace between the two countries. When I met him in New York, he handed me a video taken in India during the 2003 Khajuraho Festival Performance Tour. It shows Ramli as a son of India dancing amidst the fabulous ancient temples where his art form began, traveling cross-country by train with his students, involved in rehearsals and the daily life of a traveling performer.

Ibrahim is also involved in education and outreach programs to connect with less privileged communities. While he keeps the flame of classical dance alive, he does not forget his early training in ballet and modern dance. He embraces movement in all its forms and has performed with many cultural organizations, including the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, where he has choreographed over 20 dances featuring the music of Ravel and Stravinsky.

“Sutra believes that contemporary Asian dance is a continuum of the traditional, and that both the traditional and modern can exist within the same time and space, under the same roof,” he asserts. “How much more exciting and rich if the contemporary is also a repository of all three genres—classical, folk and tribal—representing the sum total of our past heritage.” In that spirit he has collaborated with the Battery Dance Company, a bastion of American contemporary dance led by Jonathan Hollander, and is always open to international collaborations.

Krishna, Love Re-Invented

In India, romantic love in its sublimated form took a definite turn with the Bhakti Movement when the concept of God was incorporated and entwined in this human obsession. As the ultimate Universal Lover, Krishna becomes the paramount object of devotion and of romantic love. This came about most intensely during medieval times when saints expressed their spiritual outpourings in the form of erotico-mystical poetry, which became viral as they resonated with the sentiment of the common folk. Love poems dedicated to the Gods were incorporated in the rituals of worship.

In Odisha, the land of Odissi, to speak of Krishna is to speak of the most familiar and beloved of the Hindu Gods. For centuries, the spirit of Krishna has permeated the very fabric of life of the Oriyan people, coloring and designing its filigreed motif, cutting across all sections of the community, gender, age and walks of life. His pervasive spirit, Krishna Consciousness as the Supreme God, is incorporated in the concept of Jagannath, the presiding Deity of the holy city of Puri.

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Ibrahim, who calls himself a thinking Muslim, does not believe there should be any religious taboos against dancing. “This is the 21st century; if you still want to live in medieval times, then what can we say. Some people give Islam a bad name, but I differentiate between spirituality and ritualized religion. I think a lot of my dancers understand the inner strength and energy that comes from a good performance, and this is the essence of the art form’s spirituality.”

Encouraging Male Dancers

Ibrahim is to be commended for his encouragement of young male dancers, and, by the example of his own life, making the career of a male dancer something to aspire to. In a world where this profession seems to be on the decline, Ibrahim gives it wings. As the High Commissioner of India to Malaysia, Vijay K. Gokhale, noted, “The great artistic traditions of India are worth preserving for future generations if Indians are to understand their cultural origins. Those who have witnessed the great dance maestros of India perform the role of Krishna in the Ras Lila or Siva’s Tandava Nritya will know that it would be an irredeemable loss to civilization if male dancers were to disappear from the stage.”

Sutra Foundation and the Natyanjali Trust in India presented the dance drama “Joined in Dance,” and also hosted the Nartaka (Male Dancer) Festival in Kuala Lumpur in 2012. That festival featured three days of solos and group works in Indian classical dance styles and had a discourse entitled “Male Matters.” Ramli Ibrahim and Shanmuga Sundaram, artistic co-directors of the festival, noted that the goal was to demonstrate that male dancing can be exciting, beautiful and worth cultivating. “Males,” they observed, “should discover once again that dance is the most natural and healthy way to integrate their outer and inner landscapes.”

Ibrahim proclaims the value of dance to young people finding their place in the world: “I think the arts contribute incredibly to nation building and character building. A lot of individual empowerment and understanding comes from exposure to culture and the arts. It is an antidote to the extremist absolutism and dogma that is infecting the world. I am sure that education in the arts makes people civilized!”


Style: Ramli Ibrahim and company in a performance of “Krishna, Love Re-Invented” at the Asia Society in New York, November, 2014

The Magic of India, and of Dance

Ibrahim is constantly traveling. When I spoke with him, he was on his way to Ahmed­a­bad to perform with the noted dancer Mallika Sarabhai and then on to Vadodara and Bhubaneshwar for many more performances.

India is always on the map for Ibrahim—to connect with his teachers, perform to live music and interact with Indian audiences. He feels it is trial by fire, a voyage of discovery for him and his students as dancers. “It’s very important to connect with Mother Earth, Mother India itself. Somehow the rasa comes much more easily for me in India. I find the experience very cleansing. I think my dancers understand dance and human relationships much better after performing there. I find it makes them better dancers faster by bringing them to India.”

For Ramli Ibrahim, dance is a metaphor for life, transcending religion and race and embracing the globe. Watching a performance by his company is like seeing a dream unfold, a dream seen with open eyes. Such is the power of the human body when fueled by this dancer’s energy and spirit.

Odissi dance magically turns gestures and movements into poetry, into sculpture, into a joyful celebration of life and striving for perfection. While our bodies sit quiescent in our seats, our hearts somersault and leap through the air in recognition of a higher spirit, a union, a oneness that we all seek, a universality that touches all our lives. When Ibrahim and his dancers are on stage, you forget all else but the magic of movement and music, of ancient and modern tales coming alive. As he says, “Dance is ephemeral! You cannot own it like a painting, for the glimpse of beauty or truth—whatever you wish to call it—is fleeting. Yet the dance experience is intense and transformative, if you are lucky to see something extraordinary.”

It is Ramli Ibrahim’s life work to create those extraordinary moments that can transform and enrich us and make the world a happier, calmer place.


LAVINA MELWANI is a New York based writer for international publications and blogs at []