SIFAS Festival of Arts 2023: Malaysian dance legend and Odissi exponent Ramli Ibrahim speaks of the inspiration for Jaya Ram

Dance is a primarily visual medium of art — one has to see it to savour it — but what drew the young Ramli Ibrahim to Indian classical dance was the sound. “My first introduction to Indian classical dance was when I was a child. I was fascinated with the tintinnabulation of ankle bells as I walked through the alleys where Indian dance classes were being held,” said the South Asian dance legend, who was born Malaysian but feels equally Indian, in an interview with Connected to India.

Ramli Ibrahim at a 2012 performance. Photo by: Sivarajah Natarajan. Photo courtesy: Ramli Ibrahim

Ibrahim has received top cultural honours from the country of his birth and the one he has embraced — he is both Datuk Ramli Ibrahim and Padma Shri Ramli Ibrahim for his great service to the performance arts — and now he is on the cusp of presenting in Singapore his latest production Jaya Ram, a retelling of the story of the Indian epic Ramayana. Enriched by modernity within the framework of classical Odissi, Jaya Ram, produced by Ibrahim’s Sutra Foundation, has been co-created with Guru Gajendra Panda, once a fellow disciple of Odissi dance with Ibrahim and now his artistic collaborator.

Jaya Ram performance at the Khajuraho temples: Jatayu attacking Ravana in flight. Photo: S Magendran. Photo courtesy: SIFAS

The spectacular dance production Jaya Ram is one of the highlight shows of the SIFAS Festival of Arts 2023, which has the theme ‘Kalpana: Exploring the past, Imagining the future’. Jaya Ram is being staged at Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay on April 28 at 7.30pm.

Ramli Ibrahim at the Ajanta Caves, Aurangabad, India, in 2018. Photo: A. Prathap. Photo courtesy: Ramli Ibrahim

No Indian classical dance is complete without abhinaya, the fluid facial expressions that complement the dancer’s steps and mudras (the hand gestures that have a language and grammar of their own). The young Ibrahim felt very attracted to this. He told CtoI, “That was in the early ’60s. Indian dance was often featured then on television, and I was fascinated with the theatricality of the facial expressions, gestures, and costume. It was the same with Chinese opera, Lion dance or Makyong, which we saw during the different celebrations in Malaysia or Singapore. They stirred something very primal in me. I think my innate sense of ‘rasa’ was stimulated then.”

Ibrahim has always felt at home in India because he practically grew up alongside the culture even in Malaysia. “The influence of India in this part of the world is quite pervasive and Indian culture has always been part of our lives,” he said.

Another place he completely identifies with is Indonesia. “I regard India as my second home. As much as I love Malaysia, I always said that I should have been born an Indian or Indonesian, as I find myself strongly and psychically attracted to the cultures of both countries,” said Ibrahim. “When I am in Java or India, I am comfortable with both cultures and would inevitably experience a sense of déjà vu.”

His connection with India was strengthened when he began to learn Indian classical dance under Guru Debaprasad Das, “a pioneer guru of Odissi”. Ibrahim recalled that Das, along with “the great danseuse, Indrani Rehman”, pioneered the performance of Odissi across five continents during the 1950s and ’60s. Gajendra Panda later became the torchbearer of Das, his foremost disciple, trained in the guru-shishya parampara of India, where the learner lives with the master.

Ramli Ibrahim at the Ajanta Caves, Aurangabad, India, in 2018. Photo: A. Prathap. Photo courtesy: Ramli Ibrahim

After Guru Debaprasad died in 1986, Gajendra and Ibrahim continued working together, creating “a large body of new and original works”. They have toured Malaysia and India with live music, and have performed in “more than 50 cities of India over the past 40 years”.

Sutra performs at India’s grand temple complexes

Indian classical dance is full of visual splendour in any setting, but the effect is particularly stunning when performed at the grand temple complexes of India. Ibrahim’s Sutra Foundation has had two such recent breathtaking performances — at the Konark temples of Odisha and the Khajuraho temples of Madhya Pradesh.

Sutra dancers at the Khajuraho temples. Photo: S Magendran. Photo courtesy: SIFAS

“I especially love it when we are able to perform within the precinct of an ancient temple or archaeological site,” said Ibrahim. “Recently, we performed in Konark and Khajuraho, two of the great temples of India, famous for their sensual sculptures.”

Sutra’s performances are cross-cultural in nature. Ibrahim said, “When we perform Odissi or Bharatanatyam in Malaysia, I feel that we are showing the audience how beautiful the Indian classical dances are, which have now become a part of our culture. When we perform these dances in India, we show the Indians how beautiful and diverse Malaysian culture is.”

He added, “Simultaneously, we send the message that we have embraced Indian culture as part of our own culture. Though we are doing Indian dance, my dancers are unmistakably Malaysians — something we can’t help but be, and we are proud of that!

“What we are also saying is that Indian dance has transcended manmade national barriers — like yoga, Ayurveda and Bollywood have been embraced by the world. This truly demonstrates the ultimate feat that the soft power of arts and cultural diplomacy can achieve!”

‘Indian classical dance intensifies our humanity’

Beyond the outward beauty of Indian classical dance, there is the inward element — ‘rasa’ — that has always drawn Ibrahim. He said, “The core aesthetic of traditional Indian culture, which is the concept of ‘rasa’, resonated with me from the very beginning.

“At the highest level, Indian classical dance communes with the enhanced emotional state which celebrates and intensifies our humanity. This is the heightened emotional state or ‘rasa’. The Malay language has also embraced this Sanskrit word, which describes the ‘flavour’ or the various emotions which, we as human beings, universally experience every second of the day.”

This ‘rasa’ lends a transcendental quality to Indian classical dance. “We define our humanity through our emotions more than any other living being. In Indian dance, this is further distilled, so that the experience of ‘rasa’ brings us closer to a higher intuitive state. One forgets the mundanity of life and rises into a higher realm of being, where dance becomes yoga,” said Ibrahim.

Sutra dancers at the Khajuraho temples. Photo: S Magendran. Photo courtesy: SIFAS

And, of course, he is attracted to the rhythm of Indian dance — he finds it challenging, too. “Rhythm is both an emotional and intellectual preoccupation in Indian dance. It is a characteristic that gives Indian dance a unique sense of ‘timelessness.’”

‘Sutra has cultivated and groomed a number of Chinese dancers’

The Malaysian-Chinese dancer Tan Mei Mei is one of the principal dancers of the Sutra troupe, and she has played in Jaya Ram the role of the magical swarnamriga (golden deer) that tempts Sita in Ramayana. We asked Ibrahim if Indian classical dance forms had a wide appeal for dancers of other ethnicities from South East Asia.

Jaya Ram performance at the Delhi International Arts Festival 2022: Tan Mei Mei as the illusory deer that causes the abduction of Sita. Photo: Innie Singh. Photo courtesy: SIFAS

Ibrahim explained that he set up the Sutra Foundation “so that our works can be presented in the manner that I consider artistic and aesthetically acceptable. At the same time, our artistic journey is unique, and the legacy of our works can be consolidated and archived.”

On this journey, a key aspect of Sutra’s work is identifying outstanding talent. Ibrahim said, “Tan Mei Mei is one of several Chinese dancers who have excelled in the Indian classical dance of Odissi. Sutra has cultivated and groomed a number of Chinese dancers who have been recognised as good Odissi dancers.

“Internationally speaking, solo Indian classical dance genres such as Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, or Kathak are now being taught all over the world and are being performed regularly by many non-Indian dancers.”

Indian dance not so far apart from ballet

Odissi, of all the Indian classical dance forms, perhaps, has the most graceful, swaying movements, like poetry in motion. It is not known for the vigorous leaps seen in the Sutra choreography. Does this element come from Ibrahim’s training in ballet?

Sutra dancers at the Khajuraho temples. Photo: S Magendran. Photo courtesy: SIFAS

He replied, “Pirouette was not created by ballet; Indian dance has used it hundreds of years before ballet came into being. Besides pirouette or ‘bhramaris’, there are also the different jumps or ‘jetes’. Many might even say that we are jumping too perfectly and, therefore, we are influenced by ballet. However, there have always been jumps used in Indian dance.”

The artiste added that Indian dance and ballet were not so far apart. “I have never denied the influence of ballet or even modern dance/theatre concepts in my work, just as Martha Graham, Ted Shawn, and Ruth St. Denis or even the great ballerina Anna Pavlova and [Vaslav] Nijinsky were once influenced and fascinated by Indian dance.”

Coming to Jaya Ram, he said that the audience would discover many “modern” concepts used “within the ambit of the Odissi tradition”.

“I do believe that ‘modernity’ can exist within a traditional system to sustain its continued relevance. In fact, great dance innovators like Rukmini Devi or Mrinalini Sarabhai were ‘modernists’ who functioned with the traditional system of Bharatanatyam and their innovations were accepted and are, at present, entrenched within the tradition,” he said.

Jaya Ram is inspired by Odisha traditions on Ramayana

On several occasions, while performing in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Ibrahim received requests from the event organisers for creating “something” on Lord Ram. The mythological “prince of Ayodhya” is worshipped as a deity in India, being an avatar of Vishnu, who embodies the role of the ‘protector’ in the Hindu religious trinity, along with Brahma (creator) and Maheshwar (destroyer).

Jaya Ram performance at the Konark Festival 2022: The ten-headed demon king Ravana, who abducts Sita. Photo: A. Prathap. Photo courtesy: SIFAS

Exploring the idea of what exactly that “something” could be, Ibrahim and Gajendra Panda went back to a conversation with Odia scholar and friend, the late Dinanath Pathy, who had suggested looking at the “two folk genres of Ram Leela and Rama Natakam of the culture-rich region of South Odisha or Ganjam” as the cultural source material for a production on Ram.

The catalyst for the production being staged at the SIFAS Festival 2023 came in 2019, when Sutra was invited to perform at Kumbh Mela, a major pilgrimage in Uttar Pradesh. “That year, Kumbh Mela became the largest gathering of humanity that participated in a festival (175 million devotees within a month),” recalled Ibrahim.

Jaya Ram performance at the Konark Festival 2022: The abduction of Sita. Photo: A. Prathap. Photo courtesy: SIFAS

Sutra was requested to present a production themed on Ramayana at the 2019 Kumbh Mela. “Unfortunately, we did not have an impactful enough production in our repertoire, themed on Ramayana for this mega event. Eventually, we decided to perform a production based on Krishna,” he said. Krishna, too, is an avatar of Vishnu and one of the main characters of the Indian epic Mahabharata.

However, the thought of creating a production on Ramayana remained with Ibrahim. He discussed this with Gajendra, and they took up the suggestion of their late dear friend, Pathy, to explore Odisha traditions around Ram. “I guess the time was ripe that we did so, and Jaya Ram was conceived!”

So far, Jaya Ram has been staged in Kuala Lumpur, Kulim, Malacca, and Penang in Malaysia; and has also enthralled audiences in three major dance festivals in India, including Konark, Khajuraho, and the Delhi International Arts Festival.

Jaya Ram performance at the Delhi International Arts Festival 2022: Rama and Sita travelling on the aerial chariot back to Ayodhya. Photo: Innie Singh. Photo courtesy: SIFAS

As to where his collaboration with Gajendra could take him next, Ibrahim said, “Jaya Ram is still fresh from the oven, so to speak, and Gajendra and I have not thought of what we should collaborate on next, as this work still has the potential to reach out to different audiences at other venues.”