by Anita R Ratnam, Chennai 

July 2001
The first time I heard the name of Ramli Ibrahim was when my guru Adyar K. Lakshman spoke about his "new amazing student" to me in Madras. It was after one of my strenuous rehearsals at Lakshman's Sir's new home and studio in Gandhinagar where I had also met the late, gorgeous Kamadev who used to come there often to rehearse. "He has learnt ballet from Australia and also Odissi and now wants to learn Bharatanatyam from me", Lakshman sir said proudly.  
Soon after, I left India for my adventure in the United States and soon forgot Ramli's name until one accidental trip to Kuala Lumpur in the early eighties when I was dragged by a family friend to watch a dance performance. There, I was transfixed because through the speakers floated the familiar voice of Lakshman Sir singing all my favourite dance items... Todaya Mangalam, Chidamabar Natesa Kauthuvam, Nandi Chollu ( composed by the late mridangist and Mohiniattam guru Trichur P. Ramanathan), Hindolam Tillana . It was as if I was back in dance class again! The vision on the stage was pure gold.. a satiny body swathed in amber light and moving his torso with both abandon and extreme control. "This is Ramli Ibrahim. He is our most famous dancer", whispered my host. 

Since then, Ramli and I have maintained a sort of 'sympatico'. Meeting in the most unlikely of places, Chennai, New York, London and doing off-beat things like having dinner  with a belly dancer, going off to see a museum exhibit at the Asia Society and taking the train to visit with the great Ram Gopal in the UK. Our conversations rarely touched on dance altough he took a childish delight in listening to my unending stories of dance gossip. We have watched each other perform and have remained in touch. When he established SUTRA in his home town of Kuala Lumpur, I would receive his excellent visual publicity and always show it to my graphic designer as to how I wanted ARANGHAM's own print materials to look like. 

In December 2000, Ramli and his company participated in our THE OTHER FESTIVAL in Chennai and it was there he saw the unusual artistry of Canadian dance-artist Peter Chin and French sacred singer Dominique Vellard. An improvisation which developed on the spur-of-the-moment between  Chin and Shakuhachi flautist Christopher Yohmei Blasdel was also carefully noted by Ramli who was planning a similar event in Kuala Lumpur. 

For almost two years, the SUTRA center in KL was under renovation and in June 2001 a brand new multi-arts complex was revealed to the KL public. Using inexpensive material from the local forests and wood merchants, as well as discarded pieces of furniture ingeniously redesigned by painter/ stage designer Shivah Natarajah, the new SUTRA center now held a beautiful amphitheatre for performances.  

To proudly announce the new SUTRA  center and to establish the performing and the visual arts as vital within the model of modern Malaysia, Ramli announced a month - long festival throughout the month of July. Over four weekends he had invited a combination of visual and performing artists from India, Japan and Malaysia to perform and share their ideas to a small, but very interested audience. 

I was invited for the second week of the festival and was very pleased to note that two of the concerts featured in THE OTHER FESTIVAL were programmed in KL - Peter Chin (dance) and Aruna Sayeeram / Dominique Vellard (music). It had been four years since I last visited KL and on that occasion, a much-delayed Malaysian Airlines flight back to Singapore caused me to miss my connection back to Chennai. On this occasion, I landed in the new and amazing KLIA, a city unto its own. The new airport needs a special aircraft just to navigate within... shops, tropical ambience and sheer size just 3 hours away from the chaotic Chennai scene made me stop in amazement. When the CHANEL saleswoman approached me just as I walked out of the flight and applied a new shade of lipstick to my hand, I hardly noticed since I had by then dropped my bags and was looking around with the amazement of a villager entering the big-city! To cut this long preamble short, I was escorted politely to the CONCORDE HOTEL where the prices made my eyebrows rise even higher. A  4-star hotel in KL is less than Rs.2000 a day including breakfast! Just try to duplicate that in our country!  

The SUTRA festival included evening performances and morning forums which provided insights into working and creative processes and the many issues which surround the creation, discussion and sustenance of the arts. I had the honour of opening the forum with the keynote presentation called NEW DIRECTIONS IN INDIAN DANCE. Not a new title but my presentation included a short overview of the historical underpinnings and proceeded to include a highly personalised impression of contemporary dance directions in India as seen and experienced through my own career. I ended  the 90 minute session with a short dance titled UNRAVELLED which deals with the inner demons of a classical dancer. For me, forced to conform within the structures of harmony, symmetry, beauty and order, UNRAVELLED was my early rebellion of trying to portray the inner presence of the 'dark shadow' that constantly haunts me. 

Other sessions included CROSSING NATIONAL BARRIERS with Peter Chin and Yohmei Blasdel. Yohmei spoke about being a Texan who could not wait to get out of Texas and of a constant scepticism from the Japanese and others who feel that the Shakuhachi flute can only be played by a Japanese. Peter Chin spoke of his introduction to dance through music. It was when he accompanied contemporary dancers in Canada that they noticed that he was using so much movement. When Chin began improvising, he decided that the dancer needed to become whole and also incorporate voice in the performance. While watching Peter Chin in performance the previous evening, I felt that I was witness to a shaman at work. The movements and soundscape are so primal and often shocking / surprising in turn that they made me transfixed in amazement. Using hip-hop music, personal music favourites as well as originally commissioned scores, Chin's work crosses dance, theatre and performance into a higly unique and personal memoir of "what the blood remembers". His Chinese ancestry appears in his martial art-like movements and his rounded easy-shuffle choreography resonates his Trinidad background. I am involved in a work-in-progress with Peter Chin and we hope that the 25 minute dance-theatre work is completed for a 2002 world premiere in Toronto. Seeing Peter and working with him is like an intensive ayurvedic oil treatment. One is wrung out and exhausted at the end of it but also strangely vitalised and vibrating within. I cannot wait to meet and continue working with him again. 

When Aruna and Dominque performed at THE OTHER FESTIVAl in Chennai last December, I missed the performance since duties at my ancestral village called me away. I was told by many that they were the highlight of the festival and I was privileged to hear and witness the sacred magic that their voices wove on that warm Malaysian evening. Interrupted occasionally by impatient weekend revellers on their motorcycles, Aruna and Dominique presented a feast for the ears. Church music from 13th and 16th century Europe and sacred hyms from the 2nd to the 20th century India were woven seamlessly into one fantastic soundscape. Contemporary poet and film lyricist Kannadasan's immortal lullaby "malarum malaraada paadhi malar pola" was the most beautiful song I have heard in recent ears and both me and my friend Sumitra, a fellow Tamilian, had tears in our eyes at the end of it.. Never have I heard the song sung so movingly and so beautifully! Aruna's plea to Muruga of Kadirgama in Sril Lanka was also a crowd pleaser. Could anyone help it if the many Tamils in the audience started humming and singing along with her! Our own blood memory was pumping too strongly for any of us to resist its call! 

In the five short days that I stayed in KL, the CHIN / BLASDEL collaboration and the ARUNA / DOMINIQUE performance both played for two nights each. On both days the crowd numbered about 125 - 150 with many in the audience coming for the very first time to a SUTRA event. The devoted band of volunteers and parents of Ramli's students took over the entire catering, airport pick ups and drop offs as well as the shopping expeditions that I forced them into. My discovery of the most delightful boutique called PETER HOE was another added bonus where I picked up gifts and wonderful cool cottons at less than half of Indian prices. Located at the edge of Chinatown, I was driven through the most popular discount shopping area of KL where the most famous Parisian designer bags and shoes are duplicated at less than 10% of the original price. Wherever I went I encountered Tamil people who recognised me due to my recent appearance on a SUN-TV music program as well as my cameo appearance in a film!.. Oh, the power of the media!!. Ramli's name is synonymous with a cult icon in Malaysia. From the customs officers at the airport, to taxi drivers and shop owners, his name inspires awe and respect. When I said that I was his guest, I received special attention wherever I went, even at a small sushi bar in the mammoth Mid-Valley Mall. 

My guru Lakshman Sir would have been very proud. The day before I left for KL, I spoke to him and he conveyed his blessings to Ramli. GERAK ANGIN was the name given to SUTRA's month long festival and it means 'the inner wind' in Malay. In a country which is grappling with globalisation and the hovering censure of Islamic canons, Ramli's artistic journey has been fraught with peaks and troughs. In the new Malaysia of this century, SUTRA sends out a clarion call for the universality of the arts and the power of the artist to see life in ' violent clarity '.. 

Anita Ratnam as a performer and choreographer embraces both the traditional and contemporary streams of Indian dance. Through her foundation the ARANGHAM TRUST, she is actively involved in developing a new and young audience for the arts in her hometown of Chennai and is a passionate advocate for the arts as a tool for social change. Anita is now working on a unique project of reviving lost ritual temple traditons in Tamilnadu. She created, the much-visited Indian dance site and co-founded and directs The Other Festival.