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.

1 comment:

The Malaysian Explorer said...

Thanks for the bit on the history.

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