Photograph AND COVER BY A Prathap

I remember Datuk Ramli Ibrahim. I was only 10 and dreamt of being a dancer. “Tai, tai, dhi kit tai, dhi kit tai, dhi kit tai!” With sweat trickling down our backs on a humid Saturday afternoon, our young feet tapped uncertainly on the tarmac ground to the rhythm while the veritable dance master prowled amidst us like a restless tiger ready to straighten our posture with a glare, a quick smack of his hard hand on our backs or a sharp word.

Needless to say, I wasn’t the dance chanteuse I imagined myself to be. I had no sense of rhythm and the thought of tripping over my short uncoordinated legs under the eagle eye of THE Ramli Ibrahim, dance doyen and cultural icon who turned the once old-fashioned Indian dance into the de riguer of the 80s, terrified me. Every little girl my age dreamt of being an Odissi or Bharatanatyam dancer, largely thanks to Ramli’s efforts in establishing Indian dance, and Odissi in particular, as a recognisable and widely-appreciated dance form in the country. But my dream ended in that one singular class on a hot afternoon in the compound of my primary school in Klang.

More than three decades later, at the airport in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, he greets me with a warm hug and takes my luggage out of my hands. Memories of the strict dance master yelling out instructions to cowering school girls surface and I can’t quite shake that image out of my mind. It’s an anomaly to see the dance master at his most sublime. Soft-spoken and courteous, Ramli is the quintessential gentleman — carrying my bags into the van and asking me if I’m warm enough because winter is nipping at our heels here in the cool November night. Ushering me into the waiting vehicle, he clasps my hand and tells me sincerely: “I’m really glad you made it.” There’s an evident kinship between the Malaysian dance guru and this ancient land northeast of India. And he’s eager to share it.

The Odissi exponent’s longstanding relationship with India has resulted in numerous awards and accollades for his contribution to dance, the recent being his Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed by the Karthik Fine Arts on Dec 22, 2017 in Chennai. He’s here to bring Ganjam, Sutra Dance Theatre’s most evocative performance to the Konark Dance Festival here in Odisha, which is one of the biggest dance festivals in India. For the first time, Sutra is bringing a total of 17 dancers, including senior principal dancers, as well as young dancers from its Outreach Dance Programme of Kajang and Sungai Choh. “The concept of yatra is a kind of a pilgrimage/journey to the roots. Many of my dancers haven’t even been to India so it’s going to be an eye-opening trip for most of them,” he confides.

The inveterate dancer knows something about roots. The fierce proponent of the Odissi (an ancient Indian classical dance originating from the Hindu temples of Odisha) has been to Bhubaneswar countless times. “It’s where it all began,” he says simply.

Staring out of the window, his expression thoughtful, he murmurs: “The city has changed a lot. I first came to Bhubaneswar in 1978. Back then it was such a cowboy town! I was learning Odissi at that time and was obsessed with mastering it. I packed my bags and travelled to Odisha all the way from Australia where I was dancing professionally with the Sydney Dance Company.”

Continuing, he recalls: “I learnt that the Odissi guru whom I was looking for was residing there. Back then, I had to take the auto rickshaw (India’s notorious three-wheeled taxi) lugging my bags through narrow dusty roads teeming with people, rickshaws and cows. I stayed on and soon became a disciple of Guru Debaprasad Das to study the Odissi.” Smiling, he adds that he stayed for almost a year, learning the nuances of the dance, before returning to Malaysia. However, he continued to travel to Odisha to train under his guru until the latter’s death in 1986.

Lifetime Achievement Award to Ramli conferred by Karthik Fine Arts, India on Dec 22, 2017.

Moved to dance

Still, he was a dancer long before Odissi happened. “I’ve always loved dancing and movement ever since I was little. It was innate in me,” he shares, shrugging his shoulders. Armed with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Western Australia, Ramli joined the Australian Ballet School and went on to perform with the Sydney Dance Company soon after his graduation. “I’m a qualified mechanical engineer but I pursued dance alongside my academic activities.”

It was during his stint with the Sydney Dance Company that Ramli met another Malaysian Muslim, Zamin Haroon, who later became the renowned Indian classical dancer, Dr Chandrabhanu. “At that time, he was studying the Bharatanatyam under Adyar K Lakshman from Kalakshetra,” he recalls, adding: “I fell in love with the dance, began studying under Chandrabanu, and later on from his guru in Chennai.”

Suddenly there’s a pause as Ramli looks lost in thought. But then that smile again and he continues: “One of my favourite quotes comes from Martha Graham who once said, ‘I did not choose dance, dance chose me!’”

Already accomplished in ballet, modern and Indian classical dance, Ramli’s initial encounter with the Odissi dance moved him deeply. “It was a form that resonated with my temperament, even much more than Bharatanatyam,” he shares. “I was attracted to the aesthetic of the Odissi tribhanga — a celebrated Odissi S-bend position where the dancer creates a series of upward curves at knee, torso and shoulder. For me, that’s an integral charm of the Odissi.”

Continuing, he says dreamily: “The lilting music... the sensuous movements that allowed interstices for contemporary work... and the fact that it’s not set in a rigid framework like the Bharatnatyam. The latter is akin to a Beethoven symphony which is already perfect so there’s nothing else you can add or do to it. The Odissi is different. It’s this kind of pure dance movement that you pick up and then almost cut and paste to form a dance. That’s how it’s taught — the pure dance part. It enables you to create movement that’s within the shastri or aesthetically-acceptable framework.”

Trained to work in the traditional Odissi style, Ramli’s artistic vision however, blended both the traditional and modern within the same dance form with remarkable success. He says: “I’m a modern person who functions within tradition, and I always talk about the fact that modernity can exist within tradition. There’s a continuum. We don’t have to totally rebel against tradition to be modern.”

In this era of crossing cultures and blurring definitions, he’s proven to be a master of adaptation. His background may be in modern dance, but his distinctive style — angles, curves, startling incongruities, achingly graceful lines — has been successfully transposed to Odissi.

The Odissi stalwart however, appreciates the historical context of the ancient dance form which is believed to be the oldest in India, on the basis of archaeological evidences. Dance forms all over Southeast Asia stem from the Natya Shastra, the treatise on the performing arts written between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200. It speaks of the four regions of India where the origins of classical dance can be traced, one of which is Odra Magadhi, widely believed to be a reference to the Odissi dance from the eastern state of Odisha.

“This trip isn’t just about witnessing our performance at Konark, but to experience the setting from which the Odissi derives. We’ll be visiting sites of archaeological and historical significance like the caves in Udayagiri and Khandagiri along with temples in Puri, Konark and Bhubaneswar which bear carvings that are historical manifestations of ancient art forms like music and dance,” promises Ramli.

Ramli depicting the pose of the ancient Odissi dancers at the Orissa State Museum in Odisha.

Celebrating dance

The itinerary — as he promises — is packed, even for me. There’s so much to see and experience during our brief sojourn here at Odisha. He may be preparing for an important performance at Konark but Ramli insists on following us to most of the sites along with his troupe of dancers. “It’s important for them to know the roots of the dance,” he says firmly. There’s certainly no stopping the 65-year-old dance master.

With his startlingly broad cheekbones, his expressive eyes, which he uses with supreme theatricality, and a wide smile to match, all borne on a firm, strong neck, Ramli’s energy is remarkable. Looking like someone who seems to be defying the scourge of ageing, he’s as fit and sprightly as ever.

“Don’t you get tired?” I ask him. He chuckles before replying: “I get asked that question a lot. People often ask me, ‘Ramli, can’t you sit down and smell the roses?’ And I always end up telling them that I have the opportunity to not merely smell the roses, but also scatter thousands of petals. Recently, I arrived from India, took a flight to Penang where a car was waiting for me, went to Kulim and finally performed at this wonderful ashram. When I came back, I started organising a dinner. ‘So what do you mean by smelling the roses?’ I asked them back!”

The fierce spirit that I recognise from my early encounter with Ramli flares up when I ask him a question that appears to have been asked countless times: “Were there any obstacles taking up Indian dance in Malaysia?”

“That’s a passe question,” is his terse rejoinder, and a verbal rap on my knuckles. It feels like I’m back in that fateful Odissi class all those years ago with Ramli’s eyes glinting as he sits up from his chair. His expression earnest, he says: “I’m not an apologist. I’ll just go ahead and do exactly what I want. Enough time has passed and we have to move on with the artistic aspect, and the seemingly controversial aspect. People who are serious about their work can change perceptions. I for one am on the cutting edge of the Indian dance scene. So I’d just like to concentrate on my art and keep on moving.”

Days later, in front of the ancient Konark Sun Temple, Ramli and the Sutra Dance Theatre cast a magnetic spell over the audience with their Ganjam performance. As they move, you see Odissi’s intoxicating ability to etch sculptural shapes and the creation and change of the tribangha, like changing harmonies in music.

Our country’s most successful and prolific choreographer’s collaboration with Guru Gajendra Kumar Panda — a fellow disciple of Guru Debaprasad Das — pays homage to the authors and poets from the cultural-rich region of southern Odisha, making it a celebration of heritage, culture and dance. The maestro doesn’t disappoint. Ramli’s dancing, combining the training of his youth in Indian classical dance with contemporary mores, has an almost transcendent complexity.

And oh, how he makes me wish I could dance.

Ramli Ibrahim and the Sutra dancers perform against the iconic Sun Temple at the Konark Dance Festival 2017.

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