Cover 2018: Ramli Ibrahim at Bibi Ka Maqbara, Taj Deccan in Aurangabad (Photo: A Prathap)

Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, one of 12 Malaysians featured on Tatler Asia's Culture List 2021, speaks out about the tenacity of the local arts scene in the face of a pandemic

Very few in Malaysia can take credit for elevating the prestige and prominence of classical Indian and contemporary dance like Sutra Dance Theatre founder Datuk Ramli Ibrahim. Words like ‘legendary choreographer’ and ‘cultural icon’ skim the surface of how much this multi-hyphenate has truly contributed to the local and international arts scene.

Ramli trained in ballet and modern dance at a time when a career in the arts was dismissed as trivial, going on to lead a four decade-long mission cultivating the Classical Indian dance forms of Odissi and Bharata Natyam both here and abroad.

See also: Datuk Ramli Ibrahim On Finding Malaysia's Unique Voice By Using Our Multi-Ethnic Culture

In 2020, Ramli was appointed the artistic director for 13 out of the 17 dance, theatre and music groups featured in Malaysia’s first virtual arts festival, Gerak Angin. An outspoken voice on obstacles confronting Malaysia’s performing arts community—anything from lack of funding to upholding the morale of artists who have been dealt a devastating blow by the pandemic—Ramli’s work goes well beyond the stage. 

Tatler Malaysia hears from this revered arts veteran on the tenacity of Malaysian artists and why the survival of the arts is crucial for our nation.     

How did the pandemic affect the Sutra Foundation?

Several of Sutra's large scale projects were on hold due to the movement control orders. We are still optimistic that these projects will soon see the light of day in 2021. We are now concentrating our efforts on strengthening Sutra Academy, our teaching wing; and consolidating Sutra's endeavours with regard to our Dance Outreach programme. This is our attempt to discover new talents in the out-of-city localities.

How has it affected the way you personally work?

I have always been a disciplined person and I have always worked on 'emergency mode' even during normal times. Functioning professionally in the arts has so many challenges that in order to succeed, one has to be extraordinarily strong and disciplined. The pandemic has made me more reflective of how precarious our lives are, and I now have even more empathy for those young dancers from less privileged backgrounds.  

Was there a silver lining throughout these challenges, though?

Sutra's office carried on during the MCO and no one had lost his job. Admittedly, before Covid we had been relentless with our hectic performances. The movement control period ironically provided us with a much-needed breather to catch up on the lagged admin work and necessary improvement to our infrastructures. We were able to revamp our website, our archival materials are now in place, storage and inventory matters for Sutra Gallery have been updated, and our Sutra and KamaRia gardens went through a thorough facelift.

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In the social media age, how do you define 'performing arts'? 

I prefer to make the distinction between 'serious art' and commercialised art, especially the flash-in-the-pan type that hits the global jackpot in social media. Though virtual platforms are now the trend, I am more concerned with arts and culture which define our identity authentically, not superficially.  

What is the driving force behind Sutra Dance Theatre's local and international success?

Sutra has been deemed successful at the international level where Indian dance is concerned. At one time, and even now, there are those who think that Indian dance does not deserve the public notice it gets, but time has proven them wrong. Sutra productions are considered mainstream in our city's cultural calendar; however, international success had not come easy. It required us not only to be very good, but to take calculated risks. Luck also graced us, we were fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. In order to sustain our position and remain relevant, it is essential that we be creative and re-invent ourselves. Without good funding, this is very difficult.  

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Datuk Ramli Ibrahim in Sutra Foundation's 2017 dance production 'Amorous Delight'
Above Datuk Ramli Ibrahim in Sutra Foundation's 2017 dance production 'Amorous Delight'

How do you think the industry will recover from the effects of this pandemic? 

It will take serious art some time before it regains normalcy and creative momentum. I would like to believe that, funding or no funding, artists will eventually recover and prevail. And prevail they will—they have no choice. I have never underestimated the resolve that artists have to fulfil their calling.

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What do you want to see more of in this industry? 

The political will to change for the better and the integrity within the leadership of the governmental arts and culture bureaucratic infrastructure to effect that change. The fact that the arts and culture are vital to nation-building must get into the system of decision-making. We need to be holistically integrated in the way we evolve as a civilised nation. Money alone won't achieve for us that quality of life that we aspire to.   

What's your outlook for the Malaysian performing arts industry this year?

There is much casualty in the arts industry due to the Covid pandemic. Some artists and institutions I know have ceased to function altogether. There are those who are continuing their art in virtual platforms. This is another game plan altogether and it's not something I look forward to. Secretly, I have always felt that the virtual platform is inferior compared to the direct and unique experiential involvement of live and physical theatre. Unfortunately, virtual may be the vision of the future, at least for some time. The performing arts will have to promote itself to survive in this manner for the time being.

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