Pak Su Mat, 1939-2005

It is with profound sadness that I write this. I received a phone call last Friday morning (24, June 2005) from Kuala Besut informing me that a dear friend had died.

Pak Su Mat was unknown to many of us. He was the third husband of Cik Ning, the last great Makyong primadonna who died some 10 years ago. He was not an iconic, media-savvy figure, he was not an arts activist or ardent thespian; he was merely a gentle keropok maker who hailed from a small fishing village in Kuala Besut, Terengganu. But he was also perhaps one of the last great practitioners of the Malay dance-theatre form of Makyong. He died unceremoniously, destitute, with only a few friends and family by his side, the way that most kampung-folk do, with little pomp and circumstance. It was due to old age. But long before he passed, he had a single dying wish – to perform the sacred “sembah-guru” for the last time.

I first met Pak Su Mat in 1998 when I conceived of and worked on a documentary series called Semangat Insan – Masters of Tradition which featured six practitioners of ancient Kelantanese traditions: the Wayang Kulit, Makyong, Manohra and Main Puteri, and also Chinese Opera and Bangsawan. The series achieved archival and documentary significance as it featured for the first time, masters of traditional forms that were and still are, under threat.

Pak Su Mat was born Mat bin Dollah in the Patani region of Southern Thailand, in Narathiwat, a veritable troublespot and stronghold of rebel Islamic fundamentalism. He was raised in a creative household with three other siblings, two of whom are now integral to the Makyong community in Kuala Besut. They escaped the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the 70s and fled from threat of the opposing Apollo Party in Patani. They first came to Kelantan and then finally settled in Kuala Besut in the neighbouring Terengganu, but not without much hardship and persecution from the authorities. They faced imprisonment and many obstacles but still managed to eke a simple living out of fun-fairs and travelling shows, performing song and dance routines. His nickname then was Mat Hindustan.

He first saw the Makyong performed by Cik Ning and was transfixed. He said, “I saw Cik Ning perform and I could not sleep nor eat, she was ugly but I had fallen in love with her. So I divorced my wife and married her.” Pak Su Mat became Cik Ning’s third husband and also her most ardent student. He learnt many secret, sacred forms from her – songs, gestures, dance movements and stories that he replayed and performed with great skill many times after her death, becoming somewhat a legend himself. He was, after all, the most seasoned “pakyong” in Kelantan and Terengganu. I have seen him perform many times, and each time I was moved. He possessed an exquisite voice, moved with impeccable grace and exuded a silent power. He was a true exponent of the Makyong – in mind, body and spirit.

At the end of last year, I visited Pak Su Mat when I heard that he was gravely ill. He wanted to perform a final “sembah-guru”, a crucial performance that many learned exponents have to fulfil at several points in their lives. I had photographed him several years before and this time brought him a print of that series. He was very ill then, a shadow of the man I first knew; he could not walk, his face, arms, legs bloated beyond recognition from the illnesses that plagued him. He saw the photo of himself and started to cry. He said he wanted to perform again, for his sake, for all our sakes, for the Makyong; he needed to appease the spirits within himself and he needed to perform for the last time. He started singing and he still managed to move me, his voice still strong, magical, haunting.

I tried to raise funds for this final performance. I approached institutions and banks but was turned down due to the fact that Makyong was deemed “Un-Islamic” and was therefore a form that could not even be considered. The politics of arts and funding in Malaysia, manifesting from both official institutions as well as arts preservation foundations, reared its ugly head in the fore of an urgent need and I had no means of countering it.

And so, perhaps the last great practitioner of the Makyong lies in an unnamed burial spot in Kuala Besut, without a burial stone, without recognition.

I have lost a dear friend, but the country has lost yet another master.

First Published: 30.06.2005 on Kakiseni

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