Thursday, September 3, 2009

On the Current Malaysian-Indonesian Conflict on Cultural Forms

Recent weeks and months have seen Malaysia and Indonesia locked in argument on the ownership of certain traditional performing arts forms: the shadow play (wayang kulit), reog, the song “Rasa Sayang”, and even the Malaysian national anthem, resulting from attempts by Malaysia to exploit some of these forms for the promotion of tourism. The most recent item to join this list is the Balinese pendet dance, an issue quickly resolved due to its relative lack of complexity.

All in all, given the geography of the region, Malaysia’s demographic make-up as well as its cultural history, there is much that this country shares with or has borrowed from Indonesian as well as other cultures. This is particularly the case with Sabah and Sarawak due to the common border between the two countries, and fact that political borders to not necessary coincide with cultural realities on the ground. In the present situation, certain broader issues are involved, not all of which can be touched upon here. Some of these may, however, become clearer in a discussion of the most important traditional theatre genres active in Malaysia.

The once Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage Datuk Seri Rais Yatim, who is now currently back as Minister in the renamed Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture and others have acknowledged the basic truth that certain genres of performing arts, such as wayang kulit, and reog in fact, came into Malaysia from Indonesia, while mak yong may have had its origins in Thailand.

Reog or barongan in several variant styles, and the better known and highly spectacular Barong of Bali, all possibly derived from the simple forms of barongan still active on the island of Java. Essentially they were and to some extent still are ritual theatre forms intended for village cleansing, chasing away malicious influences and healing. Similarly kuda kepang, the gamelan and many other forms of dance and music spread to the Malay peninsula from various parts of Indonesia essentially with the immigration of peoples. More difficult to deal with are various forms of performance that have “Islamic” or Middle Eastern elements in them—hamdolok, hadrah and, dabus, for instance. These also arrived in Malaysia not directly from the Middle East but through Indonesia.

However, coming back to the major forms of theatre active in various parts of peninsular Malaysia, we can focus on wayang kulit, mak yong, menora and bangsawan.

In recent decades four forms of wayang kulit have been active in peninsular Malaysia: wayang kulit purwa, wayang kulit Siam, wayang kulit gedek and wayang kulit Melayu. Of these wayang kulit Siam, renamed wayang kulit Kelantan, is the most important.

In essence there are several major theories regarding the origins of the shadow play, suggesting its first emergence in India, Java, China or Central Asia, with India having a strong claim due to the story-content and several other features, such as iconography or performance styles. The most important stories in many Southeast Asian shadow play forms are, after all, based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and some of the rituals have strong Hindu elements, besides those derived from animism and Islam. But Java too has a strong claim to the shadow play based on antiquity, the greatest variety of regional forms, important elements within performances as well as functions. On that island is to be found wayang kulit purwa, the most important form of wayang, historically as well as aesthetically, active for more than a thousand years.

Of the four forms in Malaysia, three came from Java, while wayang kulit gedek, spread from Thailand, where, known as nang talung, it is performed in the southern provinces, but is no longer active in Malaysia. Wayang kulit Melayu has also become extinct in Malaysia. Wayang kulit Siam/Kelantan is the most important. Although Kelantanese puppeteers (dalang) hold a view that it came from southern Thailand, internal evidence points to a Javanese origin. Following adaptation, however, it has developed certain distinct characteristics of its own. In the meantime several new forms have sprouted in Kelantan due to the official ban on wayang kulit Siam.

Mak yong, found only in the Malaysia, Thailand and parts of Indonesia, has its own interesting development. It is usually associated with the Kelantan-Patani region, without any clear indication of where exactly it may have originally come into being. Various claims state its origins in Besut, once part of Kelantan but presently in Terengganu, in Patani. now in Thailand, and even further afield in Langkasuka, Champa, Sumatra and so on. None of these theories is supported by any evidence. It is clear that it reached Indonesia, at least in recent history, from somewhere along the east coast of the Malay peninsula. It is still active in southern Thailand, and there is much in mak yong that can be considered Thai or Buddhist. Among its most important stories a couple are set in Java, and Anak Raja Gondang is a Buddhist Jataka tale also known and performed in Thailand and Cambodia along with several others in the mak yong’s dramatic repertoire. But Thailand and Cambodia, for whatever reason, do not claim mak yong. I suspect this is mainly because the performances are done in the Kelantan-Patani dialect of Malay. Whether or not the element of language alone makes mak yong Malay is a moot question.

In many ways similar to mak yong, yet very different from it, is menora (lakon chatri), a form of dance theatre which developed in southern Thailand. It was fairly active until recent times in Kedah, Perlis and Kelantan, but is now done only by a troupe or two, as well as, occasionally, by visiting troupes from Thailand, which come in mainly in connection with Buddhist temple festivals, performing in the states mentioned as well as in Penang. There is no doubt about its animist and shamanic origins and its strong Buddhist flavouring. There have been attempts to combine menora with mak yong, but due to menora’s ritual origins and functions, Malay performers usually serve merely as musicians and dancers; they do not hold principal roles. Somehow when it comes to mak yong, almost identical origins in animism and rituals are conveniently ignored.

That leaves bangsawan as the last important traditional theatre form active in Malaysia. As far as history is concerned much more is known regarding bangsawan compared to those forms already mentioned due to its more recent origins, in the 1880’s, as a successor to the Urdu-Hindustani Parsee Theatre of India. More widely spread than the other genres, bangsawan became the first truly Malayan and even Pan-Malayan form of theatre, at least as far as its distribution and popularity was concerned. This was due to its urban locus, its interesting and relatively “modern” staging, as well as the use of standard Bahasa Melayu instead of local dialects. It is still occasionally performed in several states in present-day Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Brunei. Bangsawan remains a highly eclectic theatre form with elements from the west, Middle East, India as well as closer home from Java and elsewhere incorporated into performances based upon an equally diverse dramatic repertoire. In its early decades, Indian-Muslims, Babas, Chinese, Malays as well as Eurasians were involved as artistes, in some instances with their own troupes or as owners (towkay) of bangsawan companies. With the process of deliberate and sustained “Malay-isation” following independence, bangsawan came to be regarded as a Malay form of theatre.

There exist several other lesser forms that need not take too much our time as far as the drift of our present discussion goes: various supposed offshoots of bangsawan such as jikay which may have connections with the Thai likay and Cambodia yikey; randai which is clearly a Minangkabau theatre style active in Negeri Sembilan; mek mulung which, like mak yong, has strong Thai influences, to name but the most developed of the lesser forms. It is also worth mentioning that several proto-theatre forms, such as selampit, awang batil as well as ritual varieties of performances such as bagih, belian and main puteri may still be seen. These in fact may be indigenous to the region, and this Malaysia shares with Indonesia, and similar forms in the Philippines.

To return to our key question: Can any of these major and even the lesser theatre styles be regarded as Malay or even Malaysian? Obviously there is no simple answer to this question, looking at the origins and characteristic features of the various genre as well as the ongoing controversies between Malaysia and Indonesia on cultural forms clearly demonstrate. It is evident that apart from wayang kulit Siam and bangsawan, which underwent localisation in Malaysia, the rest are still performed in Indonesia or Thailand little changed from the past, and are thus clearly native to those countries. There is of course, always the question of first origin, or even shared origin. Given the movement of peoples over the past two millennia, cultural forms have travelled far and wide and along the way became transformed and localized. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the shadow play, given its wide prevalence in countries between north Africa and China as well as Fiji. We can thus literally go on arguing about these issues until the cows come home.

The complexity arises, basically, due to the fact that current political boundaries have served to distort the reality of a time before the existence of the nation-states of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, with the tendency to see cultural forms from the perspective of national boundaries.

To add to this, Malaysia wishes and attempts, wherever convenient, to see the whole picture in the context of “Nusantara”, and the “Malay World/Dunia Melayu”, both terms relatively new, vague and defined without any degree of precision. The primary tools in this perspective are race and language—the assumption that all the many races and native communities of the region belong to the fold of the “Malay”. This is an assumption that is clearly wrong, despite the use of the term “Malayo-Polynesian”, a recently-invented, artificial and convenient label at best, as recent discussion on it has tried to establish, to refer to the peoples of the region.

“Nusantara” as a term has similar problems and would mean a different thing if seen from the Indonesian or Javanese rather than from the Malay perspective. Clearly the vast majority of the peoples of “Nusantara” and “Dunia Melayu” do not see themselves as Malays. And the so-called "Malay" population of peninsular Malaysia is largely made-up of such peoples (the Mandailing, the Bugis, the Achehnese , the Javanese, the Minangkabau, and so on), peoples belonging to what may be more accurately termed the Indonesian diasapora, a diaspora which began way back during the early centuries CE, with greater intensity during and following the Buddhist Srivijaya empire (c.7-13th centuries), the largely Hindu Majapahit empire (1298-1500) and still continues. It is these communities, and possibly others from the north and later from the west that brought into the Malay peninsula, in addition to much else, the various theatre forms already discussed above, and many varieties of dance and music.

When it comes to language, similar problems arise through a misunderstanding that Malay or Bahasa Melayu is the “native” language of the various communities of the region, and even beyond the region. Clearly the vast majority of Indonesians would reject such a claim, as would the Filipinos who also see themselves in some ways as ethnic Malays. Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia and other such terms, taken from different nationalistic perspective, refer to a language that has become, to some extent, the lingua-franca of the region, and in some countries as “official” or national language. That does not make it a native language of the various peoples. Despite using it as a national language, the indigenous Bumiputera communities even of Sabah and Sarawak, do not regard Bahasa Melayu as their “native language” or “mother tongue”.

As language is the primary medium of the performance of theatre in addition to other innate elements (aesthetic aspects, underlying beliefs, rituals and so on) to be found in each of the genres, the various genres discussed above cannot, in any way, be regarded in a standardized manner as belonging to one culture, even though they are active within the political borders of any one nation state-- borders, as already indicated, often arbitrary and artificial. In the case of Indonesia, for instance, given the country’s vast size and extent, there are considerable differences in theatre forms active in its provinces and islands encompassing diverse cultures of equally diverse communities. To assume they are all homogeneous would be an over- simplification, and to suggest that they are all Malays, grossly inaccurate.

Hence the current conflict between Malaysia and Indonesia on cultural forms.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Mak Yong: Yet another Malay Dilemma

I remember Mubin Sheppard telling me several decades ago that mak yong will never die; that it will live for ever. He saw magic in it, but did not refer to what would keep it going. In all likelihood it was a pious wish.


Since then much has happened to mak yong. Several generations of leading artistes from the thirties to the present have passed away since the mid-seventies of the last century. When I did my early research several of the “giants” of mak yong were still around. Today we don’t even have dwarfs left. Mak yong has become urbanized and is better known outside Kelantan than it was before. Considerably transformed, it has taken a position of some importance at the National Arts and Heritage Academy (ASWARA), and, occasionally, courses are offered in various performing arts programmes in local universities, resulting in performances of diverse hues, thus raising important questions related to what mak yong really is.


I have been working on this genre since 1975 as researcher, writer, lecturer and promoter. The timing of my fieldwork in Kelantan, done for my doctoral dissertation entitled “The Kelantan Mak Yong Dance Theatre: A Study of Performance Structure” (1976), was certainly fortuitous, given that so many highly important mak yong personalities, active or otherwise, were still around. It was also fortunate that I managed to collect a considerable amount of information, material that has taken years of follow-up work and many published papers. Apart from trying to understand what mak yong was/is and how it was/is performed, I have continued working in increasing depth on aspects such as origins, functions, spiritual and psychological beliefs connected with mak yong, as well as on some of its rituals, rituals which mak yong has in common with several other Kelantanese traditional theatre forms. I also documented almost the entire dramatic repertoire of mak yong in 1975-1976 in Kelantan and several following years. No one else in the world has done as much.


Jean Cuisinier had looked at mak yong, as one of several ritual dances, in her work, Danses Magiques de Kelantan (1936), indicating some possible connection with main puteri. Sheppard, in some ways the first person to describe mak yong in a more accessible way, looked at it in very basic, almost layman terms. Some of his “theories” of mak yong origins are self-contradictory, illogical and seriously flawed. Particularly problematic are his attempts to link mak yong to “Malay” royalty since ancient times. I have discussed these in various papers.


Through Sheppard’s leads, William Malm, a highly-regarded musicologist and specialist in Japanese music from Michigan University, Ann Arbor, recorded performances of nine mak yong stories in Kelantan in 1968. The collection of around 100 hours of videotape, housed at his university, became the basis of my own initial research for my doctorate. Sheppard and Malm wrote an article about Malm’s fieldwork in Kelantan, Sheppard got the opening text of a performance transcribed, while Malm wrote a couple of preliminary articles on mak yong music.Patricia Matusky, another American scholar who researched the music of the Kelantan shadow play for her own doctoral theses, has published some work on mak yong music. Hilde Kwam from Sweden did fieldwork and documentation in Malaysia for a doctoral dissertation on mak yong. I have not been able to trace her dissertation as yet, if she has indeed completed it. An Italian, Anna Manichetti, following two Summer visits for research in Malaysia, wrote a general thesis on mak yong for a masters degree from Paris University. Most recently, another American, Patricia Hardwick, wrote an article on mak yong dance; she also has completed fieldwork on mak yong in Kelantan and is now in the final stages of submitting her doctoral dissertation at Indiana University.


Locally, Sunetra Fernando wrote a masters thesis on mengadap rebab, the opening dance in mak yong, several years back. More recently Rosdeen Suboh completed his masters thesis on the peran (comic) role while Sumathi Maniam, compared the story of Anak Raja Gondang with the Jataka tale Sang Thong. I supervised both of them at the University of Malaya. Hardy Shafii completed a doctoral thesis at Universiti Sains Malaysia on management in Mak yong. I have not had the opportunity to read this thesis yet. I am still wondering what management Hardy managed to find in mak yong. The writer himself has been evasive. Jamilah Tahir has very recently completed work on her masters thesis on the peran role at Universiti Sains Malaysia.


As far as I am aware, the above is the sum total of completed academic work on mak yong. There are, of course, others who claim to have done “research” on the subject, and a plethora of entries of various types, including some highly dubious ones, have been uploaded on websites, in which writers give credit to themselves and to others for having done this or that for mak yong, most of the time without evidence to support their claims.


Mak yong came to be recognized as an item of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005, as a result of a submission that I prepared for the Malaysian Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage. Since then there has been much popular “interest” in mak yong. Virtually unknown or long-lost performers have resurfaced, suddenly “interested” in or concerned about the imminent demise of their heritage, seeing it as their “duty” to save mak yong; existing groups have been split to create new ones, others have mushroomed overnight, at times made up of persons without any background in the genre. As far as can be seen, the sudden interest has come about not because mak yong has all of a sudden become precious, but because money has begun to flow.


But even as this supposed “revival” is taking place, there is much that is wrong with the way in which mak yong is understood and treated at nearly every level in the country. And it continues to decline where it matters, in the rural or semi-rural communities where it came into being in the first place.


Quite a number of mak yong artistes, as well as those who worked on the mak yong-main puteri combination, have passed away in the past two to three years. Among these Zainab Junun, Sa’ari Abdullah and Che Man Gabus were the best known. Many others have become too old to perform, or have just given up, languishing, their interest totally sapped. All in all the numbers have dwindled seriously, and there are no replacements, basically because there is no support of any kind, no genuine interest in mak yong. And our concern should not be just with numbers, but with what the artists had or still have to offer. Today it is impossible to get reliable information about mak yong from any newly-emerged performer. Thus original research work, as far as mak yong is concerned, is as good as ended.


Yet, when it comes to publishing existing research material, no matter how important, there are problems, connected mainly with what, in general terms, is termed “politics”. In traditional performing arts, including mak yong, there is a certain amount of material lying around in various forms, including theses and dissertations mentioned above. At least some of this merits consideration for publication. Commercial publishers avoid such material for clearly there is no market for it. Academic publishers, including university presses have not shown interest in such material or remain unaware of its very existence.


My own material on mak yong, sufficient to fill a dozen or more volumes, suffers the same fate. The best of it should, in my own view, be published by reputable world publishers rather than by those in Malaysia, to maintain its integrity as well as to get the widest possible exposure. I am working towards that. Yet, there is some of my material, particularly in Bahasa Melayu or the Kelantanese dialect, that should be published locally, despite certain risks. I have sounded out officials in the Ministry of Culture in its various incarnations, as well as its subsidiaries, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, and ASWARA. I have written proposals and have had direct discussions with appropriate persons. There have either been plenty of assurances and no follow through, or, in some instances, there has not even been the courtesy of an official response.


Apart from sheer lack of interest, it appears that cronyism is also a vital consideration. Mediocre and error-ridden material can be published if one is close to certain people, and also, naturally, if what one submits, accurate or inaccurate, good or otherwise, meets with their often unstated interests and policies. In addition, there are genuine risks and dangers of thievery, hijacking and plagiarism, to the extent that no material given to the agencies I have mentioned is safe.


I can confirm this in the case of mak yong scripts I collected and got transcribed during my own research in the mid-1970’s. Through the kind courtesy of ASWARA these have become everybody’s property, and persons who had nothing to do with them have been financially rewarded for claiming “authorship”. I can confirm such a situation in the case of the UNESCO Candidature File for which, as the consultant researcher and writer, I am yet to receive as much as a single word of thanks, while the country’s success in getting mak yong recognized is being trumpeted all over the world. I can confirm this in connection with the volume on mak yong, to be published in commemoration of the UNESCO recognition. The entire project, proposed by me at the Ministry’s invitation, and almost completed, was hijacked, together with whatever essays were submitted by me and by authors I invited into the project, as well as my slides, photographs and even a copy of my Ph.D dissertation.


These materials have been sitting in the Heritage (Warisan) Division of the Ministry since 2005; they have been freely used and distributed by the Warisan Division without my permission or any acknowledgement, in total disregard for copyright laws. No matter what I have done up to this point, these materials have not been restored to me. So, in this case it is nothing but total denial, a refusal to give credit or recognition where it is due, blatant daylight robbery. I suppose all of this is being done in the national interest, untuk bangsa dan negara, with the fullness of budi, bahasa, budaya and what have you.


And, as far as the UNESCO proposal is concerned, unfortunately the Heritage people have not shown any serious commitment even to the master plan submitted with the Candidature File. It appears that all they were interested in was the title, and, naturally, there is a great deal of noise about this achievement. As things stand they have failed miserably in achieving the targets of the master plan. I would venture that hardly 10% of the plan has been implemented. In it there is the commitment, among other things, to ensure that, by a certain date, mak yong is thriving in several of the states as well as at the National level, while being internationally known, like previous recipients of the award, such as Indonesia’s wayang kulit purwa and the Cambodian royal ballet.


Apart from the basic attitude problem and the sense of arrogance, if one tries to understand why mak yong has gone the way it has, apart from the Kelantan government’s rules banning it, one can summarize that there is much in mak yong that is, in a fashion, “Malay” but also a great deal that comes into direct conflict with Islam. This is the dilemma and instead of admitting it and allowing mak yong to die, which, in fact. is what is happening anyway, there is a glorious pretense that mak yong is a significant item of Malay heritage, and that it must be kept alive. This brings us back to a vital question: What kind of mak yong is to be preserved, and if mak yong is transformed to such an extent that it becomes acceptable to orthodox Malay Muslims will it still be mak yong?


I stated this dilemma in a paper presented at the International Conference on Performing Arts as Creative Industries in Asia (University of Malaya, 27-28 February 2008). Briefly, it comes in the form of three major problems. The first has to do with the aesthetics of mak yong. The changes that have been brought into this genre, particularly in the entertainment variety of mak yong performed outside the traditional folk setting, have resulted in the loss of the very integrity of the genre. The second is the problem of dramatic content. The entire corpus of stories in mak yong, local or borrowed, consists of pre-Islamic myths, at one time certainly, and to some extent still “sacred” in character among mak yong artists, with central characters who are demigods or gods (dewa). They remain important in rituals aimed at bringing about healing or a sense of well-being. Hence they will not be easily abandoned by performers. The third is the fact that every mak yong performance is a sort of rite, a rite which takes place in sacred space and in sacred time, a major rite incorporating lesser but highly significant rites. All performances connect performers and traditional audience members with the invisible.


When Sheppard said that mak yong, which, in his opinion, had existed since the days of Langkasuka, would never die, he was not being a prophet (although some in this country regard him as a dewa). Perhaps he did not see the strong animistic and non-Islamic elements in mak yong, found them exotic, or, like many others before and after him, pretended they were not there. He certainly had a problem trying to reconcile Mak Hiang with “Malay” royalty. Perhaps he did not anticipate the oncoming conflict between Islam and Malay culture that has become full-blown in the past couple of decades.


My own feeling is that, given the current situation, policies and attitudes, mak yong will just die a natural death before long, with the last of the traditional performers gone, unless, of course, one is prepared to believe that what ASWARA is claiming to be mak yong is indeed mak yong.


Note:


To revisit some of the issues connected with the origins and development of mak yong, The Asian Cultural Heritage Centre Berhad is organising a one-day bilingual seminar on the theme: Mak Yong: Origins and Historical Development/Mak Yong: Asal-Usul dan Sejarah on July 25 2009 in Kuala Lumpur. Those interested can contact the writer at gsyousof@hotmail.com or mywordmalaysia@gmail.com

Sunday, April 5, 2009

UNESCO WORLD POETRY DAY 2009 IN PENANG

On March 21 this year something very special happened in Penang. This was the first ever celebration of UNESCO's World Poetry Day in that State. In case there are readers not familiar with what this is all about, it may be worthwhile quoting a brief passage from Wikipedia:

“World Poetry Day is on March 21, and was declared by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1999. The purpose of the day is to promote the reading, writing, publishing and teaching of poetry throughout the world and, as the UNESCO session declaring the day says, to "give fresh recognition and impetus to national, regional and international poetry movements."

Several years ago, while surfing the net one night, I came across references to UNESCO’s World Poetry Day. Almost instinctively I decided that such a day should be remembered in Kuala Lumpur. I was fortunate to get the support of the University of Malaya Cultural Centre for a proposal I wrote, and some funding from the Ministry of Culture Arts and Heritage. The event was held over two days.

Reports on the internet show that at times the celebration of World Poetry Day has been done on a relatively simple scale, with a handful of poets gathering at some street corner or café to recite their work, with or without a real audience. Some are no doubt aware of itinerant solo poets singers and bards moving from place to place, coming alive as it were, wherever there is an audience; some may be aware that, in certain instances, the real audience may even be invisible, and the poet, more appropriately poet-priest, apparently sings to no one, no one visible that is.

We Malaysian are somehow different. Unless there are “proper” opening and closing ceremonies by so-called VIP’s, even if these VIP’s do not know the meaning of the word poetry it does not matter, nothing significant is taking place; unless the air-conditioned hall is packed there is no event; unless a great deal of food is consumed and all the trappings of celebration are somehow incorporated, we do not feel there has been an “event” of any kind. This is our culture of tinsel and wastage. It is symbolic not of strength but of weakness. It certainly has nothing to do with poetry.

World Poetry Day may be celebrated with poetry in a single language. As a theatre person I have often cited the definition of theatre by David Cole that one person (the doer-- actor) doing something (the thing done-- the event or the imitation of one) and another (the single audience member) observing him, would constitute a theatrical transaction. My own definition of proto-theatre of which there are many examples in Asia, is similarly constructed. Dionysus was a solo- artist as were Homer and Valmiki, as was Thespis. They were all actors just as much as they were solo-poets. Why should poetry be any different today?

Anyone who has seen/heard a single blind selampit artist in this country or a Baul singer in Bengal would know that there is no difference. It all boils down to a celebration of the word, which is after all sound. Word is sound; sound is word. And a word, as we know from the opening line of the Gospel according to St John, can do wonders! If, for some reason, anyone is allergic to the Bible he can substitute with whatever scripture or system of utterance he is less allergic to.

Given the fact that such an event was being done in Malaysia, I felt that perhaps one way to make it exciting was to bring in poetry from as many languages as possible. In Kuala Lumpur I ended up with around thirty. I suggested readers come in national costumes to enhance the sense of ritual and theatricality. Thus there were informal costume parades, and with cultural performances thrown in to break the monotony of extended reading, came into being what would be my own, possibly unique, manner of celebrating poetry, my own brand, to use contemporary jargon. The fact that foreign diplomatic missions, universities, local cultural organizations, and individuals came in to assist made it all possible.

The event in Penang was officially presented by The Asian Cultural Heritage Centre Berhad, which I founded as an NGO, with the same basic formula used in Kuala Lumpur. However, due to certain uncertainties and constraints, UNESCO World Poetry Day 2009 in Penang was done on a slightly modest, but still grand enough, scale. Part of the blame for the problems and uncertainties must go to Malaysian officialdom, the definition of what constitutes an event, something I have already referred to, and also certainly to the Malaysian sense of time. Admitted I should have got the ball rolling a little earlier, but there were still several months to go before March 21. By the time the initial idea began to get moving we had less than two months left.

Not being very clear about how the activities connected with Georgetown's status as World Heritage Site actually transpire on the ground, and, more critically, how funding may be secured, I discussed the idea with Anwar Fazal. He was enthusiastic, and suggested that I bring in Wawasan Open University as a partner with my Centre, with their gleaming new campus as the venue for the event. Once Wawasan had shown interest, as far as I was concerned, UNESCO World Poetry Day 2009 in Penang could proceed. The mechanism was set into motion with the appointment of my Committee.

Following discussions with Anwar I sensed that I would have problems getting funding from Penang. That did not scare me overly, for I was confident that funding would, as it logically should, come to me from the Ministry of Culture, Arts, Heritage and Unity, the custodians of our cultural heritage as well as the home of UNESCO in Malaysia. I had broached the idea, informally, as before, during my first attempt at organizing World Poetry Day in Kuala Lumpur, with the selfsame officer in the Ministry. He was also the officer with whom I had worked to get the ancient mak yong dance theatre nominated for World Heritage status. My proposal, including the accompanying documentation prepared for the Ministry was sufficient to allow for UNESCO to recognize mak yong as an item of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in the year 2005.

As before, on the UNESCO World Poetry Day 2009 project, I was assured there would be no problem. All I had to do was to write in. And write in I did, directly to the Minister, with a copy to the officer, my contact person, who happened to be the Minister’s Personal Assistant. On the suggestion of the Committee I also invited the Minister to officiate at the opening of the function on March 20. My proposal was at a later date, also sent to Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. I was already assured of support though verbally by the Ministry. I was also confident that Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka specialists in “the word” could be depended upon to assist. And then the waiting started.

Serious problems awaited my Committee in the coming days. To cut the story short, I did not receive any response from the Minister’s office to my official letter. My phone calls and email messages went unanswered or got the usual, very Melayu, tak tahu, tak pasti and so on. And even a desperate visit to the Minister’s office to meet someone, anyone, who could assist, produced more tak tahu and tak pasti. I could not even get an answer to the question whether the Minister would be able to launch the event (to make it a real event). Under pressure, my Committee decided that we should leave the Minister out; that he was perhaps too busy to come to Penang on March 20, the date on which we had originally planned to have the official opening.

Still I had hopes that Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka would help. In compliance with to my Committee’s suggestions, I kept reducing the scale of the proposed programme, finally cutting it down it to just single day, March 21, instead of the original two and a half. I could not invite any foreign poet as I had hoped to as time was running short, and I made other adjustments. I called Edwin Thumboo to come up, but he was in Hong Kong. Meetings with people in Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka seemed positive. There was the possibility that they would sponsor a couple of Sastrawan Negara to grace the occasion. It was suggested that I trim my budget to indicate more precisely what I expected from them. Still, at the end of the day, no Sastrawan Negara was sponsored by them, no funding came through, the final word coming to me a couple of days before the event, by email, with appropriate sopan santun, lemah lembut apologies, and assurances of possible assistance next year, 2010.

Yet, I still have not lost faith in them. I am already, like my Committee members, looking forward to 2010.

Meanwhile preparations had been going on apace. Instead of the Minister, the organizing Committee managed to get the very affable and accommodating Tan Sri Emeritus Professor Gajaraj Dhanarajan, Vice-Chancellor and CEO of Wawasan Open University to do a brief opening ceremony. There were four important readers at that session. There was the unassuming Muhammad Haji Salleh, who is in Universiti Sains Malaysia. One of Malaysia leading poets and a National laureate, Muhammad writes both in Bahasa Melayu and English. There was Wong Phui Nam, the most established English language poet in the country, and there was Marzuki S Ali, another well-known Malay language poet. Not exactly a member of this group, but nevertheless, for the Committee a very important person, was 87 year-old Padman who travelled from Ipoh to present short excerpts from the epic Mahabharata in Malayalam. The tone was set, in a sense, by his presentation, for the four poets, by presenting poetry written 2000 years apart, opened the session wide. There were to be no limits of when the poems were written, by whom and in what language. This was the tone I had earlier tried to establish in my opening address. And then there was the launching of a new volume of verse: Khoo Soo-Hay’s In Ancient Ayuthia: A Selection of Poems from the Past Fifty Years, a work which, like many others, had to wait the precise moment to materialize. Considerable pressure had been brought to bear on Soo-Hay so that the volume could not only see the light of day but get a launching on March 21, UNESCO World Poetry Day 2009 in Penang.

It was a quietly impressive beginning to what was to develop into a remarkable experience for poetry enthusiasts in Penang. Readings went on from the opening ceremony at 8: 30 a.m to 6:00 p.m. with appropriate breaks for tea and lunch. The closing session included an audio and visual (the audio part coming from his own voice) presentation of Rabindranath Tagore’s work by Prashanta K Dass—the second Tagore presentation, the first being that by Lalitha Sinha earlier in the day. Tagore was Asia's first Nobel Laureate for Literature. As the final reader, I read a sampling of my own work in English and a selection each from Bulleh Shah in Punjabi, Kabir in Old Hindi, Nida Fadhli in Urdu and Jose Rizal in Tagalog. Anwar Fazal who officiated at that ceremony too presented his piece.

In those several hours, poems by some of the world’s best-known poets, spanning a good two thousand years of creative writing as well as by Malaysian poets-- established, not-so-established and new--were presented. In the case of Malaysian writers, with just one or two exceptions, the poets themselves were present to deliver their work. My Committee had decided that this should be the case for good reasons, over-ruling in some instances the jittery reluctance of the poets themselves. Possibly the most significant section of the programme, was that which saw the presentation of new poems by young Penang writers as well as by foreign students from many a different land. All in all close to fifty readers, ranging in age from below 10 to 87, presented poetry in twenty-five languages in a really fitting tribute to the word. And there were cultural items in between—dikir barat by a group from Universiti Sains Malaysia, and Nyonya dances-- to provide colour and to prevent people from falling asleep. If indeed they were still feeling groggy at the end of the day, they woke up for sure, as if on cue, when the Punjaben Jatti Group presented a lively medley of Punjabi folk songs and dances.

UNESCO World Poetry Day 2009 in Penang was a truly significant event, something a Committee made up of a handful of dedicated and endlessly hard working people managed to put together under considerable strain and limitations, with the support, material and moral, that came from Wawasan Open University and Universiti Sains Malaysia. Participants-- readers, presenters and performers-- came from many different disciplines totally unrelated to the arts, suggesting that poetry has a far-ranging influence, if not upon daily lives, certainly upon the infinitely more important inner, subtler being of Man, the being that thrills with pleasure equally at the sound of a birdsong, a well-recited poem, a song whistled softly in or even out of tune, the sound of a well-tempered lute, rebab, sarangi or er hu. Poetry and music have been inseparable since the mythical days of Apollo, through those of thousands of poets the world over. It is the so-called modern, logical mind, in contrast to the traditional, that rarely sees the connection, embroiled, as it is, in the mire of materialism.

It was, in keeping with my own perceptions of poetry and its meaning, one of the missions of UNESCO World Poetry Day 2009 to restore an awareness of this connection, if only just. After all it was only the beginning . . .



The Organising Committee of UNESCO World Poetry Day 2009 in Penang consisted of the following members:


Professor Dato' Dr Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof
Professor Dato’ Dr Anwar Fazal
Associate Professor Dr Shakila Abdul Manan
Dr Mogana Dhamotharan
Satnam Kaur
Himanshu Bhatt
Lucille Dass
Norpisah Mat Isa
James Lockhead

To all of them (not including myself, of course) a million thanks.Thanks also to those many unnamed ones who made the event happen and happen in such glorious fashion.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Encounters with Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

From my earliest peregrinations into literature, apart from western works that were required reading, two Asian titles have remained fresh in my mind since my impressionable school days: Rabindranath Tagore’s ’s Gitanjali in the English version introduced by W.B. Yeats, and Khalil Gibran’s Tears and Laughter. I still hold these works dear, return to them often, and have since expanded my repertoire of readings into both Tagore and Gibran, in addition, needless to say, to dozens upon dozens of other writers, Asian, European, Russian, and a sprinkling of others from the rest of the world. My explorations into literature have continued apace, and, together with that, my collection of the world's greatest literary works.


My encounters with Tagore took me, beyond Gitanjali, into his other works, those in English and those translated from Bengali. The Gitanjali poems have been a profound, haunting presence, in terms of their ethereal beauty, themes as well as their eternal and universal values.


During my early days as a lecturer at the School of Humanities, University of Penang (later renamed Universiti Sains Malaysia) on its temporary, Malayan Teachers’ College, campus I directed and produced Visarjan (1890) or Sacrifice, possibly one of the first, if not the only, attempt ever in this country to stage Tagore; the production had a multi-racial cast. This powerful work has resurfaced several times in my life in various ways apart from the stage production, as a work taught and studied in class, but mostly as material for public readings followed by lively discussions. It became one of my ways to introduce Tagore to Malaysians—still generally unexposed to great literature--who had no inkling of the existence of this great Guru, prolific writer, and Asia’s first Nobel Prize winner for literature, the prize awarded to him in 1913 for Gitanjali. Sacrifice remains, for me, an important and essential work to demonstrate the conflict in the human soul between the principles of light and darkness.


Many other Tagore plays were included as the earliest examples of “modern” Indian drama in a course which covered selected plays of major playwrights between Tagore and contemporary dramatists, three of whom: Asif Currimbhoy, Girish Karnad and Pratap Sharma, I have had the good fortune to meet during visits to India. These plays were discussed, analyzed, written about. Besides Sacrifice, the other piece that became a favourite was Dakghar (1912) or Post Office. I also managed, with some help, to translate both Sacrifice and Post Office into Bahasa Melayu; these translations have remained unpublished.


In many ways Tagore’s dramatic works defy categorization. The groups or types into which modern Asian plays, including those from India, are usually divided, using western moulds, in keeping with western theatre history, literary or theatre movements, and aesthetics, have always remained unsatisfactory; and more so when it comes to Tagore. His plays, not exactly conventional, remain outside those moulds, as perhaps only adequate and sensitive productions can demonstrate, for, apart from their literary content, there are, in them, other elements such as dance and music, which must be taken into consideration. Such productions are non-existent in Malaysia. Thus, there has never come my way any opportunity to actually watch the plays on stage. The closest I could approach these works was through descriptions of productions, often brief, here and there in the literature, or an occasional film based on a Tagore play.


Writings on Tagore’s drama are also extremely limited in the English language and, since Bengali is not one of my languages, I have always felt a serious deficiency. Tagore the person came through to me adequately in other ways, through his own prolific books and essays, as well as writings on him by others. Tagore the poet, novelist and short story writer could be approached, through some extent, through his own works, Tagore the dramatist, however, remained a familiar but distant and fascinating figure, nebulous, unfathomable. .


These feelings were to be reinforced, and to some extent new possibilities were to open up, in February 2008, the critical point when it became possible for me to fulfill a long cherished dream to visit Shantineketan, the Abode of Peace. The opportunity came through an invitation to present a paper at the 3rd Indian Folklore Congress and International Folklore Congress from 18 to 21 February 2008.


I began to read about Tagore once again, and also to actually place him as well as his venerable institution, Visva Bharati in some kind of a tangible context. Now that, in some small way, I was to become part of the Tagorean landscape, such preparation seemed both appropriate and necessary. The university’s website afforded some assistance. The instructions received from the Conference Secretariat at the Oriya Studies Department of the university were amusing in their detail, essentially laying out what had to be done once I landed in Dum Dum airport so that, taking a train from rowdy Howrah in Calcutta, I could safely be met at the Bolpur station. That much was achieved without undue travail or mishap between the midnight landing and the midmorning arrival following several hours of waiting at the airport and a certain measure of harassment and anxiety typical of Howrah.


Bolpur came as a disappointment in its rustic and dusty simplicity. Perhaps I had expected something less rough, more cultured, associated, as it was, with the near-venerable name of Rabindranath Tagore. I was to realize, soon enough, that the association I had assumed was non-existent. Bolpur was merely the township with the closest station, the most convenient entry point, to the Abode of Bliss. Shantineketan lay some minutes away by road.


Visva Bharati University had its genesis in a school started by Tagore with merely four pupils in 1901 at the location of Brahmachariya Ashram, started by his father, Debendranath Tagore, in 1867.Visva Bharati properly came into being in 1921. To set it up, Tagore used part of the money he received from the Nobel Prize.Today the campus is still a stately sprawl of trees, with buildings from the thirties, mostly cream or yellow in colour, sitting here and there, almost cast as it were, upon open spaces, reminding one of the principle Tagore borrowed from the Upanishads, that education should be imparted in the open, literally under trees.Visva Bharati, continues the old practice of offering certain classes in that manner. But the campus is a compromise between the ancient and the new. It is obviously designed for those who enjoy the company of trees.


The flowers were blooming; one could smell Spring in the still chilly air. Walking between the seminar venue at the Oriya Studies Department and the guest house for meals each day, one could “experience” Shantiniketan, quiet at that time of the year, except for small groups of students, presumably, sitting here and there under trees or in open spaces, in discussion or writing, perhaps in the manner in which Tagore sat, surrounded by his four pioneering pupils, disciples one would more appropriately say, given Tagore’s title as Gurudev, perhaps little realizing the kind of graduates his institution would produce, including, besides him, another Nobel Prize winner in Amartya Sen, the cream of an impressive list of alumni..


And, as if to further enhance this feeling of quaintness, under a large tree every morning sang a Baul singer, Hindu or Muslim, I saw no reason to know, mystic in a tradition of art in which religious differences disappear, playing his single-stringed ektara, receiving a voluntary rupee or two from those who cared to stop. It was altogether a world distant in every way from the present. And everywhere, in Bolpur as well as in Shantineketan, one could sense the presence of Tagore. His portraits rather than those of local VIP’s or national leaders adorned the buildings, while his spirit filled the very air.


Following a visit there, Shantineketan becomes a permanent part of the memory, connecting tradition and modernity. In me the visit rekindled a desire to revisit Rabindranath Tagore, the poems, exquisite in their simplicity and profoundly alive, the novels fresh with the smells and sounds of the Bengali landscape and the plays, complex and diverse in style as well as content. I resolved that I must look for a Bengali-literate partner to explore his plays, perhaps, if time permits, to complete an appropriate study.


There is, thus, always the possibility of a return to Shantineketan.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Mamak Booksellers of Macalister Road, Penang

Recently a bookseller, Nahul Meera, also known as Nagore Meera, passed away in Penang. Nagore, a town in Tamil Nadu, India, located approximately 4 km north of Nagapattinam, is famous for a prominent Muslim shrine (dargah), one of India’s most important, dedicated to the 16th century saint Syed Shahul Hameed. During the annual 14-day feast (urs or kanduri) this shrine attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors, Hindus and Muslims, from within India and elsewhere.


Syed Shahul Hameed has many devoted followers in Penang, among these Meera’s family and those of other Tamil Muslim (Mamak) traders and businessmen. At the corner of Chulia Street and Penang Street stands a modest but appealing mosque-like structure, a memorial in honour of the saint of Nagore. Replicating the design of the original shrine complex in Nagore, this memorial is maintained by the local Mamak community.


Meera will be remembered as perhaps the most well-informed or “learned” of Penang’s secondhand book dealers, one of the dozen or so, whose derelict stalls once lined Macalister Road just outside a heritage building, the old King Edward Memorial Hospital, which in recent years was used by several non-governmental organizations. He was often consulted as a resource person familiar, in particular, with the history of Penang’s Tamil community, Muslims and, to some extent, Hindus. Thus, in some ways, he contributed to the recording of the State’s oral history. As a young man, before becoming a dealer in secondhand books, Meera worked as a salesman in a toy shop in Chulia Street; it was during those days, in 1967, that I first met him.


The booksellers of Macalister Road, most of them Mamaks, and two belonging to the Chinese community, were shifted by the City authorities, under protest, after several suggested alternative venues were rejected by them, to the far end of the first floor of Chowrasta Market on Penang Road. Most of them have passed away. The places of several have been assumed by their sons, and in one case, at least, there is already a grandson being trained to inherit the business.


But the institution of secondhand book buying and selling, possibly started in Penang in the nineteen forties along Teck Soon Street, now buried under the massive Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak (KOMTAR) structure, has changed considerably with the shifting face of Georgetown itself. Today there are other lesser-known stalls here and there in the city, as well as a handful of shops on Chulia Street--book exchanges rather than secondhand bookshops--catering mainly for budget tourists; but these have not reached the kind of fame or status attained by Macalister Road’s Mamak stalls.


While the benefits to those who wished, for whatever reason, to get rid of their used books, often as mere scrap paper, were quite obvious, they were infinitely greater for the countless regular visitors to those stalls, casual buyers, collectors as well as dealers from far and near, including one unusual buyer—a westerner who ran a secondhand bookshop in Thailand. The range of materials available was amazingly wide. A lucky visitor could occasionally, in the often messy “system” of these secondhand booksellers, pick up, on a timely visit, something rarely seen and long sought after, worth substantially more than what the bookseller asked for it. Some, like me, have, through consistent and dogged search for books and other printed materials of all descriptions, documents, even stamps and records in these Mamak stalls as well as elsewhere within and outside the country, built up sizeable, varied and invaluable collections.


The other side of the story, from the perspective of the stall-keepers themselves, was also interesting in its own way; and it was not always entirely about making money. Meera, himself an avid reader, was, in fact, notorious for charging a pittance for whatever item he sold, particularly to someone like me. I had become more than a regular customer through our mutual involvement in many an activity in Penang, not, in every instance, connected with books. In his final weeks I was one of two researchers who had, in fact, interviewed him separately for information, which will find an eventual place in forthcoming books.


It is impossible, to be sure, to acknowledge the material benefits derived by these Mamak booksellers, who, while based on Macalister Road, continued to maintain close ties with their families in Tamil Nadu, South India. In the typical old world style of business, introduced into this country during prewar years by South Asians of virtually every description, and undoubtedly also by the Chinese, several of these Mamak booksellers made substantial fortunes from their trade, characteristically living frugally in Penang so that money could be sent off on a regular basis to their families in Tamil Nadu. One hears of estates acquired and mansions built in their native towns or villages. Seldom, in those days, did these traders bring their wives or children to Malaysia. In certain cases a son eventually joined the father, or a nephew his uncle in the expectation of living on in this country on a permanent basis.


But there are also other, less obvious, dimensions to this whole matter. Not in all instances did the Mamak booksellers return to India to benefit from their own hard-earned money.


There was the case of a pair of elderly brothers who specialized in Mills and Boon romances, selling these and other such novels, new or used, or renting them out for a small fee to female readers of almost every age.Their families lived well in Nagore, in the shadow, literally, of the famous shrine (dargah). When questioned as to why they preferred to be in Penang, standing or sitting on stools more than twelve hours each day at their not particularly hospitable bookstall rather than passing their twilight years in their native land, the younger of the two brothers, Abdul Lathif Maraikar, who managed the business, replied that he would not be able to live without anything to do. He had to keep himself busy. I perceived an important truth behind this almost philosophical answer, a truth well-known to many: boredom can kill, literally. But could he not keep himself occupied in other ways in the ease of his reportedly luxurious home in India? No. He knew no other way to keep himself busy, so great was his addiction to bookselling. Abdul Lathif Maraikar eventually passed away in Penang. I never found out what happened to his sibling.


Then there is the even more interesting story of Zakaria, the best-known and possibly wealthiest of the secondhand booksellers of Penang who owned substantial landed property in Tamil Nadu. Nahul Meera, who visited him during one of Zakaria’s home visits to his family, gave some interesting details. Travelling by bus, Meera was given instructions as to how Zakaria’s house could be reached. He was to get off the bus at a particular landmark, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a gate manned by security guards. Reaching that point Meera made inquiries. He was told to wait, and, within a few minutes, a car arrived to pick him up. Meera discovered, to his amazement, that the gate, in fact, marked the entrance to Zakaria’s property; this consisted of acres upon acres of coconut palms. Meera was impressed by the number of workers employed by Zakaria and the wealth that was clearly generated by his land. This was a startlingly sharp contrast to the manner in which the Mamak petty traders and salesmen had been living in Penang for several generations, with little change in lifestyle.


I asked Zakaria why, given all his wealth, he chose to continue living in Penang in the manner in which he did, instead of returning to Tamil Nadu. The answer received was almost identical to that given by Abdul Lathif Maraikar: the fear of boredom. I was surprised, and even suggested that if there was indeed this apprehension, why did Zakaria not consider moving to a town near his estate in Tamil Nadu, to indulge in business or to invest in urban property? To this he responded that he could not see himself doing any other business; he was too involved with that of secondhand books, suggesting some kind of passionate immersion, normally seen, perhaps, just in “dedicated” book addicts like me. Zakaria would not even consider investing his money in Malaysia, for, after all, he held only the red identity card of non-citizens. Zakaria passed away in India during one of his home visits which took place every two years or so, each allowing him several months with his family. His business was taken over by his son-in-law, his apprentice and assistant for several years.


Penang’s Mamak booksellers are a dying breed, the number of stalls diminishing with the passing away of veteran dealers not succeeded by younger ones, and the lack of constant supplies to keep the trade going. Many of the older and larger collections, built up meticulously over years, even decades, have been sold off, usually tragically dispersed in countless parcels, the books trickling into the Macalister Road stalls. I remember, in particular, the impressive collection of the late D.R. Ramanathan, erstwhile mayor of Georgetown, going off in this fashion. Some of his volumes, like those of other collectors with well-known or easily recognizable names, have found a place on my own shelves. Unlike in Kuala Lumpur there is a notable absence of up-market secondhand bookshops in Penang; shops such as those, sterile and unexciting, that have, in recent decades, found a place in gleaming shopping complexes.


For older devotees of books the joy of discovering gems buried in heaps of junk will no longer be found in Penang. The island’s younger readers will never know the pleasures that could come from spending, even occasionally, an hour or two of one’s leisure time in the famous but modest Mamak bookstalls that, having had their inception on Teck Soon Street, once thrived on Macalister Road.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Response to Rawlings: Frowning upon Wayang

I received an email message one recent morning from a Canadian researcher, Keith Rawlings, who has been interested, neither professionally nor academically, but purely as an enthusiast, in the history of world puppetry. I met Rawlings in Bangkok several years ago during a seminar; before that meeting I had come across his interesting, unpublished book on puppetry, available online.

In his message, Rawlings was seeking explanations as to why the shadow play is “frowned upon” in Malaysia, and why, given such an attitude towards it, I have been involved in wayang kulit research. I tried to briefly explain the rationale behind the restriction on, or ban of, traditional theatre forms, particularly wayang kulit Siam and mak yong, in Kelantan from the perspective of the State authorities, and the apparent contradictions or ambiguities in the policies between Kelantan and other Malaysian States on the one hand, and the nation on the other. Following that, I went into some details regarding my own involvement in traditional Malay theatre.

The following is an expanded version of my response to Rawlings’ first question. Discussion regarding my own research in traditional Malay theatre will appear as a separate piece.

Yes, wayang kulit and much other traditional theatre is frowned upon in Malaysia, especially in the east coast state of Kelantan where these forms have been most active in the past, in some instances since pre-Islamic times, and are now officially banned.

As far as origins go, there is still a great deal of uncertainty regarding “Malay” traditional theatre. The word Malay is in inverted commas because of the increasing difficulties in defining it. Research has shown that in addition to other art forms, three principal genres, wayang kulit, mak yong and nora chatri (menora), came into Kelantan from outside. There are various theories regarding this. To understand some of the problems associated with origins, one must keep in mind the initial non-existence of nation states and, later, fluidity of boundaries between them, the movements of populations, and with them, religious beliefs as well as cultural practices and manifestations over the past several centuries.

The three theatre forms mentioned, and yet others, are still active outside their current Malaysian locations with minor variations or adaptations. Mak yong is a good example; it is found today in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Some opinions suggest possible connections with Cambodia’s Cham community.

Menora, being essentially Buddhist in origin and content, is not controversial except for the fact that some Malay Muslims do appear on stage during performances. The main objections to mak yong and wayang kulit Siam, on the part of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) government in Kelantan are due to the presence of pre-Islamic elements in these genres. These can briefly be summarized as rituals connected with the construction of a theatre, its consecration for performances (buka panggung), and its closing (tutup panggung). These involve invocations to a host of animistic beings, spirits or gods, from the earliest layer of Southeast Asian beliefs, and to a number of deities inherited by Malays from the Hindu pantheon. Apart from these, when traditional theatre is staged for the initiation (sembah guru) of artists, or for healing purposes, the highly complex performances, in fact, partake the character of rituals rather than theatre per se. Trance is central to main puteri shaman dance and when mak yong is staged in its ritual context, main puteri becomes an essential component element.

Activities equivalent to those mentioned above are to be found in the simplest of healing rituals, in shamanic theater, as well as in developed traditional theatre throughout the country, but the reaction outside Kelantan varies from disinterest or apathy to outright discouragement without the actual imposition of a clear ban. This may be seen as a more liberal attitude on the part of UMNO, the principal party in the ruling coalition at the federal level and in certain states, or in terms of an attempt to discredit PAS by being different from it. This contrast in approaches between the two sides has, in recent years, also emerged in cases involving visiting western artistes.

Other factors that PAS is critical of include Hindu stories, particularly the Ramayana, used in wayang kulit, even though they have been localized and accepted as part of traditional Malay literature; myths, such as those featured in mak yong, and fantasies (cerita khayalan). In the case of mak yong too, the free mingling of men and women on stage as well as the assumption of roles across gender, principally the fact that a female plays the lead role (pak yong), are sources of objection. These restrictions, taken in general and applied to traditional theatre across the board, will result, effectively, in a total eradication of performances.

Overall, it appears that the intention of the authorities in Kelantan, in some ways easily understood, even laudable, is to prevent artistes and local Kelantanese from behaviour considered frivolous or contrary to Islamic conduct. The strange thing, though, is that such performances are allowed in certain controlled situations—at private functions or for tourist groups-- with the same Malay artistes, even if audiences are made up entirely of Malays.

While in Kelantan the authorities steadfastly oppose such performances in keeping with a clearly articulated policy, in the rest of the country they are, to some extent, tolerated; where opposition does exist it is muted and not overt. This does not, however, mean that there is unqualified support for traditional theatre. Such support remains superficial at best; there is no active encouragement. Old and highly important genres are being allowed to die without any qualms or the assumption of any responsibility for their imminent demise.

In the case of mak yong, ironically, even while Kelantan maintained its ban, the Malaysian Ministry of Culture managed, through a proposal I wrote on its behalf, to get this theatre genre recognized by UNESCO as an item of Intangible World Heritage in 2005. Although I suggested mak yong as the logical choice for the nomination and even played an important role in the process, I had reservations from the very start. In the event that we did succeed in getting mak yong recognized, would anything really be done to keep it alive and kicking? I can now say that my reservations were justified. I can even say that I have regrets getting involved in the mission to get mak yong recognized.

Having achieved the recognition, the title is all that seems to matter to the country, and there is unashamed boasting about this. Nothing significant has been done to assist the development of mak yong even though an impressive and detailed master plan was contained in the proposal to UNESCO. And it appears that nothing will be done in the future. The whole thing may turn out to be nothing but a sham; yet another pathetic exercise in futility.

Meanwhile Malaysia takes great pride in the kind of wishy-washy tinsel performances staged at great cost by the National Arts and Heritage Academy and even the National Theatre (Istana Budaya).

I am reminded of an incident. When a team from the Maison des Cultures du Monde, based in Paris, visited Kuala Lumpur in January 2007 with the intention of inviting some representation from Malaysia at their annual festival, their preferred choice was mak yong. This genre had been presented at the same festival by Kumpulan Seri Temenggong ten years earlier. The team, was, however, interested in watching other genres; and so a sampling of various genres was presented by the National Arts Academy. These included several items, such as menora and dabus, brought from outside, as well as wayang kulit Siam, randai and mak yong, done by the academy.

During a discussion upon the completion of the programme, the comments made by the visiting team’s leader, Arwad Esber, on the mak yong they had watched were telling: If they wished to watch the kind of performances they had been offered, there was no need for them to travel all the way to Kuala Lumpur. They could have watched any number in Paris.

Such comments, even from world experts in culture, do not mean anything to Malaysians. It is enough that the VIP’s and officials as well as their often miniscule and highly ill-qualified “audiences” are satisfied with what is presented to them. The standard answer is: “This is what the audience wants.” Nothing else matters. Authenticity and quality are merely empty words.

To back all this is the myth, consciously and deliberately cultivated, that such glamorous performances belong to the court (Istana) tradition of arts, a “tradition” which, in reality, has never been known to exist. Fantasy, it appears, has found a place not only within performances, but also within the Malay imagination. And imagination is taken to be reality.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

ASEAN Puppetry Association


The ASEAN Puppetry Association was established in December 2006 following an initiative taken by the Indonesian Wayang Secretariat (SENAWANGI) and other cultural bodies in Indonesia. On the occasion of the Inaugural meeting in Jakarta, there was a festival featuring performances from all ASEAN countries with the exception of Brunei since that country has no tradition of puppetry. In the case of Malaysia the invitation to attend the meeting and festival was received by the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage (as it was known at that time). I was approached by an official of the Ministry’s International Division to attend the meeting on behalf of the Ministry. The Kampung Asun wayang kulit troupe from Kedah went along to participate in the festival. The Indonesian organizers had apparently met Pak Majid, leader of the group, in Kuala Lumpur and had unofficially extended an invitation to his troupe. The Ministry of Culture concurred; an official of the Ministry from Kedah accompanied the troupe, with me as the leader of the Malaysian “delegation”.


From the very first I had mixed feelings about the participation in the event of the Kampung Asun group, due to the fact, firstly, that the troupe does not represent the mainstream style of Malaysian wayang kulit, that honour, in fact, belonging to wayang kulit Siam/Kelantan; and secondly, due to the fact that what is generally presented these days by the Kampung Asun troupe, is a totally new dramatic repertoire without the place in it for the traditional stories, including the Ramayana. The troupe is a pale shadow of what used to be wayang kulit gedek, the Malaysian variant of the Southern Thai nang talung. The best-known performer of this form of wayang had been the late Pak Noh, Pak Majid’s father. Nonetheless, the Jakarta audience, mostly unacquainted with Malaysia’s several wayang kulit styles, assumed that what they watched during its single performance, was in fact “genuine” Malaysian shadow play. This term, “Malaysian”, of course, means very little or almost nothing at all in the present context.


An uncomfortable situation developed when officials from the Bali Museum began to negotiate with Pak Majid for the purchase of some of his figures. I made every effort to stay aloof but without success. Eventually I had to draw the Balinese officials aside to inform them that the figures they were negotiating to buy actually originated in Thailand. They were, in fact, nang talung figures, and that, in the event the Bali Museum purchased, and eventually displayed them, appropriate information should be provided, indicating that nang talung figures were also used in Malaysian wayang kulit gedek. The Bali Museum did purchase several figures from Pak Majid. However, having become acquainted with the situation, they expressed interest in acquiring Kelantanese wayang kulit Siam puppets as well at some later date.


The discussion during the APA meeting centred upon the state of puppetry in each country. My paper gave a general picture of the situation in Malaysia, touching on wayang kulit and Chinese as well as modern puppet styles. I pointed out that wayang kulit was dying out due to various pressures, including, in the case of Kelantan, the official ban on wayang kulit Siam and mak yong. On the positive side new initiatives have recently created less controversial forms of shadow play. One of these, wayang kulit Dewan Bahasa, promotes Islamic themes, while another, wayang kulit semangat baru, that I personally helped develop with the intention of using local stories, has thus far performed a single story based on the Japanese invasion of Kelantan at the onset of the Second World War. On the ground, even these and other new shadow play forms, some still tentative, remain relatively inactive. Puppeteers thus resort to other media such as video compact discs (VCD’s) and cassette recordings to promote their art and, possibly, also to earn royalties.


Intensive discussions took place during the meetings to lay the groundwork for the ASEAN Puppetry Association, proposed by Indonesia. While, in general, there was support for the Indonesian initiative, certain problems began to surface during discussions on the proposed Constitution and structure of the APA. The most serious point of debate was whether or not the organisations, and, in some cases, the individuals from ASEAN countries actually had any official status as representatives of their respective countries. It appeared that several of the participants had been instructed not to commit their governments to any kind of agreement. In my case I had a clear directive from the Malaysian Ministry of Culture not to promise anything involving funds. The Indonesians, keen to push the proposed Constitution through, and thus to officially set up the Association, were prepared to accept all sorts of compromises. In some ways, then, the Association was still-born.


The ASEAN Declaration was initialed on December 1 2006 before the Vice President of Indonesia, Jusuf Kalla, in an impressive ceremony in his office in the presence of the Media, and officials from ASEAN countries, with at least some of the representatives still uncertain and hesitant. Myanmar abstained. However, that country’s representative was authorized to sign the declaration the next day following intervention by her country’s ambassador in Jakarta. Like a few others, I signed as a representative of my own organization, The Asian Cultural Heritage Centre Berhad, an NGO.


The first hurdle appeared to have been cleared, with a glittering and dynamic wayang kulit performance by a well-known Balinese troupe. But, for most of the signatories, the uncertainties had only just begun.


The first meeting of the APA was held in Palembang in 2007. The organizers requested a Malaysian wayang kulit troupe as the Governor of Palembang was interested in having a small festival. I tried to arrange with the Ministry of Culture so that a wayang kulit Siam troupe could be sent. Although appearing to be interested in the early stages of discussion, the Ministry eventually decided that they were not involved. Several reasons were given: that there had to be proper planning; that such an event had not been budgeted for; that the event had nothing to do with the Ministry; and, the most ridiculous of all, that they were busy celebrating fifty years of Merdeka! That meant that they had no time to organize a group even though all they had to do was to identify a dalang who would in fact take care of everything.


I even suggested that, to make things easier and cheaper, they mobilize dalang Pak Nasir of ASWARA to do this and that I would be prepared to assist. Pak Nasir could easily put together a troupe of people from Kuala Lumpur and Kelantan. The troupe could make an overnight visit to Palembang for a single performance, returning to Kuala Lumpur, if, indeed, persons co-opted into the troupe were needed on that particular day, to participate in the celebrations marking the fiftieth anniversary of Merdeka that the Ministry was so busily involved in. When nothing seemed to move, the Indonesian organizers, sensing perhaps that the budget was the single biggest constraint in this case, offered return air tickets for the Malaysians from Kuala Lumpur to Palembang. Even then no Malaysian troupe participated in the event.


As it turned out, I could not go to the meeting. I had to return to Penang for an urgent medical check up. There was one official from the Ministry involved in the Palembang meeting, which, among other things, appears to have arrived at the tacit understanding that the second annual meeting of the APA would be held in Malaysia in 2008.


In the middle of 2008, when Malaysia was reminded that the meeting was to be held in this country, the Ministry of Culture, once again, decided it was not involved. They said they knew nothing of the decision in Palembang. The excuses sounded very much like those offered in 2007, only this time around the excuse of fifty years of Merdeka was no longer available.


In the later part of the year I suggested to the Cultural Centre of the University of Malaya that they take over the event. There was some interest. However, due to certain delays on this side, the Indonesians made the decision that they would, yet again, be the hosts, thus sparing Malaysia the agony. And so the second APA meeting took place in Yogyakarta from 12 to 15 December 2008 together with the Asian Puppetry Gathering.


This time representatives from China, India, and Japan were invited as observers with a view to eventually broadening the membership of APA, perhaps making it an Asian rather than an ASEAN organization. Tang Dayu from China and Ranjana Pandey, head of UNIMA India, gave detailed pictures of puppetry activities in their own countries and how some measure of co-operation could be achieved between them and APA members.


The next APA meeting is scheduled to take place in the Philippines in late 2009. Yet again, Malaysia was urged to consider hosting the meeting in 2010. An observer from the University of Malaya Cultural Centre was present at the meeting. I took the opportunity to suggest that perhaps the Centre could take the lead towards organizing the meeting in Kuala Lumpur, with the cooperation of the Ministry of Culture and other interested parties.


The Jogjakarta meeting was interesting. At the same time, however, not much could be achieved since Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not represented, while Singapore and Myanmar had “stand in” representatives. Thus much of the discussion took place between Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and, to some extent, Thailand, its members focusing on the activities of Bangkok's famous Joe Louis Theatre Company.


My own interest in all of this, from the very inauguration of the APA, was to get something achieved in the area of research and documentation. This would take two forms: a book on ASEAN Puppetry, and the development of a resource collection, logically to be placed in Jakarta. The meeting accepted my draft outline for the proposed book. It was also agreed that I coordinate the project with Chua Soo Pong from Singapore and Amihan Bonifacio-Ramolete from the Philippines. The manuscript is expected to be ready by the end of 2009, with possible publication by APA in 2010.


The Indonesians had planned the APA meeting to coincide with their own national wayang festival involving, this time, 18 of the best puppeteers from all over the country in competition. The event, organized by the Dalang Association of Indonesia (PEPADI) presented a spectacular array of outstanding performances over several days, including several by new and younger puppeteers. One could not but be impressed, even amazed, by the seriousness, as is their wont, with which the Indonesians took their wayang kulit, a form of theatre which, in their country, has virtually attained the character of “sacred art”.


Indonesia is by far an exceptional case. Other APA countries also demonstrated manifest interest in either reviving or sustaining traditional puppetry as well as developing new forms. This became clear during the past two festivals. As far as countries without a tradition of puppetry are concerned Singapore and the Philippines, in particular, have shown what is possible through the creation of new styles. The Philippines got involved in puppetry with the founding in 1977 of the now famous Teatrong Mulat, as a children’s theatre group. Currently that country has several other forms of puppet theatre for children as well as adults.


Attending the Inaugural meeting in 2006 and the 2008 one in Jogjakarta, and especially watching the numerous performances gracing those two occasions, one could not help notice the stark contrast, as far as traditional theatre in general, and wayang in particular, goes between the situation in other ASEAN countries and that in our own. When it comes to Indonesia, in particular, seen from any and every possible perspective, one perceives total confidence and a sense of pride amongst Indonesians in their ancient heritage. This is something seriously lacking in Malaysia.


In this country when it comes not just to wayang kulit but other traditional performing arts as well, we sense confusion; we sense a dilemma—manifestations, one suspects, of a deeper and broader identity crisis.