INTERVIEW | Our youths recognise Lady Gaga but may be completely ignorant of what is a rebab, erhu, veena or sapeh.
INTERVIEW | The emphasis on our humanity needs to comprehensively be incorporated into our education system and into our day to day life, said Indian classical dancer Ramli Ibrahim.
An accomplished dancer and trainer, the Kajang-born Ramli established his Sutra Dance Theatre in 1983.
In 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.
In fixing arts and culture in 2020, you wrote: “Taking away the extremist and sometimes confusing Islamic factors out of our arts and culture policies and doing away with some Islamic religious requirements.” How did these factors influence your journey as a young artist, and how do they influence young artists today?
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 community.
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.
Indian 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.
The 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.
As 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.
The 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.
Even the 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”.
At 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.
Truthfully, 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.
Perhaps, 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”.
Over the 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.
Some 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 agencies.
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.
The 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.
Yet, 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 system?
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.
Definitely, the regressive religious ideas perpetrated in the last three and half decades have contributed greatly to Malaysia’s descent as a “failing state”.
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 sense?
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 common denominator.
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.
In a 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?
As 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 reforms.
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 world leaders.
The 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.
People 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 this nation.
Now or never! A tragedy indeed when Harapan could not fulfil its promises when it had the chance to at least attempt the change.
Are art and politics mutually exclusive?
We 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.
Civil 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.
It 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.
We 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 areas.
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 advantage.
Was there ever a period – with Sutra – that you were the most despondent, and how did you overcome the period?
Treacheries 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.
However 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.
But, 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.
Nevertheless, 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.
“Traditional” 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.
Also, 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.
If 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?
Artists 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.
Lately, 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.
They 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?
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.
We recognise 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 divided.
Where did we go wrong? When did we lose this once precious cultural ambience? Art and the artistes make us ponder these questions.
How do traditional arts survive in an environment where the primacy of western culture, defines our social, religious and political discourse?
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 world.
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 values.
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.
By : S. THAYAPARAN – MALAYSIAKINI