Ramli Ibrahim: A Malaysian Muslim’s love affair with Hindu dance forms

Written by Aditya Tiwari

As a Muslim performing Hindu dance forms, he has faced sharp religious criticism at several points in his life but Malaysian dancer-choreographer Ramli Ibrahim stood his ground, saying there is nothing in the Malaysian constitution and policies that object to Indian classical dances.

Ramli Ibrahim, being a Muslim, faced sharp religious criticism at several points in his life.

Born in a liberal Muslim family, Ramil says: Dance was always there in me. As a three-year-old, I used to dance. I used to dance instead of walking in fields. It was innate in me.”

In an interview with The Hindu, Ramil described how his passion for Indian classical dances, especially Odissi, brought the wrath of the Malaysian authorities.

“I happen to be a Muslim doing Indian traditional dance which is basically a temple dance. There was a wave of conservatism and fundamentalism in the 1980s. However, I was naïve,” he said, adding that this naivety proved helpful in dealing with the challenges that came his way.

Ramil says dance was always there in me.

However, in Ramil’s home country, acceptance took some time. Thus, when he performed in collaboration with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra at the landmark Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur in 2014, it was a truly special moment for the dancer, he said, even though he had performed in places like the Carnegie Hall, New York and the International Centre in United Nations, Vienna. He is now the country’s pride and has been recognised as ‘Living Heritage’ of Malaysia and conferred the honorary title of ‘Datuk’.

Although he was sent to Australia to studying engineering, he pursued dance alongside academic activities. While at the University of Western Australia in Perth, he learnt Malay folk dance and ballet and joined the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne but his love for Indian classical dances brought him to Chennai where he learnt Bharatanatyam under the tutelage of Adyar K Lakshman. During his days in Chennai, he used to perform under the name of Ramachandra. Finding Bharatanatyam too structured and steeped in tradition, he was attracted to Odissi because of its aesthetic of tribhanga, especially in the play of the ribs as the dancer negotiated the changes in body weight during stepping. “I think this is the key to Odissi’s charm, ” he says.  This took him to Puri, Odisha, where he studied Odissi under the late Guru Debaprasad Das and on the latter’s demise, continued with his foremost disciple, Guru Gajendra Kumar Panda. Today, he is also known for establishing Odissi as a recognisable dance form in Malaysia.

Ramil performing at Konark Sun Temple.

For more than three decades, 63-year-old Ramli Ibrahim has been dancing with energy, passion and fervour that is unrivalled among his peers.

In numbers, that translates to performances in 80 cities globally with an estimated half a million viewers.

In 1983, he established Sutra Foundation that offers training in Bharatanatyam (Kalakshetra school ) and Odissi in (Debaprasad Das parmampara).

Recently, in New Delhi, Ramli presented his Sutra Foundation’s latest Odissi show “Amorous Delight – A Case of Possession by Love”.

Ramli says he enjoys doing classical dance-based shows in India as his performances draw an appreciative audience.

Asked if he would ever consider getting involved with the Indian film industry as a choreographer or in some other role, Ramli said: “I can’t do it. Bollywood is not my scene.”

Ramli said he enjoys doing classical dance-based shows in India as his performances draw an appreciative audience.

“Amorous Delight” is a contemporary Odissi production inspired by the ninth-century Sanskrit poem collection Amarushataka.

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Aditya Tiwari

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