Dancing through the ages

Issue 05, 2019

Dancing through the ages

Vinayak Surya Swami |author

Issue 05, 2019

For Malaysian dance maestro Ramli Ibrahim, dance is an evolutionary process. Trained in contemporary dance forms like ballet, the Padma Shri awardee’s contemporary renditions of classical Indian forms are perfect examples of modernity in traditions.

Traditions are to be studied, practiced and preserved through relevant adaptations and enhancements. Specially with India, where there are layers of traditions, customs and art forms that can be drawn upon whenever the need arises. A reason why, artistes and thinkers from across the world have been inspired by and adopted Indian traditional practices. On the global stage, India’s cultural wealth has often been associated with the ever-evolutionary traditions and an artistic heritage that has only grown with time. 

An apt example of such collaborations can be readily seen in the classical dance forms. Through the years, there have been several dance legends who have not been born in India but have trained in Indian dance forms and given them their unique spin. While some have retained the pure classical essence, others have experimented with modern concepts and taken the dance forms to greater heights.

The modernists of yore

Rukmini DeviWith numerous reforms to her credit in Bharatanatyam, Rukmini Devi gave special attention to the music accompaniment, the choice of songs, costumes and stage presentation. As a composer of dance and dramas, she established Kalakshetra in 1936 for revival of Indian arts.
Mrinalini SarabhaiA renowned Indian classical dancer and one of the first contemporary choreographers, Sarabhai was known for experiments with classical dance forms. She was trained in Bharatanatyam, Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi and Kathakali, being one of the first women to perform this dance.
Kumudini LakhiaHer choreographic works tried to achieve a synthesis of traditional techniques and modern themes. These choreographies are now considered classic, and many of the innovations she premiered in them have become ingrained in Kathak performances.

One such artiste is Malaysian, Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, who was conferred the Padma Shri in 2018 for his contributions to Odissi, a genre of performance art, where the performers and musicians play out a mythical story from ancient Indian texts. A dedicated Odissi performer and choreographer, Ibrahim, over the past three decades, has been pushing the boundaries of the dance form, experimenting with productions, incorporating contemporary sensibilities to appeal to today’s cosmopolitan audiences. Also trained in ballet, Ibrahim’s contemporary explorations have helped make Odissi even more relevant today on a global stage.

Ibrahim with his students at the Sutra Dance Academy in Malaysia

Says Ibrahim, “My journey with dance started as a student with ballet. I was studying engineering in Australia when I discovered the power of movement and I followed this as my destiny. I joined the Sydney Dance Company. But I was also very interested in Asian civilisation, their history and mythologies. This drew me to India and its traditions.”

Being a part of a major ballet troupe did not define his creative fabric as Ibrahim went on to study Bharatanatyam under noted practitioner Adyar K Lakshman. “Insights on both ballet and western modern dance were influential markers that helped guide me. All these were concurrent with my growing appreciation of western contemporary and classical music, as well as my exposure to philosophy, myths and theatre forms as living contemporary art expressions.”

Ibrahim conducting a workshop for children at the Worli school in Mumbai

But Ibrahim continued his search, ultimately discovering his passion for Odissi. “I knew that learning and performing Indian classical forms can be challenging and requires life-long dedication. I had to try even harder as I was not from India,” he says.

I always feel that contemporary arts represent the future and contemporising performance arts will come as part of a natural process. It is considered as a function of the evolution of the dance form

Ramli Ibrahim Artistic director, Sutra foundation

Ibrahim chose to follow legendary Odissi guru Deba Prasad Das, who was closely associated with introducing Odissi to the world. “We didn’t know history was being created. We were just doing what we loved best. We were flowing with the events, which were taking us to our prescribed destinies. I guess we were merely engaged in doing what we passionately wanted to do,” says Ibrahim.

Ibrahim often collaborates with Indian dance institutes. Here he is seen with the performers of ‘Odissi on High’, a production that showcased the collaboration between Malaysian Sutra Dance company and the Bhubaneswar-based Rudrakshya Foundation, founded by Guru Bichitrananda Swain, a veteran Odissi performer and choreographer

His background in ballet has enabled the Malaysian artiste to incorporate within his renditions, a new creative edge. Interestingly, while Ibrahim’s productions are based on Odissi and Bharatanatyam, he often addresses himself as a contemporary dancer. “Many ‘traditional’ artistes and dance makers consider themselves simultaneously contemporaneous with their environment. They believe they are creating works which are contemporary to their milieu.  Innovators of Indian classical dances, like Rukmini Devi, Mrinalini Sarabhai and Kumudini Lakhia were modernists, who functioned within the folds of tradition and contributed to the positive evolution of the tradition. I am also a modernist in this manner, especially in my approach to the presentation of my traditional works.”

The temporal movement

Sutra Foundation

It was in 1983 when Ibrahim started the Sutra Dance Theatre. Bequeathing it to Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur he moved with a realisation that traditions across the world were rapidly evolving with time and that a centre for performance arts needs to be connected with the cutting edge burgeoning creativity that are taking place not only in India but with other dance centres. Over the years the Sutra Foundation has grown to become a resource centre with creative artistes, national and international, performing or interacting in workshops.

Dancing with destiny

In 2018, Ramli’s efforts transcended borders and he was awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Padma Shri. The award only added to a growing list of international accolades. India’s foremost authority on performance arts, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, also recognised Ibrahim’s efforts and his contributions to Odissi which were instrumental in transforming the dance scenario in both countries.

Mixing ballet and Oddisi, Ibrahim’s performances are a visual spectacle. The maestro during one of his contemprary renditions of Oddisi in Malaysia

Comparing the classical dance forms of Malaysia and India and their evolution, Ibrahim says, “Both Malaysia and India are increasingly redefining their contemporary modern dance identities inspired by their Asian perspectives rather than Western sources. Also, Indian traditional dances are undergoing tremendous creative evolutions. They are now recognised as examples of how traditional dances can creatively thrive in modern society.”

Ramli Ibrahim chose to follow legendary guru Deba Prasad Das, who was closely associated with introducing Odissi to the world and its contemporary revival

As the dancer keeps merging the sensitivities of Odissi with contemporary presentation styles, re-imagining dance productions for a worldwide audience, we ask him about the source for his constant motivation. With the ever-present twinkle in his eyes and an effortless charm, the 66-year-old artiste remarks, “I guess it is not something I can pin point but is a force larger than myself that propels me to move forward. The needs of the hour and the necessities of others always hold precedence. However, I have realised, the more I give, the more rewards I reap from life. My cup runneth over, so to speak..”

President Ram Nath Kovind presenting the Padma Shri award to Datuk Ramli Ibrahim during the Civil Investiture Ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhawan

In today’s times, with artistes joining traditional schools of arts across the country as a conscious decision, it is highly probable that dance as an art form is being developed and propagated. Every new dancer offers the art form some new innovations, for example, fusions of various dance styles or experiments without damaging its traditional patterns and the age-old values associated with each dance form.

Vinayak Surya Swami

Vinayak Surya Swami is a Delhi-based journalist. He holds a degree in mechanical engineering and has worked as an apprentice Shipbuilder with the Indian Navy. A part-time writer since his teenage years, he switched to journalism to pursue his prurience for writing and travel.
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