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On his toes: An interview with Ramli Ibrahim

March 30, 2016

Legendary dancer and choreographer Ramli Ibrahim goes “on pointe” on the issue of youth and artistic traditions, and doesn’t tiptoe around the subject of our society’s failure to safeguard our cultural art forms



By The Level and FMT’s Lifestyle Desk

Image credit: Malaysia.USEmbassy.gov

Image credit: Malaysia.USEmbassy.gov

We recently had the honour of speaking with arguably the most important figure in the Malaysian traditional dance scene – Sutra Foundation founder and legend-in-his-own-time, Ramli Ibrahim. Our meeting took place at the Sutra Gallery during the launch of GANJAM – an exhibition of breathtaking images of Sutra’s odissi productions over the years, captured by brilliant photographers A. Pratap and S. Magendran.

A graduate of the Australian Ballet School and the University of Western Australia (where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering!), and former member of the Sydney Dance Company, Ramli returned to Malaysia and founded Sutra in 1983. He has since danced, taught, choreographed and acted as part of tours in over 100 countries, and helped the dance company he establish rise to international renown. In the process, the winner of countless prestigious global awards has succeeded in raising the profile of traditional Indian dance both in Malaysia and the rest of the world.

With his troupe of young, multiracial dancers carving a name for themselves on the world stage, we spoke with Ramli about the importance of connecting youth with their cultural heritage, and how the arts can help young people find their true selves.

We think what you did with your career, conserving and innovating traditions, is brilliant. Something the youth should replicate…

Of course, the youth must continue practicing their traditions. Because who else will do it? There are many genres in art – the divine classical, commercial modern, Lady Gaga, folk, tribal, etc, and there’s such an incredible diversity in the forms of art. But we can’t ignore the fact that the traditional and classical are important, and they bring out the core of the real values in us.

Image credit: SutraFoundation.org.my

Image credit: SutraFoundation.org.my

What was the major force of art that stood out during your time?

I think it was The Beatles. The songs that they composed represented their era until today, something that I enjoyed so much.

As a dancer, do you think dance, music and art play a huge role in youth development?

I think they’re very important, as these forms of art encourage individualism, where youth can explore their own individual potential. So these kinds of things, and also culture, are vital in nation-building. It’s like we have built all these tall buildings, but they lack content, lack soul and passion. I did my degree in engineering, and though there’s nothing wrong with engineering, i realized that my soul wasn’t in it. So I followed my passion and danced into art, and I’m really glad I did it – it gave me a sense of fulfillment that I never had before. Same goes to the youth. The youth should be given the chance to find a part of themselves that they truly want to be.

Many Malaysian youth are interested in going into art and music, but they’re afraid that they might not find gainful employment, so they give up their dreams to pursue something more practical. Do you think the arts are something that they should pursue?

It’s such a difficult path to follow to be an artist, to be really true to your artistic core. And the calling of an artist is a very, very potent call. If you don’t heed it immediately, chances are, you won’t feel fulfilled in the future. But at the same time, the arts are not about money. So, for young people who want to do it for money, or as an easy way out, you’re definitely in the wrong place. Everyone struggles to have a nice home, a nice car and et cetera, but true artistes have always suffered for their art. Think of Van Gogh, who struggled terribly even until his death – but people benefit from his work after his passing. This isn’t really just a Malaysian problem.

Image credit: SutraFoundation.org.my

Image credit: SutraFoundation.org.my

It’s a global problem?

Yes, most artistes are struggling with this worldwide. And one of the most difficult ones, is being a dancer. Because you don’t get to dance the way you usually do when you’re 30, so your career ends quite early, but that’s the reality of it. That’s the problem with the world now. The main prize is the money, everyone wants to be a big financial success, instant gratification when it comes to money.

So is it worth it?

Well, it’s subjective. In the end, you have to ask yourself, tepuk dada tanya selera, whether it is worth it or not. Because if it feeds your soul, then yes. So I have to tell my dancers, when you dance, you have to bring out everything, your empowerment – bring it out, because the intensity of life that you’re living is the highest now, when you’re making art. Not when you’re partying around, engaging people on Facebook. You’re just there, but life is somewhere else, waiting for you to make it happen through your art, and passion.

You mentioned money being the major priority in life, and that boils down to how we educate the youth to live their lives. In that case, do you think that the government should make dancing, music, or art compulsory subjects in the school syllabus?

Absolutely! One of the tragedies in our education system is that art has been sidelined. We are too focused on being a developed country that we tend to forget the cultural part of ourselves, which is so important. Our education ministry has forgotten that, and that mistake led to many negative circumstances. For instance, the Malays, who are regressing because of this guilt over whether art ni hindu ke, memuja ke, and even our silat, which has pagan characteristics – in Malay we call it kebatinan, the area that brings out your core. But without that, the divinity of an art work is lost. That’s why I find that the problem with the mat rempits and others, are because of this destructiveness that comes due to not having any outlet to express their passions. You see, the Malays are artistic. But now, everything makes us feel guilty, itu tak boleh, ini tak boleh. If we are forever suppressed, how can we fully grow as a people?

Let’s say the government doesn’t do anything to correct this, will the situation improve, or become worse, especially for the Malays?

Let’s take Aswara as an example. The strongest and the best department is the dance department. Of course, my good friend Joseph Gonzales, who was the head of the department during those days, told me that the Malays are very talented and passionate dancers. I think this form of suppression is not only hurting the art, but the person as well. The Malays are suppressed, by the kind of Wahhabism and religious extremism that is infecting our society, thus distorting its potential and it is very unfortunate. This can lead an individual to not be him/or herself, to be someone else, and causes them to be less creative, because well, how can you be creative when you are suppressed? The government must play a role to help curb this problem, or else yes, it might get worse, especially if you look around now.

Do you think there’s hope?

Of course there is! Like I said, art is a form of expression that brings your core out for you. And as long as there are people who are able to appreciate art, there will be hope. Change is inevitable anyway, right?

First published in FMT’s youth portal, www.TheLevel.my


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