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 I met Rawlings in Bangkok several years ago during a seminar; before that meeting I had come across his interesting, unpublished book on puppetry, available online.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.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Penang Heritage: The Case for Bangsawan

Now that Georgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage Site there is all the more reason to seriously reflect upon those elements that make it so. There are so many things, the obvious and the not so, that one can associate, in the case of Penang, with the word “heritage”; there are so many perceptions of what heritage might be that it is not even necessary to make a list here. So many lists already exist.

Even when one confines oneself to the performing arts, the list is still fairly impressive: Chinese opera, Chinese puppet theatre (por tay hee), bangsawan, borea, various forms of Indian dances, many kinds of music, and so on. One can, of course, see them in terms of various communities, although that would not always be the most desirable way: one should, for many a good reason, move away from such categorization, such thinking in boxes. When it comes, especially, to the single most important item of Penang’s traditional theatre, bangsawan, one can see that it would not be appropriate to view it in this manner. This is because although, in terms of boxed thinking, one automatically labels bangsawan and borea as “Malay” they are, in fact, not Malay but eclectic in character. This is particularly the case with bangsawan.

The history of bangsawan, sketchy and incomplete as it is, has already been traced many a time, beginning from visiting Parsee theatre performers from Bombay (currently renamed Mumbai) to Penang, shifting through "imitation" Parsee theatre (wayang Parsee tiruan) into bangsawan proper, and eventually spreading far and wide beyond Penang’s sandy shores into many a neighbouring land. Almost every community in Georgetown had a hand in its development. Again, having attained the ‘final” stage of evolution into bangsawan, the product of several decades from the late nineteenth century into the mid-twentieth, it moved on, in more recent times, particularly after independence, to assume a position as a racially-orientated and politicized bangsawan through a radically controlled creation of its dramatic repertoire.

Thus it came to take the place, at least in certain minds, in the absence of any other, as a form of urban Malay theatre. Many defined it as “classic” (a much-abused and misunderstood term in this country) Malay theatre, supposedly representing all the best in that culture, with a strong bent towards court traditions through the settings, contents and themes of scenarios. At any rate, bangsawan, through this process of natural as well as manipulated transformation, filled a serious vacuum in Malay consciousness as well as in Malayan (later Malaysian) urban culture.

The battle between Malay and non-Malay ownership of bangsawan, continues. One should not, in this process of asserting ownership, forget the spread of this form of theatre into Singapore, and parts of Indonesia where, too, there certainly are claimants for its slightly or more-than-slightly variant offspring. In short, one has to deal with many a bangsawan, stambul, dardanella, and what have you, depending on how far one travels from its Malaysian base. In variant forms it even found a place further north in Thailand and possibly Cambodia.

At the back of all this “history” and behind all this debate, stands one solid, undeniable truth: that it all began in good old Pulau Pinang. And that is the best possible reason why Penang, and more particularly, Georgetown should reclaim bangsawan, bring it back, give it a special position in this now UNESCO World Heritage Site.

During the first Pesta Pulau Pinang, I personally made an attempt to revive bangsawan, to bring it back out of near-oblivion for performances at the Old City Hall on the Esplanade, with performances by the Bangsawan Sri Timur troupe headed by the late Pak Alias and Mak Minah of Kampung Makam. Then, in 1978, I managed to persuade Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Humanities to offer a course in bangsawan with these two veteran artists as teachers of bangsawan practice; the course ran for several years with a production or two each year, before running into problems. Whether or not courses in traditional theatre, including the Kelantan shadow play (wayang kulit Siam), which I also introduced into the curriculum of the School of Humanities in 1977, flourished depended not upon the intrinsic importance of the art forms, not even upon their popularity or otherwise among students, but upon the whims and fancies of Deans, Deputy Vice-Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors. Lack of funding was one of the perennial excuses offered for not supporting such courses. There were many others, at times verging on the irrational or surreal. Today, three decades later and in several universities in the country, the selfsame excuses continue to be proffered.

The major achievement of the courses in traditional theatre in the early days of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s performing arts programme, the country’s first and only one at that time, was the timely research, documentation and resultant publications. If nothing else, these will stand as eloquent testimony to the importance of traditional theatre in Malaysian society, even though particular arts forms have died out and others may, in time, follow them into nothingness.

Bangsawan is still languishing in Penang although, undeniably, occasional performances do take place. Elsewhere, the situation is no different, with just a couple of veteran performers still active in Kuala Lumpur; but that is not the immediate concern here in this entry or even in Penang. One does not need any more reasons for this state of affairs. It is about time that something concrete was done. This needs no less than a concerted effort to revive bangsawan, to make it available, through quality performances, to the general public as well as to visitors on a regular basis. Bangsawan deserves a place in programmes connected with Georgetown’s Heritage City status, in addition, let us be reminded, to other expressions of the human spirit through the arts, tangible and intangible..

What needs to be done is simple enough. First must come the firm resolve to make bangsawan live again in Penang. Next, the provision of enough funding to sustain one or more permanent companies—say sixty people in all, beginning from basic training. These would include actors, musicians, dancers and the whole gamut of technical people from costume- to set-designers. They don’t all have to be full-timers. Third, the provision of space for regular performances, which, for a start, can be scheduled once a month for two or three days. And finally, some kind of mechanism to ensure that the whole scheme does not collapse after a performance or two, as has often happened in the past, not only with bangsawan, but, elsewhere in the country, with mak yong, wayang kulit and what have you. That’s all.

And of course, where’s the money going to come from? That perennial question again; this time, hopefully, without the perennial answer, given the very special circumstances.

Over to you bangsawan enthusiasts, be you Melayu, Cina, India, Baba, Mamak, Peranakan, Serani, Lain-lain, or simply Malaysian . . . you who would so passionately claim bangsawan as your own through your forefathers. Over to you, Penang State and City Fathers of Heritage City Georgetown. Over to you, Corporate types, whosoever or wheresover you may be.

Surely it would not be impossible, for a start, to raise a million or two, for such a vital cause-- even in these gawat times!