Doyen Datuk Ramli Ibrahim shares his thoughts on the state of the arts in Malaysia

He takes a rare look back on his illustrious career, revealing the person behind the performer.

The living legend engages in discourse about the good, bad and a possible silver lining for our country’s arts and culture heritage (Photo: SooPhye)

It is a sunny, late morning when we arrive at Sutra House, a short drive off bustling Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur. To the uninitiated, Sutra House is the heartbeat of Datuk Ramli Ibrahim’s Sutra Foundation, a creative and cultural base where the legendary dancer and his troupe rehearse, teach and perform when not touring.

The quiet surroundings of the old neighbourhood of Titiwangsa heighten the sense of stepping into a hidden world beyond its gates. Inside, the friendly resident dogs sniff around as a way of greeting while Sutra’s principal dancer Geethika Sree ushers us into the gallery space — which doubles as the main hall of the double-storey bungalow.

Out in the garden to the left, a green circular podium forms the heart of Sutra House, ringed by a seating platform and tropical greenery that set the stage for intimate performances. In broad daylight, the urban skyscrapers visible beyond the boundary wall make for a dramatic backdrop against the oasis within. Rather than well-manicured perfection, the natural and evergreen environment, like the famed gardens of Sri Lankan brothers Bevis and Geoffrey Bawa, lends a quality that suits the essence of the man who established Sutra Dance Theatre and its home and nurtured both into the cultural institutions that they are today.

Ramli soon arrives, and the photo shoot begins. He approaches the lens with a choreographer’s mind. His body language shifts and the poised dancer emerges as his spine lengthens perceptibly. A posture that emanates strength complements the piercing expression in his eyes, conveying subliminal narratives that accompany each movement and pose.

After he has warmed up and the shoes have come off, he asks, “Do you want me to try a jump?” — much to the photographer’s delight.

He leaps again and again to capture the perfect moment. “For art’s sake,” he says afterwards.

We settle into the office upstairs post-shoot. As we soon learn, Ramli is not one to dwell on sentiment, though he did indulge us with a moment of reflection on his career as a dancer. 

Our conversation starts with a potentially prickly question. As he turned 70 last year, I ask Ramli whether it was a defining year for him.


Ramli speaking with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi upon receiving the prestigious Padma Shri Award in 2018

“I have no idea whether it was defining or not. I’m not really one to think, ‘Oh, I’m 71 years old. I’ve passed that now; have I finished everything I want to do?’ or ‘What do you think your legacy is?’, this sort of thing. I tend to live in the moment. Once something has passed, I just move on,” he answers matter-of-factly.

Physically, he exudes the energy of someone far younger than his years. Credit goes to the physical training and disciplined lifestyle cultivated over decades. “Of course, I think it is the strong mental health aspect of it as well. Not to say I don’t have stress, but I am engaged in doing things that I am passionate about.”

In a day and age when the word “passion” can be used rather frivolously, Ramli’s love for dance and the arts is underscored by dedication to his craft and the sacrifice it took to uphold it, not to mention the impact he has had on Malaysian arts and culture. To paraphrase the great Martha Graham, he practically embodies the adage of how great dancers are not considered thus because of technique but because of their passion.


Born to dance

Ramli never doubted that he would pursue a life in the arts. “I’ve been very clear about my destiny; there was never an epiphany moment per se,” he reiterates.

Having studied at the Royal Military College (RMC) from the age of 13, Ramli later graduated as a mechanical engineer from the University of Western Australia as a Colombo Plan Scholar. “But I was dancing throughout. If you would believe it, at RMC, I was like the Isadorables (a group of six young girls instructed by Isadora Duncan) — put me near music and I will dance and sing.” At university, mornings were spent practising on the barre before breakfast and lectures. A dance career came naturally. Despite having no formal training, Ramli took part in musicals such as Hello Dolly! and Saturday Night Fever. He also performed with the West Australian Ballet in Perth before being accepted into the illustrious Australian Ballet School in Melbourne, where he was probably the sole Malaysian there at the time.

For two years, he honed his technique in ballet as well as contemporary dance before joining the Sydney Dance Company, with which he toured the world for eight years. His career planted him firmly within the Australian artists’ circle, from composers and dancers to painters, visual arts being another passion of his.

Nevertheless, Ramli says his journey in dance was always one of seeking. “It was like a tapestry with jigsaws. The more pieces I have, the more I feel I understand where I am headed.”



Even as he danced his way to the top of his career Down Under, he came to realise that, psychically, he remained “very Asian”. “Australia was a very strong formation of my aesthetic base and my world view”, he reflects, “but I think for some of us, it took being in the West to look back to where we were.”

If ever there was a catalyst for his introduction to Indian classical dance, fellow Malaysian dancer Zamin Haroon, also known as Chandrabhanu, was it. They became good friends in Melbourne, and he introduced Ramli to Bharatanatyam under the tutelage of Adyar Lakshman.

That also sparked a fascination for Asian art, history, philosophy, comparative religion and more. The depth of the myth and symbols found in Indian classical dance, in particular, drew Ramli in. “I think it was what Martha Graham once said also, that the dance calls you, rather than you trying to find your own way,” he says of his later training in India, where he also learnt Odissi.

Eventually, the dancer’s journey led him home. Giving up permanent residency status and an established career at a time when peers were trying to make a move to London, Ramli said his conviction was to love Malaysia.

“That’s why I say I’m one of those people who will stay back in Malaysia no matter what, whatever the country becomes,” he laughs, offering a glimpse of the determination that has kept him standing — and dancing — for so long.

Sutra Dance Theatre itself was established in 1983, with Sutra Foundation formed in 2007 after gaining legal status. It took Ramli’s decision to donate Sutra House, which was inherited from his father, to achieve it.

While most well known for the development of classical Indian dance, especially Odissi, in Malaysia, Sutra has always done contemporary work, too, as Ramli combined his modern aesthetic base and a love for the rich depths of history and tradition in his approach.

That Western foundation, coupled with an Eastern perspective, has become a hallmark of both Sutra Dance and its artistic director. In fact, Sutra’s unique brand of Odissi has contributed to the renaissance and evolution of the ancient dance in the last few decades.

“The way Sutra has always done it was to bring a fresh point of view, not just walk front and back or dance in lines,” he highlights.


Ramli: The way Sutra has always done it was to bring a fresh point of view, not just walk front and back or dance in lines (Photo: SooPhye)

On his own terms

Those who know and love Ramli will attest to his bold defiance as much as they do his artistic brilliance. It has served him well in the many challenges he faced during his career.

“I bore the brunt of the new wave of fundamentalism [in terms of religion] when I returned. It was very challenging, no doubt, but also very invigorating in a sense. It didn’t deter me at all. I was doing L’Après-midi d’un Faune; I was doing Shiva wearing barely anything. When my performances were stopped, I would speak up, I would write about it. I was fearless in voicing out, being sure of who I am,” he says.

On the flip side, that fiercely independent spirit also means he loathes being boxed in by expectations of being “Ramli Ibrahim”, even if people mean well. “I’m just doing what I want, really. If tomorrow I feel absolutely tired by it all and just want to walk out and do something else, I would.

“I just want to survive these next 10 years. I live for the day as it is,” he reiterates.

For a dancer, for whom physical fitness is essential, the statement is honest. That is not to say he is not brimming with inspiration and ideas. “I’m collaborating with [astrophysicist] Tan Sri Mazlan Othman to do something on the cosmos at the end of the year. We started something like that in Langkawi, and that was very interesting, arts and science. In July, there’s a full-length contemporary work I am going to do — a triple bill inspired by old P Ramlee songs, paired with impressions of Bali and Khajuraho, as well as some Greek myths I want to explore.”


Sustaining the arts

From connecting with World Bank economists and country ambassadors and hosting art exhibitions, to coordinating performances for international guests and teaching in suburban and rural areas, Ramli says Sutra Foundation has become more than a resource centre.

It is certainly a tough act for Malaysia’s next generation of artists to follow. Ramli is candid about the reality for dancers today and the sustainability of the dance scene.

“Can they survive as is? No,” he remarks. “They are just not available!” Instead, they are out there trying to make a living, as there is hardly any funding for full-time dancers or other talents in Malaysian arts. “We often have invitations to perform overseas, but we cannot go because we don’t have the money to bring even five people.”


Sutra dancers, the musicians and Ramli with the chief guests after the performance of Jaya Ram at the Konark Festival 2022 (Photo: A Prathap)

The young today also have a very different mindset. Ramli observes: “To find the diamond among the stones is more difficult now as life gets more complicated. Teachers are facing this problem. There is a lack of tenacity, and the lack of a will to train hard for classical work. They want instant gratification, as exemplified by TikTok.

“People say to me, the younger ones are very smart these days. But to be an artist, to really understand what it is and what it takes, goes beyond just that,” he adds. Still, he has hope for the seniors who are holding the fort as teachers, choreographers and performers. “The 50-somethings still have that passion and they’re still committed.”

Ramli does not mince words as he zeroes in on the wider issues of corruption, lack of economic growth and politics having a direct impact on the survival of arts and culture. “It’s really precarious,” he says angrily. “Corruption is the evil that makes everything not workable. And these days, we’re even not dealing with the bread and butter of [the] economy; it is not addressed as it should be!

“I’ve always maintained that arts and culture are like the vitamins and trace elements that you take. When you consume them, you fare better, they strengthen you and open many other doors. For one, it boosts the morale of the people.”

The recent Taylor Swift tour in Singapore was a prime example of a good opportunity through arts and culture, Ramli says, even though it is a pop concert.

That would be an achievement we can only dream about, as he notes the disconnect between art bureaucrats and practitioners — the dancers, artists and scholars. “It’ll be difficult to change.”

Having said that, Ramli’s advice to young dancers today is to focus on developing themselves and not just their technique. “There’s something about the inner landscape of an artist that comes out when it is explored, be it visual artists or a dancer. You have to nurture your spiritual self for a holistic development.

“Another thing is, I myself never considered the monetary aspects. Just don’t look back, and trust that the universe will look after you. It’s nice to have a vacation, of course, but how long can you holiday, when there is work to be done and you want to hold your performance?” This rhetorical question underscores the fundamental truth of how a dancer must never lose momentum so the artist within can emerge.


This article first appeared on Apr 22, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.

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