Dematerialise Girl

Everyone knows this folklore, so there is no ending to be given away. On the day of her engagement ceremony, just as the ring was about to be slipped onto her finger, Rubiah vanished mysteriously. The end.

The character of Rubiah is based on the myth of the “keramat anak dara” which originates from the remote Kuala Selangor district during the years circa 1800. “Keramat” can mean either something so sacred it possesses supernatural qualities, or simply, a person free from committing any sort of vice. “Anak dara” of course refers to the state of feminine chastity in which a girl has yet to be, as Madonna once so succinctly proclaimed, “touched for the very first time.”

Rubiah the Musical continued Istana Budaya’s efforts at producing lavish local musical theatre with a big budget (RM1.5 mil), focusing on key characters in Malay history and culture. (Last year’s song and dance spectacle Hang Li Po the Musical told the story of that maybe-historical, maybe-fictional princess – except the production chose to portray her as a historical figure.)

According to the myth, Rubiah was an attractive and pious young girl loved by the whole village. Two men eventually proposed to her: Alang, a local boy whom Rubiah had known since childhood, and Daeng, a prince from a neighbouring village. The marriage proposals triggered much tension throughout the village. Rubiah then had mystical visions of encountering a mystery man who falls in love with her. But she never wavered in her piety.

Istana Budaya’s version attempts to reveal a brand of holiness that isn’t about staying locked up in the prayer room all day. While Rubiah appears to be a very pious young girl, she certainly knows how to have fun with her girl friends. The girls are feisty, funny and display a cuteness that often transgresses into being cutesy. Although not particularly challenging, it is still an interesting portrayal of traditional Malay femininity. The girls, while clearly enjoying their songs and games, do not shy away when a gang of young men turns up to harass them. Instead, they bunch together and spring into defensive silat poses.

It is this kind of gutsiness I wish Rubiah displayed more of throughout the play. Sure, Rubiah had moments of defiance. For example, upon finding out that she had been betrothed without her knowledge, she demands to know why she wasn’t consulted in the matter. To which her mother replies, “Adat mana yang membenarkan anak dara memilih jodoh?” (“What tradition allows a virgin girl to choose her own spouse?”)

But despite the protestations and pleas of her other suitor, Alang, and his mother, Alang also was not able to live up to “dream guy” status. Although fond of Alang, it is clear that Rubiah sensed his need to own her rather than to build a life with her. In one scene, she publicly yet gently rebukes Alang, telling him, “Bunga bukan sekadar hiasan.” (“A flower is not meant merely as decoration.”)

Unreal and Unattainable

Syafinaz Selamat, who played Rubiah on the night I was there (on other nights she was performed by Maizurah Hamzah), sang sweetly and captivatingly, but she made Rubiah’s piety seem unreal, unattainable and hence rendered Rubiah’s plight increasingly unsympathetic as the story unfolded. Like her, the male suitors – Daeng, Alang, and yes, even the mystery man – were all one-dimensional sketches and they were played as such, too. There was never much tension between Rubiah and any of them.

The parents, especially Alang’s mother (played by Rahimah Rahim), Rubiah’s mother (played by Zulhaila Siregar) and Rubiah’s father (played by Yalal Chin), were much more sympathetically written and effectively portrayed. Particularly, the class divide between Rubiah’s snobbish mother and Alang’s indignant mother was well brought out by the two able actors. But when the story was supposed to reach its climax with Rubiah’s disappearance, all narrative subtlety was thrown out the window and what transpired was a cacophony of histrionics.

Despite these shortcomings, I could have still enjoyed myself if this were not a musical. Don’t get me wrong – the musical numbers were staged with aplomb. The costumes (by Prof. Madya Zaliha Shaari and Prof. Madya Zaharah Bt Ahmad Osman) were lavish, the set (by Sabri Buang) was a feast for the eyes, and the choreography (by Susasrita Lora Vianti, Farah Dato Seri Sulaiman, Emri and Octavianus) was competent. But it’s really sad when the one thing that saps the energy out of a musical is the music itself.

The music (by Pak Ngah) attempted to be sweet at the right moments, fun at others, introspective when it mattered and bombastic when the occasion warranted.  But the music really did not do anything for the narrative. It did not build tension, and it did not develop any of the characters. In fact, the sweetness of the music was often clichéd, and sounded like a glib tourist brochure. But to each his own. (I find most of the music to Evita and Phantom of the Opera incredibly banal and boring, but Andrew Lloyd Weber is still laughing all the way to the bank.)

Having said this, it is my opinion that musicals provide an opportunity to make certain concepts or experiences accessible in new ways to new audiences. To me, Cabaret was a successful musical because it not only managed to be musically interesting, fun and poignant, but the music itself was a device that successfully evoked the era of pre-World War II Nazi Berlin, and it breathed life and narrative coherence into the struggles of its protagonists.

A Folk Disapproval of Forced Marriage?

In Rubiah the Musical, I sensed a premise that was actually full of possibilities. Amidst increasingly political and politicised contestations of Islam in this country, I have observed that it is mainly Muslim women who have to bear the burdens of such competing pronouncements. It is thus highly interesting that this musical chose to explore the experiences of a very pious Malay Muslim woman around the year 1800. Also, one of the crucial ways in which contemporary Malaysian Muslims experience Islam is within the ambit of codified Islamic laws, and this is something that was not part of Rubiah’s experiences. Islamic Family Law only became codified in 1880 in the Peninsula. Before this, Muslims experienced Islamic jurisprudence in a very different manner – it was organic, based on consultation and discussion, and it varied depending on the context.

And, to me, the issue of forced marriage at the heart of this fable is actually replete with symbolism. On the level of everyday experience, it can be argued that even though forced marriage occurred during that time, the emergence of such a fable in which a pious woman “disappears” on the day of her forced engagement can be read as a kind of folk disapproval of forced marriages. Compare this with a statement made by an Islamic studies professor at Universiti Malaya back in April of this year, in which he said that a Muslim father can coerce his daughter to comply with his wishes to marry her to a person of the family’s choice, even if it were against her consent. The logical upshot of this is that a 45-year old unmarried woman, who may be a government Minister or the president of a big company, could theoretically be forced by her father to marry a man of his choice.

The thing is, even within contemporary Islamic Family Law codes across Muslim countries, this is not a clear-cut and unanimous view among Muslim jurists and religious authorities. Why, barely a week after the Universiti Malaya professor issued his statement, none other than the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia proclaimed that forced marriage was against Islamic law and those responsible for it should be jailed.

Again, I stress that these are modern contestations of the issue of forced marriage and the debates are still hot and ongoing. However, a contemporary musical theatre interpretation of how the same issue was played out 200 years ago in remote Kuala Selangor is one that, I feel, could have explored so many more issues and complexities in the story. But instead of exploring these many layers of history, culture and religion, playwrights Sabri Mohd. Zain and Bahizal Abu Bakar chose to tell an uncomplicated story, treating its mysticism as a plot device rather than an underpinning psychology of the tale. And director Ahmad Tarmimi Siregar dutifully executed his task with visually arresting, albeit straightforward, decisions.

Which actually means that I understand the standing ovation Rubiah the Musical received at the end of the show. There’s no faulting the fact that it looked terrific from start to finish, and I realise that this is part of the pleasure of watching a musical – to anticipate that you’re going to view nothing less than a spectacle and to have your expectations fulfilled in that department. However, if Rubiah the Musical is going to be taken to the international level, as the producers aspire to, a lot of work needs to be done to improve it structurally, conceptually and musically.


Shanon Shah is a singer-songwriter, he has just released his debut album Dilanda Cinta. He is also an activist with Sisters in Islam, Malaysian AIDS Council and Amnesty International.

First Published: 14.07.2005 on Kakiseni

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