PREVIEW – Mek Mulong Cahaya Bulan

It is indeed heartening to know that some efforts are being made to preserve the traditional Malaysian art forms that are rapidly fading into oblivion. One example of this is the PETRONAS Performing Arts Group, a cultural troupe that was formed in 1990 to take on the role of Malaysia’s cultural ambassador to the world. Since its inception, the group has performed for audiences in Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Turkey, Spain, Egypt and Vietnam. Consisting of 90 full-time musicians and dancers, the group’s repertoire consists of over 100 different dances, fourteen of which have been staged at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas.

This time around, the group has chosen to perform a rare local art form known as Mek Mulong. Currently found only in Kedah, this dance-drama is believed to be almost 500 years old and its roots can be traced back to Southern Thailand, the birthplace of Mak Yong, another ancient art. Mek Mulong is an age-old form of entertainment where local folklore is brought to life through songs, dance and drama.

According to producer, Tuan Haji Hassim Salim, after extensive research it was discovered that only one active group of Mek Mulong performers remained in the country and they could be found in Kampung Wang Tepus located in Tanah Merah, Jitra, Kedah. Realising the importance of reintroducing this art form to the masses, veteran performer Salleh Embut and group leader Saad Taib were invited to help stage a performance at the DFP as director/choreographer and music director respectively.

Taib is a fifth-generation Mek Mulong performer, having learnt the art from his father. He has been involved in it since his teens and is familiar with most of the repertoire. The Mek Mulong repertoire consists of 12 stories, some of which include Cahaya Bulan, Malim Bongsu, Memburu Rusa, Tuk Raja Besar, Dewa Kaca, Si Perot, Dewa Muda and Botak Putih. Embut, on the other hand, has studied the art for more than fifty years, but only managed to learn four out of the twelve stories as his teacher passed away before he could share all his knowledge with his pupil.

According to Embut, while both Mek Mulong and Mak Yong share the same birthplace, there are differences between the two: the former carries a faster tempo and uses different costumes, musical instruments, movements and stories. Traditionally performed at gatherings, weddings and festivals, a typical performance lasts about four hours. However, the performances at the DFP on Feb 16 and 17 will be pared down to one hour and forty-five minutes.

Cahaya Bulan tells the tale of Prince Cahaya Bulan (Zaizul Adli Mamat) whom the evil Raja Afrit (Nasir Hassiam) mortally wounds when the latter comes to kidnap Cahaya Bulan’s beautiful consort, Puteri Nang Mara (Saliza Ali}. Taking her back to his kingdom on the continent of Pakkian, Raja Afrit tortures Puteri Nang Mara when she refuses to marry him. Meanwhile, the prince is rescued by two former warriors, Etong (Razman Din) and Eting (Ramshi H. Baba}, and enlists their help to find his princess. In the end, a fiery battle ensues as hero and villain battle for the hand of the fair maiden.

As with traditional Mek Mulong performances, backdrops were kept to a bare minimum, relying instead on the descriptive dialogue and the audience’s imagination to create a suitable setting. The colourful costumes and traditional musical instruments lend an ethnic air to the proceedings. However, the inclusion of modern elements, such as references to current trends and events, tend to be a bit jarring against such a traditional backdrop even though it is intended as a sort of comic relief.

When questioned about this, Embut replied that these elements were necessary in order to reach out to the younger set. He added that it is perfectly acceptable as long as these ad-libs were kept to the bare minimum. He was also very thankful for the efforts being made to revive this piece of Malay tradition and pleased with the overall performance, given that rehearsals only began in mid-January.

Whether it is seen as a juxtaposition of cultures or simply a matter of using a touch of the new to bring back the shine of the old, the PETRONAS Performing Arts Group deserves a pat on the back for helping to keep our country’s rich heritage alive.

Mek Mulong “Cahaya Bulan”will be performed at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas on Feb 16 and 17 at 8.30pm. Click here for more details.


First Published: 12.02.2002 on Kakiseni

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