UTM’s decision to axe Ramli Ibrahim’s intercultural dance talk a blow to artistic expression

The controversy surrounding the role of the arts as an artistic expression and an educative process came to the fore recently following the cancellation of Datuk Ramli Ibrahim’s talk on intercultural dances at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM).

The cancellation was on the advice of the university’s Islamic Centre, the regulatory body that vets all activities, including the arts, to ensure that they conform to the university’s policy of only hosting activities that are not racially or religiously sensitive.

We must look at the nature and functions of artistic expressions to get a clear picture of its relevance in modern community.

Visual and performing artistic expressions are cultural- or religious-specific. It reflects the emotions and sensitivities, norms, and values of specific cultures, through copying and transforming the physical and spiritual environment into two-dimensional, and three-dimensional representations. They serve both religious and secular functions.

These visual expressions offer various levels of cognition and appreciation, from the awe and sublime of iconographic religious representations, to the secular formalistic depiction of structural arrangements of forms that mimic or transform nature.

The average observer perceives the superficial beauty of the artistic expressions, while the erudite connoisseur deconstructs the architectonic structure to perceive the mind of the artists and the ethos, and norms, and values of the culture they depict.

Religious art that spans the whole gamut of human existence, from the primitive, through the classical and contemporary periods, constitute a major portion of artistic expressions.

Masks and iconographic sculptures were and are used in rituals to
appease and placate the animistic spirits. Frescoes and paintings adorn the medieval churches, evidenced by the works of Michelangelo. Likewise, the performing arts – dance, music, and drama – originated in animistic rituals that are still extant in Sabah and Sarawak.

Bharatanatyam and Odissi are Indian temple dances that are performed to worship and glorify the pantheon of Hindu gods. Just like the Balinese dances that serve a similar purpose to placate the Balinese/Hindu gods.

Even our own traditional theatre, such as Mak Yong, Wayang Kulit and Main Puteri was associated with animistic rituals. However, over time, these ritualistic dances have become secular and are performed for their aesthetic values, and theatrical, rather than ritual performances.

These ritualistic and secular artistic expressions constitute an important segment in cultural studies in most university education all over the world, as well as learning their performance skills in arts academies.

For example, Universiti Sains Malaysia has a School of Arts that offers Bachelors, Masters and PhD degrees in this discipline. Universiti Malaya, Universiti Teknologi Mara, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, and Universiti Malaysia Sabah also offer such degree courses. Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA), the arts academy under the Culture and Tourism Ministry meanwhile, focuses on performance skills in traditional and modern dance, music, and theatre.

Thus, it is rather perplexing that a talk on dance, which is part of the study of the arts that has been sanctioned by the Education Ministry, has become a major bone of contention.

UTM cancelled the talk on Bharatanatyam and Odissi by Ramli, the founder of the Sutra Dance Theatre and Chairman of Sutra Dance Foundation, because the Islamic Centre deemed it sensitive.

Perhaps they misconstrued this educative process as elements of proselytisation.

The problem lies with the narrow interpretation of the dance when viewing it from a myopic perspective that tends to distort and pollute the artistic expressions with the observer’s prejudices. This perception is endemic in most Malaysian universities, especially those without a faculty of visual and performing arts.

In some universities, religious sentiments take precedence over creative pursuits. Perhaps this was the situation in this case.

Here, UTM has exercised its prerogative to ensure that performances conform to its regulatory policies.

It is sad that a simple talk on intercultural dance has boiled over into a confrontation between the freedom of artistic expressions and religious sentiments.

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.