Governments must ensure money trickles down to activists, groups bringing both countries together

By Padma Shri Datuk Ramli Ibrahim

SINCE time immemorial, there has always been a continuous mingling of cultures between India and Southeast Asia.  

The Malay peninsula, situated at the crossroads of the cultures of India and China, was inevitably influenced. The prevailing monsoon winds brought enterprising conquerors, merchants, priests and with them, a retinue of races, practices and ideas. In return, the indigenous cultures were fertilised and enriched.  

One is reminded of the call of Malaya maruta (south Malaya winds), which brought in its wake the romanticism of spices, textiles, theatre, literature, songs, music – and more importantly – living the adventure of curiosity and making human connections.  

These bonds acted as civilising agents of communities and nations. In those days when copyright was never an issue, ikat and batik, wayang kulit, the great epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata), literature, cuisine, medicine were constantly churned and transmogrified within the cultural cauldron of daily lives. Inter-marriages were not just between races but also cultural mores.  

Arguably, it is with the Indian subcontinent that Malaysian culture finds its major inspiration. From centuries of proximity with India, the binding of culture between India and the Malay peninsula has been omnipresent. Contemporary Malaysia finds its belief, language, literature, food, medicine and ceremonies inextricably connected with the Indian subcontinent.  

Individual drivers of culture 

One, however, must not underestimate the numerous independent enterprises, which enabled the socio-cultural exchanges that took place over millennia between India and greater India – that is, the Southeast Asian archipelago. We have heard of anecdotes of connections formed, motivated by individual initiatives. Rabindranath Tagore’s forays into Asia were mainly to satisfy personal curiosity, but what an effect this had on the artistic direction of Shantiniketan. 

Some of these independent forays were made for no other reason than to reaffirm and foster human connections. They may even have flourished simultaneously alongside larger state-sponsored economic and political enterprises.  

Where the Indian communities in Malaysia were concerned, associations of the Tamil, Malayali, Telugu, Punjabi and Sri Lankan diaspora represented the patchwork map of the subcontinent itself. They mushroomed all over the peninsula. These “Little Indias” replicated the motherlands and continued to promote socio-economic and cultural exchanges with the subcontinent.  

On the larger picture of India’s influence, not only do Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Carnatic music find easy acceptance in contemporary Malaysian culture alongside Indian films, yoga, idli-dosa and ayurvedic massages, they thrive with other migrant cultural practices. With Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew Chinese, the various Indian communities find themselves in the cauldron of the larger matrix of Malay culture.  

As history played its role, the cultural amalgamation motivated by individuals by “the call of the heart”, etched and dramatically accented the colourful tapestry of human endeavours. These age-old cultural exchanges are still happening today, thanks to the interactive religio-economic and political engagements between India and Southeast Asia. They reaffirm the diversity and genius of human cultures and survival. 

It is in the milieu of this cultural mix that Sutra Foundation finds itself. In the last four decades, Sutra Foundation has been forging a contemporary and interactive conversation between Malaysia and India. Sutra’s presence reaffirms the moderating influence of the arts among the communities thirsting for good dance and theatre. The diverse cultural performances allow communities to meet and interact in a liberal atmosphere of universal ethos and awareness through exposure to broad-based cultural perspectives. 

Rapturous reception 

The medium of this vibrant cross-cultural phenomenon is through the Indian classical dance of Odissi, a classical dance style found in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. In the last 35 years, Odissi has been transplanted successfully to Malaysia and many Malaysians are now familiar with the dance form. Odissi now competes with Bharatanatyam as the leading and popular Indian classical style, taught by many institutions and performed regularly in the main cities, especially Kuala Lumpur.  

Due to the high acclaim for Sutra’s productions over the years, its Odissi performances are not racially polarised. This, in no small measure, is also due to the multiracial make-up of its dancers.  Over the years, Sutra and agencies engaged in the promotion of culture and arts have consistently fostered collaborative ties with India through associations with dance gurus, dancers, visual artists and scholars. They have contributed towards multiculturalism and the promotion of bilateral cultural ties between the two nations and their people.  

Sutra’s “Stirring Odissi 2008”, an international festival held for an entire month in Kuala Lumpur, was a case in point. The festival involved more than 150 performing and visual artists and scholars from Malaysia, India, the United States, Japan and Singapore.  

One of the great highlights of Sutra’s history must surely be when it was endorsed to represent Odissi at the 2008 India Dance Festival in Carnegie Hall, New York, with other troupes from India. That a Malaysian dance company was accepted to represent Odissi for India on the international stage said much about the munificence and trust that India had in Sutra’s role in promoting Indian culture. 

At the Konark Dance Festival in 2017, the Odissi and Bharatanatyam performances of Sutra Foundation and Temple of Fine Arts, Malaysia, celebrated the ancient Kalinga-Malaysia cultural links. One of the Sutra’s major performances was supported by Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) and the Uttar Pradesh government at the great Kumbha Mela, Prayagraj/Allahabad in 2019, reaffirming the legacy of this age-old cultural link. Sutra recently performed Jaya Ram (Odissi), a seamless cultural encounter where Bharat meets Malaysia, at the Khajuraho Dance festival in Madhya Pradesh. 

Many of the cultural links catalysed by large festivals need considerable funding. Usually, they can only be achieved through government-to-government support and agencies. 

The scene in India, too, has changed over the last few years. India now reflects her new global economic status with more liberal and enlightened arts policies. ICCR, under the Ministry of External Affairs and the Sangeet Natak Akademi, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Culture, has provisioned ample arts budget to promote culture and arts in India and abroad. These government, quasi-government and state agencies are managed by artistically enlightened bureaucrats who recognise the vital role the performing arts have in imaging India, nationally and internationally. 

ICCR through its agencies, such as Indian Cultural Centres (ICCs), have pushed for proactive collaborations with its counterparts. The Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Indian Cultural Centre, set up in 2010 in Kuala Lumpur, has emerged as a fulcrum for engaging with the vibrant academies in Malaysia promoting Indian arts and culture, apart from offering classes in yoga, dance and music. The close cultural connect of the people of the two countries, including the presence of a large Indian community in Malaysia, continues to enrich the bilateral cultural ties. 

The MoU on cultural exchange (2015) between the two countries is a good start but the sincerity of efforts must be taken to the officers in charge downstream. The effective actions performed by downstream agencies matter a lot. They can either stimulate or dampen the enthusiasm of cultural activists who generate and seek support for these exchanges. The cooperation and right attitude of these agencies, which facilitate the last details of procedures for non-commercial cultural exchanges, are crucial to enhance and catalyse these links.   

Padma Shri Datuk Ramli Ibrahim is chairman and artistic director, Sutra Dance Theatre, Sutra Foundation


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