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 I met Rawlings in Bangkok several years ago during a seminar; before that meeting I had come across his interesting, unpublished book on puppetry, available online.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