Mak Yong: A Jihad

Royat hilang berita nak timbul
Timbul nak royat
Seorang Raja sebuah negeri
Seorang Raja sebuah menteri…

A vow to God

In the beginning, there was no such thing as Mak Yong.

But there was a family: a father, a mother, a child. They lived in an ordinary kampung house. One day, the baby boy fell ill. The father, desperate to save his son’s life, approached medicine men to heal the boy. But nothing seemed to help. At the end of his wits, the father made a vow to God: “If my child is healed, I promise to teach him to play… mak yong.” The man, realising that he had uttered that word in a moment of spontaneity, turned to his wife in disbelief.

But soon the child’s health improved. The father, realising he now had to fulfil his vow, turned to his wife again. “How shall I teach our boy something which doesn’t exist?” The couple then decided they would give themselves roles to play and ask the child to play along. The father became the king, the mother the queen, and the child’s character was named Awang. The parents then began speaking to each other in character, and ‘Awang’ played along.

That, supposedly, was how Mak Yong came to be (as related to me by Pak Saari Abdullah, more on him later). Along the way, the form acquired songs and musical accompaniment, intricate and complex dance sequences, as well as a repertoire of fantastical stories (numbering between 12 and 20, depending on who you speak to). It also developed a way of relating itself to its past, thereby weaving into its consciousness a sense of history and continuity: its rituals.

More than anything else, it is this final component which has beleagured Mak Yong the most since the leading opposition, Pan Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), wrestled away the mantle of Kelantanese leadership from the grasp of Barisan Nasional in 1990.

With the change of administration came changes in regulations and codifications of local social mores: a war was waged against all so-called un- and pre-Islamic elements contained in every facet of Kelantanese life. In the arts, intermingling among ‘bukan muhrim’ (those not of familial ties) were barred in performances, and practices and rituals seen as ‘khurafat’ (deviations from PAS’s interpretation of Islam) were rebuked.

That was some 15 years ago.

Recently, I was presented with the opportunity to review this situation. Rey Buono, head of the School of Performance + Media Studies at Sunway University College, had long expressed his desire to take his students into the heartland of Kelantanese traditional performing arts. It was his hope that a week-long course involving an immersion process of research, observation, documentation, and study of Mak Yong in Kelantan may help give his students a deeper understanding of Malaysian theatre. This took place from Sun 26 Feb – Sun 5 Mar 2006.

More notably, on 25 November 2005, under an application prepared with the consultation of Dr Ghulam Sarwar Yusuf, the country’s (and in fact the world’s) foremost Mak Yong scholar and expert, Mak Yong received the honour of being one of 43 cultural Masterpieces proclaimed by UNESCO as being a part of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Armed with the knowledge of this exciting development, and joining Rey and his students, I landed myself on a flight to Kota Bharu to witness the scenario on the ground. And perhaps learn more about Mak Yong myself.

Permit refused

Upon arrival at the very modern-looking Sultan Ismail Petra Airport, we were greeted by Dr Ghulam. Along with him was Pak Saari Abdullah, brother-in-law of the late Mak Yong prima donna Khatijah Awang. His troupe, Kumpulan Warisan Seri Temenggong (KWST), an off-shoot of the famed Seri Temenggong troupe established in the early 70s, would be performing for the Sunway students over the next two nights. Saari Raja Gondang, as Pak Saari is known in these parts, would turn out to be our masterful guide into the world of Mak Yong.

After we checked into the Sabrina Court Hotel, a mere 5-minute walk away from the iconic Pasar Siti Khadijah in downtown KB, I arranged an interview with Dr Ghulam to learn more about his involvement in the UNESCO bid, and what winning such a bid meant for the art form. (For this saga, please wait for Part 2 of this article.)

It was while we waited for the students to return from their rooms that Dr Ghulam revealed to me a small situation: the Kota Bharu Town Council (MPKB) had just refused the performance permit for Pak Saari’s troupe. In hoping to attract tourists, Dr Ghulam and Pak Saari had prepared flyers, which had been detected by MPKB. The flyer, which shows Pak Saari’s daughter and Akademi Seni Kebangsaan graduate Normi posing as a Pak Yong, were understood by MPKB as potentially drawing in local audiences (and potentially exposing them to un-­Islamic elements) and therefore couldn’t be allowed to go on.

For the students, if the shows were not put up, they could not complete their course requirements, and would fail. For Pak Saari’s troupe, this meant confronting another obstacle to their art and their livelihood.

The ramifications played little in our minds at the time. But the Press soon arrived. I counted four journalists and two pixmen. They would go on to grill Pak Saari and Dr Ghulam, squeezing out as much news-worthy material as they could. Questions were interspersed with important names like Tok Guru’, ‘YB Takiyuddin’, and ‘Mawi’ (as it turns out, Mawi’s performance at the declaration of Kota Bharu as an ‘Islamic City’ paved the way for entertainment to regain ground in Kelantanese public life, albeit in a restricted sense – e.g. men on one side, women on the other; at the same event, Tok Guru Nik Aziz, Chief Minister of Kelantan, was supposed to have said that, in principle at least, Mak Yong was kosher).

Dah jadi isu

The next day, as classes with Pak Saari began, we heard that major dailies carried news about KWST’s failure to get a permit and the hapless students caught in the middle of this muck. This news would snowball into further problems from MPKB, who had read the issue as potentially giving political mileage to Barisan Nasional, which owns most of the major dailies. The issue was now seen as the ruling party making an indirect attack on PAS, and had to be stopped. In fact, I overheard the phone conversation that Pak Saari had with a certain En Ramly Penguatkuasa MPKB that the reason KWST could not be given a permit was “pasal dah masuk suratkhabar, dah jadi isu.”

I later called up the same En Ramly Penguatkuasa MPKB and asked him about the permit. He said, “Di bawah Enakmen Hiburan dan Kawalan Tempat Hiburan 1998, Mak Yong, Main Peteri semuanya tak dibenarkan. Ini arahan Kerajaan Negeri. Dikir Barat boleh, tapi kena versi baru.” By ‘versi baru’ he meant that the dikir troupes did not cross ‘bukan muhrim’ lines, meaning no female performers. For the other forms such as wayang kulit, En Ramly did not clearly explain what was ‘versi baru’, preferring to leave said explanations to the State Government (refer to ‘khurafat’ argument above).

When I spoke to Pak Saari about these so-called ‘khurafat’ elements in Mak Yong, his response was: “Bagi saya, soal khurafat dalam Mak Yong tak timbul, kerana setiap yang kita kerjakan adalah langkah menuju ketuhanan. Kita tidak boleh lalai, dan setiap gerak dalam Mak Yong ini ada maknanya bagi kita orang Islam. Lagipun, pekerjaan Mak Yong ini satu cara saya cari nafkah untuk makan minum keluarga saya. Bukankah itu menjadikan kerja saya sebagai pemain Mak Yong ini satu perjuangan, satu bentuk jihad? Itu yang mereka tak faham.”

The students, some of whom appeared oblivious to these unfolding events, were deeply engrossed in learning the Tarian Mengadap Rebab. This opening sequence, which is the art form’s most technically intricate and symbolically elaborate dance, was taught to them by Pak Saari’s wife, Rohani, also affectionately known as Mami (she also happens to be a talented tailor and is responsible for preparing all of the troupe’s costumes).

These classes took place in a small refurbished kampung house, the Teratak Warisan, which was literally raised from the ground through funds channelled in by Dr Ghulam’s Asian Cultural Heritage Centre. This base in Pengkalan Chepa, a district of KB nearer to Pantai Cahaya Bulan (renamed from Pantai Cinta Berahi), was to be the research center for his work on Mak Yong and serves as a training studio for Pak Saari’s troupe as well as others keen on learning the art form.

Next door to Teratak Warisan is Pak Saari’s house. On the other side of Teratak Warisan is the panggung where KWST would normally rehearse prior to a performance, and where we were supposed to have watched the performances the next two nights. Their full-dress rehearsals had been witnessed by numerous villagers and other ‘local audiences’ without problem.

Here I was reminded of Huzir Sulaiman’s Election Day, performed by Jo Kukathas and directed by Krishen Jit. Staged a few months before the 2004 General Elections, this production faced numerous permit problems from Kuala Lumpur’s City Hall (DBKL) due to its touchy political references. It could only go ahead when a ‘versi baru’ was made available, thanks to the very generous playwright.

This then made me contemplate the similarity between DBKL and MPKB, in spite them being under two opposing political parties, to which Rey Buono expanded with an interesting observation: that censorship was “an attempt by the State to impose the State’s performance on the Artist’s performance. And only one performance is actually allowed: the State’s.”

Cradle Will Rock

My thoughts travelled with me on this cool Monday night to a quiet kampung house a little out of Kota Bharu, to which we had whisked the performance. KWST’s subsequent application to relocate the show to Gelanggang Seni at downtown KB had been refused (probably due to scheduling problems; the Gelanggang Seni was the only place in KB where one could go to catch a wayang kulit performance, albeit only the ‘versi baru’ version, as it is a gazetted Zon Bebas/Eksklusif). This move reminded me of what Orson Welles had famously done when he directed the union-banned, pro-labour play The Cradle Will Rock during the Great Depression. We were in good company.

At the kampung, the house owner, an officer with JKR, had rebuilt his home into an Über-Melayu Baru Utopia – Roman pillars, elaborate cornices, flower-motifed plaster mouldings, bright green leathery settees and plastic flowers in thigh-high lacquered vases. Next to this house was his very own panggung, from which he could watch his favourite itinerant wayang kulit troupe perform. It was amazingly pomo (ooh), and the expansive bendang sawah behind his house, coupled with the star-riddled night sky, completed the Wawasan 2020 package.

Fortunately, the performance went on without further bureaucratic impositions, although it was littered with comments from the student-researchers, “So many mosquitoes!”, “What’s taking them so long to start?” (we were an hour early; performances normally take off after Isya’ prayers, after 9pm), and “What are they saying? What are they saying?” (kechek Kelate is a little difficult to follow, one must presume).

We were fed an express Mak Yong meal that night: “Raja Muda Lakleng” – the story of a king who waged his fortunes and his wife in a cockfight, and lost, like a royal Pak Pandir.

The Press were there too, taking shots of the performers and the student-researchers in various poses. The next day, the news was even more sensational. “Troupe performs banned dance for students,” read one headline. All the ‘hot’ buttons were pressed – defiance, underground, rebelliousness. While it may be fine for them to champion Mak Yong from where they were, such coverage could potentially leave the Kelantanese performers even more vulnerable to the local authorities. All of these were ingredients to brew up a minor storm, were it not for another more sensational piece of news: Petrol Price Hiked 30 cents.

Nevertheless, when he read about himself in the papers the morning, Pak Saari said, “Saya rasa ini kali pertama, dalam seumur hidup saya bergiat sebagai orang Mak Yong, yang saya rasa saya berdiri untuk memperjuangkan seni saya ini. Saya rasa macam dah jadi hero (laughs).”

But nerves were still jittery the second night (at least mine were) when the troupe performed “Dewa Indera Indera Dewa”, the story of two brothers who fought over a rescued princess. Tonight saw Pak Saari as the Peran Tua (Old Clown) electrifying the panggung with his wit and humour. All comic scenes in Mak Yong are extemporaneous, and Pak Saari used the chance to refer to their battle with MPKB. The previous day he had vowed that should MPKB disturb them further, he would “pecah tradisi. Kalau kacau, hamba perang!”

And war it was. In one of the sequences in the story, the Peran Tua and Peran Muda encountered an angry Jin who claimed the princess for itself. A battle ensued between the malevolent Jin and the wimpish Peran Muda, with the Peran Tua as the referee. Here, Pak Saari in his role, called out the rules of the match: the Jin cannot strike while the Peran Tua’s hand was up, and the Peran Muda could strike when the Peran Tua motioned it.

The Jin, calling the match unfair, questioned the integrity of the referee, to which came Pak Saari’s reply: “Ya, undang-undang aku memang tak adil, tapi kamu mesti ikut sebab itu adalah undang-undang aku yang kamu setuju ikut.”

The Jin of course rebels, at which point the king steps in with his magic and defeats the Jin, who surrenders and begs for mercy. Instead of dealing the coup de grace, the Peran Tua steps in and proclaims: “Ya, Jin, Raja aku raja adil. Raja aku benarkan kau hidup, tapi kau mesti sumpah yang kau tak ganggu hidup orang lain, samada orang di atas panggung, ataupun orang di luar panggung. Sumpah? Dah, pergi kau dari sini!”

With these simple gestures, Pak Saari had symbolically turned MPKB on its head. It was not merely a cathartic, vicarious win. Pak Saari’s troupe had proved that, yes, Mak Yong still faces too many problems – the dwindling number of practitioners; the conservatism that plagues State official discourse; the Kelantanese folk’s increasing disconnection from their heritage – but with UNESCO’s proclamation, and the Ministry of Culture, Arts, and Heritage’s new-found mission to save it, perhaps for Mak Yong, there may be one more day yet in the sun. As for the pakciks, makciks, and adik-adiks who sat through the two-and-a-half hour performance, they all understood and laughed loudly at seeing the powerful Jin deposed with ease, but with honour intact.

…Amba berdiri tapak tiga
Amba nak pecah tapak tiga
Mengadap kami ka timur jaga.


(Verses are from ‘Menghadap Rebab: Salutation to the Spirit of Mak Yong’ in Panggung Semar: Aspects of Traditional Malay Theatre by Dr Ghulam Sarwar Yusuf, 1992)

A photo exhibition of Kelantanese traditional performances is on at Galeri Petronas until Sun 7 May 2006. Curator Eddin Khoo of Pusaka gives a public talk on performance traditions of Kelantan on Wed 15 Mar (5.30pm).

Fahmi Fadzil is an actor and writer.

First Published: 14.03.2006 on Kakiseni

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