Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Is Mak Yong Really Court Theatre?

In recent years the Malaysian mak yong dance theatre has attracted special attention due to political and cultural policies introduced in the state of Kelantan, as well as Istana Budaya’s spectacular production Raja Tangkai Hati. The fact that mak yong was in 2005 declared by UNESCO as an item of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, gave it a considerable boost. Even so, on the part of the several-times-renamed Ministry of Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage and its agencies, efforts to bring about a revival of mak yong, to popularise it or to preserve it for posterity have been far from sufficient or successful. Meanwhile, in Kelantan, its traditional home, this art form continues to be banned. It is thus neither dead nor fully alive. Apart from pure apathy as an underlying factor, one can understand some of the possible reasons for this ambivalent situation. Mak yong is, after all, ancient, not totally Malay, in content and purpose highly unIslamic, and in performance not particularly refined except in patches.

Despite its certain antiquity, there are no early records elucidating its origins or confirming its history. Mak yong was mentioned for the first time in 1878 by Frank Swettenham who happened to come across itinerant performers, possibly in Pahang. Walter William Skeat and Jean Cuisinier touched upon it in brief in 1900 and 1936 respectively. Up to that point in time, none of these observers connected mak yong with any royal family or kingdom. They regarded it implicitly as folk theatre, with Cuisinier seeing possible connections with ancestor cults or healing through main puteri, the shaman dance of Kelantan. There was no “theory” of mak yong origins.

This was to change with Mubin Sheppard. In several brief, near-identical, papers written in the 1960’s and 70’s, and also published as chapters in his books, Sheppard advanced two broad views on this subject: the first seeing mak yong as folk theatre and the second as court theatre.

As for its folk origins, Sheppard connected mak yong with the spirit of the rice, semangat padi, also named Mak Hiang, who, in his view, gave the genre its name. Having come into being, it appears that this theatre form was further connected with rituals honouring Mak Hiang or some other higher being through her mediation on behalf of the raja. There exist several variant statements on this subject, but Sheppard nowhere developed the arguments in any way, in strong contrast to his alternative view.

As for its supposed royal origins, Sheppard sees the beginnings of mak yong in the palaces of Langkasuka and Patani. Mak yong was, he says, the favourite entertainment of “generations of rulers” of Langkasuka, Ligor, Patani and finally Kelantan. He mentions no other art form that may have had a place in the palaces. More interestingly, not a single name of any royal performer, enthusiast or patron of mak yong in any of the three kingdoms, excluding Kelantan, to which we will return, appears in his articles. Sheppard does not provide any evidence for the supposed connections of mak yong with Langkasuka. This does not come as a surprise for, apart from its name, nothing is known about that kingdom, not even the identities of its rulers. Being a pre-Islamic kingdom, Langkasuka would have been a Hindu or Buddhist polity. Sheppard claims that Ligor was a “successor” state to Langkasuka and, following that, Patani succeeded both Langkasuka and Ligor, suggesting a possible continued history. Studies in the history of Patani do not confirm this.

For his claims that mak yong was performed in the Patani palace Sheppard relies on two sources of information--firstly a brief description by Tome Pires of a performance this traveller-trader witnessed during a visit to Patani in 1613, and secondly, several passages in Hikayat Patani, an important 17th century history of that kingdom. Pires’ description, in which he suggests resemblances between the one or more dances he saw in Patani and those performed in Java, is insufficient to establish the precise nature of the unnamed dance he witnessed. Hikayat Patani, in itself a highly interesting work, does indeed provide evidence for strong support for certain styles of performing arts in the Patani palace during the period covered by the work. Much of what Sheppard attributes to the arts in Patani, including mak yong, based on Hikayat Patani is, however, quite incredible. This is glaringly so, since even the most diligent search does not produce a single reference to mak yong anywhere in the hikayat.

Sheppard claims, finally, to neatly complete his picture, as it were, that once imported into Kelantan, mak yong continued to be supported by royalty in that State, with several hundred actresses involved, until the “royal troupes” were disbanded in the 1920’s. For this too, neither Sheppard nor history provides any evidence. On the contrary Hikayat Seri Kelantan mentions that one of the Sultans actually forbade mak yong performances.

Apart from this, all that is known about mak yong and its connections with the Kelantan palace is that Tengku Temenggong Abdul Ghaffar in the 1920’s had several rural-style panggung built on the grounds of Istana Lama in Kota Bharu for various types of performances, including mak yong. This venue has come to be known as Kampung Temenggong. The prince attempted to refine mak yong—possibly focusing on its dance and music rather than theatre aspects—possibly for performances before noble audiences. No actual confirmation of such performances exists.

The Tengku Temenggong’s unsuccessful initiative ended with his self-exile a few years before his demise. Information for some of the developments in Kampung Temenggong and particularly the role played by that royal enthusiast of the arts, was given to me in 1975 through personal communication by several performers once active in Kampung Temenggong. These included one of the prince’s final wives, Zainab binti Samad, fondly known as Zainab Tengku Temenggong.

In the light of all this, without the support of even the flimsiest evidence, Sheppard’s stance that mak yong was court theatre is nothing short of being contrived, false and misleading, the product of fantasy or an overly active imagination. His purpose in presenting these “theories” can only be guessed at.

*I have discussed these and other possible views regarding mak yong origins in greater length in several published and unpublished works listed on my website.

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