Datuk Ramli Ibrahim has been widely credited as the doyen of Malaysian odissi.
INDIA has eight classical dance styles and prior to the 1980s, most Malaysians were only familiar with bharatanatyam.
Odissi, which is distinguished from other dance forms by the importance it places on the tribhangi, or the independent movements of head, chest, and pelvis, was barely heard of or seen here.
Sure, there had been a few Indian dancers who flew in to give a performance or two, but they were not able to sustain a foothold; hence this dance style never flourished much in Malaysia.
Not until a young gentleman with magnetic stage presence by the name of Ramli Ibrahim (now a Datuk) wowed audiences with his debut odissi performance at the Civic Centre in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, in 1983.
Ramli fell in love with odissi while he was a student in Australia, and obtained a grant from the former Labour government to study for a year with Deba Prasad (one of the three pioneers of odissi) in Odisha, India.
He honed his skills and returned home to teach it at the Sangeetha Abhivirthi Sabha Kuala Lumpur before establishing Sutra Dance Theatre (Sutra) in 1983.
“Deba Prasad’s style was raw, earthy, tantric and had a sense of gravitas,” recalled Ramli.
“I was immediately drawn and went deep into it. I trained the first batch of four girls within a year and we travelled all over Malaysia to promote the dance. Back then, we had to go by a lorry and bring all our equipment along because there was no proper facility in other places.”
Bit by bit, he gave the style a different kind of polish, incorporating lighting, costumes, architecture, sets and presentation.
Ramli made frequent trips to Odisha, gave workshops, and took his students there to give them a different experience.
Eventually, Sutra received invitations to perform their works in India, especially in Bhubaneswar, Puri and the Ganjam district in Odisha.
Unusual and attractive to contemporary audiences, the Sutra odissi repertoire, performed by its dancers with flawless technique and rearranged in novel group compositions with sophistication, makes the company’s productions stand out. The culmination was when Sutra represented odissi at the India Dance Festival in Carnegie Hall, New York (2008) – a big honour for the doyen.
Ramli said, “Constant exposure of compelling odissi productions and films (Sutra in India, Spellbound, Vision of Forever, etc.) aired nationally many times over, augmented the extensive media coverage. In addition, paintings and photography exhibitions that celebrated odissi also familiarised the Malaysian public with its timeless beauty.”
The Malaysian audience, which first comprised a majority of Malaysian Indians, increasingly became more cosmopolitan and informed.
Over the years, Sutra has attracted a large number of multi-racial students who make their presence felt, impressing discerning dance critics even in India.
“As far as the influence of India is concerned, not only do bharatanatyam, odissi and Carnatic music find easy acceptance in contemporary Malaysian culture alongside Bollywood, yoga, idli-dosa and Ayurvedic massages; they thrive together with other migrant cultural practices,” said Ramli.
“With Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew Chinese, the various Indian communities find themselves in the cauldron of the larger matrix of Malay culture. It is in the milieu of such diverse cultural mix that Sutra finds itself.”
For three decades, Sutra has groomed a generation of Malaysian dancers to reach out to national and international audiences, promoting the cultural diversity and vibrancy of Malaysian dance.
Thanks to Ramli’s efforts, odissi is now firmly transplanted in Malaysia, existing alongside bharatanatyam as a popular Indian classical style, taught by many institutions and performed regularly in many cities, especially, Kuala Lumpur.
Sutra Dance Theatre will be performing Amorous Delight, a contemporary odissi production, on April 6 in New Delhi.