Thursday, January 29, 2009
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
The ASEAN Puppetry Association was established in December 2006 following an initiative taken by the Indonesian Wayang Secretariat (SENAWANGI) and other cultural bodies in
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
An uncomfortable situation developed when officials from the
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
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.
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
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
As it turned out, I could not go to the meeting. I had to return to
In the middle of 2008, when
In the later part of the year I suggested to the Cultural Centre of the
This time representatives from
The next APA meeting is scheduled to take place in the
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
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”.
Attending the Inaugural meeting in 2006 and the 2008 one in
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
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
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
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
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,
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
The major achievement of the courses in traditional theatre in the early days of Universiti Sains
Bangsawan is still languishing in
What needs to be done is simple enough. First must come the firm resolve to make bangsawan live again in
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,
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!