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A Nuanced Dancer

The guerrilla dancer

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The gifted Malaysian Odissi dancer and choreographer Ramli Ibrahim has been taking on cultural fanatics for two decades now.

Ramli Ibrahim has a remarkable knack for irritating bigots, the mullahs of Malaysia as well as the moral brigade of India. This Malay Odissi dancer sees himself and his troupe as guerrilla artistes. "We attack from all sides with our art, and unexpectedly. And nothing can keep us down because we believe that in a very consumerist, violent world, art acts as spiritual therapy, " says the extremely fit 54-year-old director of the Kuala Lumpur-based Sutra Dance Company, who was in Delhi to open the ICCR's International Dance Festival. "Moderate Malays and politicians love us, though the latter will never admit it in public, because we are the face of a tolerant, multicultural Malaysia."

Some of Ibrahim's dream projects in Malaysia easily classify as artistic counterterrorism. He plans to dance at the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur threatened with an attack by Islamic extremists. And he is taking the very tantric Dasamahavidyas (the 10 great wisdoms of the devi) to Kelantan, the most rigidly Islamic state in Malaysia.

"I am not afraid, they cannot touch me. I am too big for that, " says the dancer who counts among his supporters and friends activist Marina Mahathir, the very liberal and non-conformist daughter of the former prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohammed.

But even when he was not big, Ibrahim had a reckless kind of courage that, he now recalls, came from total naivete. As a young dancer, he had trained at a ballet school in Australia and then, struck by the lyricism of the forms, learnt Bharatanatyam and Odissi in India, performing under the name 'Ramachandran'. He marched back into the art scene in Kuala Lumpur in 1982 - bohemian, full of radical ideas and swagger.

"I was up there on the stage, almost naked, in a langot without a thought for what anyone could say. I would do Shiva with ashes smeared on me, not realising that I was stirring up something, " he says. The response was swift and brutal - the conservative elements descended on the dancer like a ton of bricks. He was chastised and hauled up for presenting deeply religious, iconic dances by a frowning clergy which asked him questions like, 'What exactly is your mystical experience ?' and 'Do you know that if you die dancing Shiva, you would be an apostate?'

"In some ways, my brash innocence turned out to be a blessing, because I went through it all without fear. Even now, I believe that artistes are made by the challenges they face, " says Ibrahim.

What he did not really anticipate was the hostility he ran into in Bhubaneswar, the home of Odissi. A bunch of 'cultural activists' grouped together as Sanskruti O Sanskruti asked for a ban on Ibrahim. The women of his troupe, they fumed, were dressed indecently because they did not drape an odhni over their blouse. The odhni, many dance historians believe, was a later-day accessory added to the Odissi aharya (costume), which was derived from temple costumes. Dancers such as Indrani Rehman, Sukanya and Yamini had all dispensed with it in their recitals. Those who criticise Ibrahim say that historical notions of right and wrong cannot be followed today.

"I have young, very fit dancers in my troupe. The body has to be perfect, because it is an instrument to explore dance. They don't look vulgar on stage without a gossamer odhni which, I feel, comes in the way of showcasing the contours of the torso in dance, " Ibrahim counters.

But he knows better than to expend energy dealing with rabble rousers. His dancers have found a way out of the debate: when they perform in Orissa, they use an odhni, elsewhere in India, they don't bother. "I could make a point of it and
stick to my guns, but then I don't want my dance to be thought of as 'the odhni case' and Sutra as 'that odhni-less group', " he jokes.

Nijinsky is an important influence on Ibrahim and his training in ballet shows up in his performances, a fact that irritates purists. But Ibrahim maintains he is always conscious of the basic tenets of the Indian classical format - the leg raised in tandava pose seems balletic, but it is never lifted high enough to seem out of place in Odissi, he points out.

The brickbats cannot take away from the fact that Ibrahim is one of the best loved and celebrated names in the Kuala Lumpur art circuit. He had an unheard-of four-day show of Dasamahavidya at the prestigious art centre, Istana Budaya, in Kuala Lumpur. This happened despite the low-grade but definite Islamic resurgence in Malaysia. On stage in Delhi, Ibrahim, comes across as a bold but nuanced dancer. He does not shy away from movements that may seem acrobatic to a purist, but that lend great delicacy to his dance.

The highlight of the show was the Savari pallavi, where Ibrahim with his student, the greatly gifted January Low, showcased the concept of male and female energy circling each other on stage. It ends with Ibrahim prone on his stomach in a serpentine pose and Low on his back. "When I was much younger and my body permitted it, I had done the pallavi with a 14-year-old dancer and we moved all around the stage with her perched on me. It raised some eyebrows, but I guess I was way ahead of the time, " he says. That's the way Ibrahim will always be - way ahead of his times.

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