An accomplished dancer and trainer, the Kajang-born Ramli established his Sutra Dance Theatre in 1983.
a recent interview, he spoke about the obstacles he faced as a Malay
Muslim, problems in getting federal or state funds for Indian dance
productions and the influence of national politics on arts and culture.
As a Malay Muslim who has
made Indian classical dance not only his vocation but also his lifetime
pursuit, I have encountered my share of flak and obstacles from various
Islamic agencies and some of the more religious members of the Muslim
Personally, I have never thought my involvement in
Indian classical dance was a problem with being a Muslim. In actual
fact, there are other professional Muslim dancers and musicians in
Indian classical performing arts in India and elsewhere who do not
regard this situation as a conflict. Many great musicians of India are
Muslims; the great Carnatic vocalist Yesudas is a Christian.
classical dances have transcended national boundaries and can now be
found and are taught all over the world. The effective message in the
arts has always been communicated symbolically and metaphorically
through the power of suggestion, rather than demonstrated literally.
confusion increasingly more acute here in Malaysia is a result of the
acknowledged influence of the brand of Wahhabist Islam since the
mid-1990s, which has been promoted and taught in the Malaysian education
system. It is "fundamentalistic" (in the "austere" sense of the word),
rigid and tribalistic in its overpowering presence.
It is not
inclusive and mindful enough practice within our multi-racial society.
Moreover, this brand of Islam eschews most forms of visual and
performing arts. It has a tendency to be disdainful of other non-Islamic
cultural norms and practices.
PAS in Kelantan has even
effectively caused a cultural genocide in the East Coast of Peninsular
Malaysia through the banning of several authentic Malay traditional
performing art forms such as Mak Yong, Wayang Kulit and Menora,
among others. These traditional indigenous performing arts, now banned
for almost three decades in their very place of origin, can no longer be
practised freely by the traditional indigenous artistes of the region.
the older artistes pass on, the artforms are rendered bereft of
successors. Subsequently, the nation has effectively and irretrievably
lost the repository of authentic intangible cultural assets. Ultimately,
this has a devastating effect on the psyche of the artistes themselves,
the indigenous community and eventually, the nation.
inhibiting factor of "Wahhabist Islam" precludes other universalist
ideas and practices that it has to share a living space with. It is not
surprising that the indoctrination over the years of this brand of Islam
has bred a collective closed-up mindset leading to the present
generally regressive world view of the Malay culture.
so-called "educated" Malays have generally been conditioned to accept an
almost hypocritical lifestyle of apparent "religiosity", but in truth
lives a sufficiently hedonistic one which can raise the eyebrows of
normal citizens. They seem to apathetically endorse the present cultural
demise of their own traditional art forms.
In my four decades
since I returned to Malaysia, I have always been extra careful
throughout my career in negotiating my way through this web of absurd
guidelines and protocols, written or tacit, governmentally formal or
civilly informal. When one is dealing with the government or city
council cultural officials when getting licenses and permits to perform,
the process can be likened to walking through a minefield - a miracle
indeed when a show is completed without a hitch.
One of the major
obstacles to performance in Malaysia is funding. It would be difficult,
if not impossible, for an Indian dance production to secure funding
from federal, state arts agencies or even corporations because the
production is not deemed within the "sanctioned artforms".
the same time, however, these factors have also made me determinedly
stronger as an artiste and a human being. I think I have achieved these
successes through hard work and also because my artistes and team were
able to transcend these barriers through sheer grit and excellence.
I do not know exactly how to advise a young dancer, especially, a
Muslim one, if he or she were to follow my steps. In my initial journey,
there was a certain naivety on my part, which when reviewed in
retrospect, was rather amazing in its audacity.
I didn’t realise that I was dealing with a global Islamic
fundamentalist tsunami which was massive in magnitude; I simply rode on
it and somehow miraculously survived, thankfully, unscathed. Yes, there
needs to be an absence of cynicism and a kind of naivety in one’s
youthful passion to plunge into something as "useless" as dance - that
this God-gifted universe is pleased that what you do is special and it
will look after you. Certainly, if you regard security and money to be
important, then you are in the wrong field.
In the same
piece, you wrote: “The Malay culture is presently undergoing dire
regressive trends due to the introduction of negative "fundamentalist"
Islamic values, inhibiting creativity.” You also were worried that
realisation from the community “may be too late”.
last three decades, there are definitely discernable regressive
religious trends in tandem with phoney and hypocritical tendencies
developing within the Malay culture. These became worse during former PM
Najib’s era during which civil servants’ mindset seemed overtly
politicised with rampant corrupt practices became the order of the day.
Malays outwardly became more religious, and somehow there seemed to be a
denial that the world was moving fast toward more universalist values
and principles, and that they were being left far behind. All those
students sent to the Middle East for religious studies came back and got
into strategic positions in the educational system and governmental
Like blotting papers, they had absorbed the extremist
ideas and concepts of Wahhabism and Salafism taught in their alma-mater.
They then regurgitated and declared with zealous eloquence to their
wards and paved the way for the "Arabisation" of the Malay culture,
exhorting them to become more "Arab" than the Arabs themselves.
provincial aping of everything Arab was truly depressing. There was an
emphasis on religious studies and on life thereafter the poor
performance of the present life is excusable as its only "temporary".
Halal and Syariah became the topics that took precedence over others.
why is that, for all that the religious slogans and guidelines promoted
by the government, educational and religious bodies, they are somehow
ineffective to deter the corrupt practices endemic within the government
The political, civil servants, PDRM, immigration, city
council institutions, supposed to serve and ease the burden of the
rakyat, are instead rife with corrupt practices. The bacchanal Mat
Rempit culture is rampant mainly among the Malay youths. Definitely, the
religious values strongly advocated in our education system have not
been effective in inculcating the vital importance and values of
integrity in life’s dealings.
With Arabisation of the Malays, came
the rejection of some of their own indigenous cultural practices. The
traditional performing arts in the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia
have been banned, resulting in subsequent generations not being able to
continue these precious art forms.
Instead of treasuring these
intangible heritages of ours, they are now alienated from the very
communities which once sustained these artforms. Abandoned and looked
down upon, these traditional art forms are now regarded as "against the
teaching of Islam".
Tragically, the Mak Yong - considered
Malay traditional performing arts par excellence and deemed by Unesco
as a Living World Heritage - has been banned for almost three decades in
Kelantan where it originated. Now, Mak Yong is almost irretrievably lost except as exiled spectacles in auditoriums in Kuala Lumpur.
the regressive religious ideas perpetrated in the last three and half
decades have contributed greatly to Malaysia’s descent as a "failing
How do you respond to critics who argue that Malay
culture and creativity are flourishing, especially when you look at
mainstream “Malay” culture - books, TV and movies - but it is just not
the type of culture you are propagating? In other words, is the
"realisation" a reaction on your part to the cultural change that is
willingly being embraced by the majority polity esp in the economic
One must question: Who is saying this? When one
refers to mainstream culture, one generally refers to the popular
culture, especially those which pander to the populous - to the lowest
I am not aware of a positive development or
evolution of our national identity by way of "serious" culture. Neither
do we perceive this development in "serious" literature, music, dance,
film or publication.
For voting reasons, success is measured in
terms of "numbers" and "graphs" generated or, rather, manufactured.
This data is seldom checked for accuracy. I think KPIs as a measure of
efficiency are overrated. All the same, the barometer of success is
mainly judged by the quantity and not quality.
Cash is king, and
so are numbers - in terms of voting need. Predictably, the ministries
play their melody to the tune of the lowest common denominator in order
to justify spending. In the arts, it is the art-brokers themselves who
are getting richer while the artists are suffering.
fascinating interview you did, you said that: “I tell my students, 'If
you are a good performer, you have to balance the ‘male’ and the
‘female’ within you.' You have to be almost neutral [so as to] inhabit
the character and feel the rasa."
How does an artist expound on such ideas in a climate where such concepts such as “androgynity” are attacked by the state’s Islamic bureaucracy? And what are the repercussions of such ideas on Malay culture?
mentioned, the concept of "metaphor" is completely alien to the
clerics, certainly, lost to most mullahs. Even India has recognised the
LGBT communities and dispensed with the talaq, and even Saudi
Arabia has recently announced "de-Wahhabism" seeking a return to the
path of moderate Islam with major economic, social and cultural
Ultra-conservative Wahhabism prevalent the last 30
years, and even now, has been decreed "out". Meanwhile, in Malaysia,
our clerics will still be arguing whether the Covid-19 vaccine is halal
or not. Our muftis are still debating issues considered passe and are no
longer within the ambit of discussion of respected intellectuals and
Pakatan Harapan government paid dearly for its unforgivable flimsiness,
when in power. It failed to deliver what it promised. It failed to
attend pronto (and once and for all) many issues that it vowed to do.
were ready for a revolution in the mindset to change outdated issues:
to formulate the necessary amendments and improvements on important
issues such as those concerning climate change and environment; medieval
Syariah laws which oppress our women and female children; to give our
indigenous Orang Asli their rightful dues to live with dignity; to
improve a lot of our animals with amendment to Animal Welfare Act...
many other issues which needed updating in tandem with the realities of
Now or never! A tragedy indeed when Harapan could
not fulfil its promises when it had the chance to at least attempt the
Are art and politics mutually exclusive?
need political will and good leadership to change for the better,
anything in a big way. However, I believe that to govern in the most
efficient and equitable manner, governance has to be secular.
laws have to be above Syariah laws. Otherwise, we will be stuck with
medieval hudud laws. Arts and any other area of life can be easily
politicised. Liberal universal understanding with issues of culture and
arts, race and religious matters, climate and environment, issues with
indigenous people and human rights etc have evolved to their present
state through years of refining our perception of human civilisation.
is still not perfect, but concerns and disputes would need the right
political will and climate to co-exist and to contribute towards the
development of citizens and nations as part of our global civilisation.
endorse diversity, and therefore, we need to respect our differences
and perceive them as resources, not as disadvantages. We need to be
civilised together on this spaceship earth, and leaders must be
"comprehensivists" and understand the inter-relations of component
The above are issues that fall within the purview of
politics, but they should not be politicised to the detriment of
national progress - especially in a multi-cultural and multi-racial
milieu such as ours. When the leadership is poor and weak, even
democracy and Parliament can be hijacked. There are sufficient
loopholes in our checks and balances for unscrupulous persons to take
Was there ever a period – with Sutra – that you were the most despondent, and how did you overcome the period?
by those who we have helped most can bring any morale of a sensitive
human down. However, simultaneously, I am fascinated by this facet of
the human psyche.
It's almost a law; those you had helped most or
supported would harbour a simmering resentment that eventually
manifests in a treacherous act - a knife that would be plunged in your
back when you are not looking. It is not a cynical view of the
homo-sapiens. It is the truth.
I can’t help but be
fascinated by this particular human psychology and face of humanity
which is totally destructive. And, my strength has always been to be
able to restore my faith in the ability of an individual to positively
continue to contribute in spite of this knowledge.
despondent and bleak, the fact is - there’s a high probability that
one’s good intention will be treacherously returned. Period.
Reading about Odissi
and the words of performers here and abroad, there is a spiritual
aspect to this art form. Is this why regressive religious forces are
often at odds with this particular art form? It seems to me, one must be
sufficiently spiritually liberated (from dogma) to connect to the
deeper meaning of this artform or am I missing the point?
Indian classical dance and music, yoga, and ayurveda are few examples of traditional practices and values which have found a revival movement in our present age.
The revival of Odissi
dance which started only about 60 years ago, was part of this overall
renaissance of Indian culture. In the core of each of these art forms,
there is a strong spiritual basis. This "spirituality" at this day and
age is more universalist in nature and no longer functions in the same
context of the previous "religious spirituality" once associated with.
this does not mean it has lost its power. In fact, it has gained an
even stronger foothold. Like what the great dancer Ram Gopal said once
to me, “Everywhere I perform, is the ‘temple’."
However, one cannot expect the general population to fully understand the deeper meaning of "spirituality" of Mak Yong, Chinese opera or Bharatanatyam.
it is possible to allow these art forms to flourish and find their own
level among those who are sensitive to this new spirituality, beauty and
culture, by adopting a more embracing and inclusive stand in our
National Cultural Policy.
Yes. One has to be liberated spiritually to connect with the core of divinity of all art forms.
art forms do not seem to connect with young people. Why is that and
what values - if any - are lost when young people are ignorant of their
traditional cultural art forms?
Connecting with the young is
a problem here, but not necessarily in Indonesia, Cambodia, India or
Japan because there have been consistent endeavours in education to
expose children and youths to traditional arts starting from young.
Our youths recognise Lady Gaga but may be completely ignorant of what is a rebab, erhu, veena or sapeh.
It is imperative that we know our traditional roots first, so as to
enrich and give dignity to our identity - individual or collective - and
not become third-hand mouthpieces from the other "advanced" nations.
though we view ourselves as global citizens, it is pertinent when we
talk of "modernity", that we are also able to define the context of
"modernity" from the indigenous art of our region rather than
perpetually to echo bad modern/contemporary works of other regions.
anything, the political and social environment has become more
divisive. Religious imperatives are becoming the focus of the political
class in a way that we have not seen before. What do you think is the
role of the artistic community in such an environment?
may comment on politics, but authentic artistes are not political
animals, and their works should not be exploited as tools of politics.
Tacitly, by definition, artistes endorse inclusivity.
religions have become a source of divisiveness, and that’s a pity. This
is because religious issues have been politicised.
I have always
believed that genuine artistes are modern-day shamans who not only heal
society but also serve as the conscience of society. Authentic artists
heal society by demonstrating and familiarising society with the inner
journeys and landscape of the people.
The presence of their works are therapeutic; like their traditional counterparts, metaphorically, they retrieve lost semangat of individuals and also collectively, of the nation.
do this by familiarising people with our individual and collective
journey, past, present and future so that the individual or society can
recognise once again their lost identities, and in turn, be able to
fulfil, if not reset more confidently, their role and placement in the
tapestry of Life.
How would you define Malaysian culture?
cannot be limited by definition like Rukun Negara, or the ten
commandments of Christianity or the five pillars of Islam. Culture is
constantly evolving and amorphous, yet it is there.
it by its absence. Like the muse, which can be elusive, a vibrant
culture can be lost if we are not careful. We lost much of our liberal
and inclusive culture of the past and now find ourselves polarised and
Where did we go wrong? When did we lose this once
precious cultural ambience? Art and the artistes make us ponder these
How do traditional arts survive in an environment
where the primacy of western culture, defines our social, religious and
I have previously mentioned that there
are several countries such as India and Indonesia, where traditional
arts are not only surviving but thriving in a globalised and modern
In a global and fluid environment, especially in the
present age of digital technologies and artificial intelligence, an
individual can and may be expected to straddle several identities. He or
she can have one leg in the modern and the other steeped in traditional
For those countries which incorporate traditional values
early in their education system, the respect and love for traditional
arts are inculcated since young, and the merger with western and
indigenous culture is more seamless.
The schism occurs when
western PR and overt commercialised marketing becomes the overriding and
insidious influencer of our youths. Then, we cannot feign surprise when
our younger generation becomes totally alienated from their own
traditional arts and culture.
The recognition that we need a
comprehensive view of all areas in our nation-building - not just the
technical knowledge of digital and artificial intelligence -would enable
balance in our own traditional and contemporary arts and culture.
The emphasis on our humanity needs to comprehensively be incorporated into our education system and into our day to day life.