by Ashish Khokar, Editor, attendance 

August 2001

To think just three hours out of Madras, oops Chennai, there's a civilization far ahead of India, is, szimbly shocking, ma. Malaysia is a delight - from the arrival at one of the spunkiest airports to the neat display of modernity as manifested in traffic, people, places - all disciplined and organised. Are first impressions deceptive? Let them be!  
The first impression of physical space of SUTRA, that exceptional dance-theatre company created by one of the finest artists of the world, Ramli Ibrahim, is deceptive. Isnít it a bit small, isnít it basically an adjunct to the sprawling house, isnít it subject to vagaries of nature by being out there in the open? We are at the 5th SUTRA Festival, a major event in Malaysia (for Indian dance too! ). Spread over 5 weeks, premiering few major works and platforming others, it is indeed a Herculean event. Questions arise as to how can one group made of volunteers manage this? 

The answers lie in the evening performance by Urmila Satyanarayana. Over 400 people in the audience and still more standing. Nearly half or more foreigners. And, for a change, the Indian community is there in attendance too, not sulking or cursing or finding fault with Ramli.

But then he is Ramli. A quiet stroll at Bricksfield late that night after the performance, an excited looking local comes up to Ramli and says, "Are you not Ramli?" Ramli is famous, loved and treated as a local god. Why not? He looks like one and acts like one too. No, not arrogant but compassionate. After a busy day he takes time off to drive his maid all the way in the wilderness of some suburb by way of thanking her for having stayed late. Small things show what a person is made of. 

Sutra is made of a group of very devoted volunteers with parents heading the brigade. Ramli's logic is: "unless they see all the hard work that goes in, how would they know what it takes to become a dancer, run a dance-theatre company and create and manage a space like this?" Well said, but try implementing it without egos embattling themselves in bruised entanglements! 

Thus Uma Pushpanathan, Emi Kawauchi and James Low make the holy parental trinity that act as producers, a term loosely used to denote fund-raiser and food-provider! They are all high-energy fields with low show-off need! Solid, strong and subtle, they are pillars on which SUTRA stands. As integral part of SUTRA, they offer their time but more than that, their unflinching support to all activities. A young neighbour complains one night to Ramli, "Uma did not let me in to see the performance...she said buy a ticket, Ramli". Thatís Uma! Mother-hen, she runs a tight ship. Bit like James Low, who as GM of one of the more prestigious hotels of Malaysia - The Concorde - where some of us were lucky to stay - is so low-key that his own staff in Shah Alam would not know he's the GM. Good graces canít be acquired; one is born with it. James and Cecilia's daughter January Low is the beautiful dancer with moon-like face who is part of most productions. She has elfin charm and grace, a true artiste and to think this blossoming talent is just in her teens! 

Teens form the core of Ramli's group anyway. "I love to work with young people". For someone who will turn 50 shortly, for Ramli anyone under 48 is young! Ramli inspires. Many in Malaysia who may not otherwise collaborate and come together, would do anything to work and perform with him. After all, Ramli helped the initial careers of Guna, Mavin Khoo, Geeta among others. 

Ramli does not stop any artistic influence or collaboration. Artists of various shades, painters, writers, dramatists are attracted to him. His greatness lies in taking them all together. 

A gallery space indoors which duplicates as seminar room too, had paintings by Sulaiman Esa, a big name in art circles. Another week, the Collection of Dato'N.Parameswaran was on display depicting the fine brush art of Nik Zainal Abidin. Of course, in private spaces of the house, the red-art of Shivarajah Nataraj dominates and how! Black dance motions slowly unfold on red backdrops: strong, sexy and saying something different. 

Yes, not one day went without someone making the effort of keeping us Indian guests and their demanding vegetarian fads from being unfulfilled. Besides, fetching and driving delegates from their hotels to the venue of performances, deliberations and seminars - the SUTRA Theatre at Titiwangsa ("donít take a taxi at night, we'll drop you as you might end up in Singapore!" cautioned one volunteer"),(although taxis are clean and quick and mostly honest)- a haven created by the loving hands of creatures like Shivrajah Nataraja (thatís double dancing lord! oh my god!) who is everything to Ramli and SUTRA - in-house handy man, artist, technician, designer, painter, thinker, activist and above all, a deep individual who is intelligent and bright. A rare combi? But then this is SUTRA! 

One sees godzillas strategically placed under the stage, in the lawns and everywhere in the house, which truly is an open-house. But then, the technician-incharge is a character by the name of Godzilla! He looks anything but that and is a rather unscary and sweet version of the horrible Hollywood creation. But then thatís Hollywood. 

Our High Commissioner there- Veena Sikri - ex-DG, ICCR and a Festival of India talent from Moscow, is genuinely involved in all that happens and is constantly trying to help build medical colleges by the Pai group of  Manipal when not attending to Prime Ministerial visits. In between, every evening she can be seen taking time off to attend the performances at SUTRA. She comes quietly, does not seek VIP attention and is genuinely involved post-performances in meeting the artistes and learning more. 

SUTRA's place and position in the local scheme of things is difficult and diverse. On the one hand, Ramli learnt dance forms of India and is an acknowledged master of Orissi, having mastered Bharatanatyam. Two, he is Malaysia's best-known contemporary talent too. There, he is an activist, an educationist and a celebrity. He puts all this to good use and in furtherance of the arts. 

At the Second Forum, the First Lady of Malaysian Theatre, Farida Merican struck as a genuine talent, deeply interested in the fate of Malay arts, especially in view of slow and steady Islamisation of the country. That seemed to be a leitmotif of the art scene, although local constituents provide a colourful scenography by their inputs. Thus we have the TFA - Temple of Fine Arts- where 500 children get a taste of India through Bharatanatyam, mridangam classes or at private spaces of devoted teachers like Apsara Ram Gopal, where enthusiastic students come on weekends to learn. Indians are good at keeping their flock together and some culture helps. "Otherwise, they'd be on the streets, on drugs, pimping or prostituting" (as is the wont of  Malay youth today and a cause for concern where traditional cultures are fast being eroded). Other Indians settled there doing yeoman work are film-maker Rohini Kumar, whose love for Uday Shankar has made him set-up the first internet site on the man. It will go online in September coinciding with Dada's death. A new birth via the net seems to be the message! 

The two evening of traditional arts the Wayang Kulit (Shadow puppets) and Makyong (Malay opera) performances were a treat with the dalang - the master puppeteer, in his element, emoting various voices with panachea. Makyong almost faces extinction for revival / reversal of which a whole new faculty of performing arts at the university - the UiTM - has been created where a scholar-aesthete Prof Madya Najib Nor, an elegant, articulate person is in charge. But with devoted people like him and Ramli Ibrahim, can true art ever fade away? 

Son of  Mohan Khokar and M K Saroja, Ashish Khokar learnt Bharatanatyam and Kathak and has been a dance critic for over a decade. Heís a biographer and photographer with over 10 titles and major TV serials on dance to his credit. He is the editor of Indiaís first dance annual Attendance.