By Prof Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof
I first met Saari when, in early February 1975, I started research work for a proposed doctoral dissertation on Mak Yong in Kelantan. I was in Kota Bharu, in the Jalan Bayam house of the late Khatijah binti Awang, and I was looking for a field assistant.
Khatijah, the legendary Mak Yong artist of recent times, and her husband Zakaria Abdullah, recommended Saari Abdullah to me. He was, they said, well informed about Mak Yong. He knew most of the people in Kelantan who were connected, one way or the other, with this particular form of theatre. He was also someone who had to be pushed, they said, for he was given to laziness.
It was a year of intense research, and the data we collected served far more than just the purposes of my dissertation. Much of what was gathered in 1975, and our subsequent follow-up research, has yet to be studied and published. For that demanding — but, all the same, highly relaxing — duration, Saari played many roles: guide, interpreter, transcriber.
Remembering those times, Saari often mentioned that I had opened his eyes to the manner in which research should be done, and to the importance of documentation. I would like to believe that, in some small measure, the experience we shared in Kelantan inspired him. He had one constant regret throughout his life: that he was not ‘properly’ educated, in the formal sense. We often joked that, if he were better qualified, he could study for a diploma at the Academy Seni Kebangsaan, or even earn a degree at one of our local universities.
How ironic that he would later serve as an instructor in these institutions!
Our partnership during that year in Kelantan was to develop into much more: it became a lasting friendship. Except for occasional short gaps, Saari and I remained in touch with each other — we would later work with each other in a variety of situations: in Kelantan, in Kuala Lumpur, in Penang.
We trudged through Kelantanese villages, looking for Mak Yong performances — but also those of Main Puteri, wayang kulit, and Menora. We documented them and interviewed the people connected with them.
It became immediately clear that Saari had a passion for these art forms, a passion that he had undoubtedly inherited from his father, Abdullah Awang, better known in Mak Yong circles as Dollah Supang, his stage name as the senior comedian (peran tua) in performances. I learned later that Saari’s grand mother, Maimunah Bakar, and his mother, Hamidah Yusof (known as Che Bedah Bunga Tanjung), were also well-known Mak Yong performers.
Saari played many roles in Kumpulan Sri Temenggong, the troupe Khatijah Awang started in 1970; like his father, he initially started off as a peran actor. It was his constant desire to improve Mak Yong: to change it, if necessary — a desire that, at times, led to conflicts within the troupe.
Through his years Saari dreamt of presenting Mak Yong in a sophisticated way, with stage sets and other elements of modern theatre. He shared this interest with his brother, Zakaria, who once dreamt of developing a vast Mak Yong orchestra: one with fifty rebabs, the other instruments in proportionate numbers.
Neither Saari’s nor his brother’s dreams materialised, but my friend’s personal development as an artist could not be stopped. He was to play many diverse roles — not only in Mak Yong, but in other arts and crafts as well. He began to play the rebab, then learned how to construct this instrument. He even began to sell rebabs of his own make.
Saari studied the art of Main Puteri. In recent years, he became Kelantan’s best-known selampit player, adopting the name Sa’ari Raja Gondang — and thus helped preserve this form of storytelling.
After the state ban of wayang kulit — and its effect on the traditional wayang kulit Siam — Saari and I developed a new form of shadow play, wayang kulit semangat baru, to offer new stories. He even went on to serve as a dalang for this new wayang, playing in Kuala Lumpur in 2004, at an important conference on the shadow play form, organised by the Centre of Civilisational Dialogue, University of Malaya.
In Mak Yong, Saari took over his father’s role as a repository of stories. In the mid- to late-1970s, he assisted me in my work of writing down the actual performance texts for these tales — transcribed from field recordings or literally taken off the memories of the oldest living performers. Some, like Abdullah Awang and Zainab Tengku Temenggung, were associated with attempts to develop Mak Yong in the pre-World War 2 Kelantan royal court, and it was a fortunate and timely decision, indeed, to record those texts.
Later, after Khatijah Awang passed away, Saari was to write scripts based on some of these stories for productions at the National Arts Academy. We collaborated frequently, and my own collection of scripts came in handy where plots were no longer remembered — as in the case of Raja Tangkai Hati, the first Mak Yong production at Istana Budaya.
It is impossible to fully appreciate Saari’s contribution to the traditional arts of Kelantan. His efforts to keep Mak Yong alive, in particular, were never easy: he faced constant battles. Major conflicts with the local authorities erupted every once in a while — as was the case when I arranged for a group of Sunway College students to spend a week in Kelantan, mid-March 2006, so they could be immersed in the art of Mak Yong.
When the shows planned on that occasion had to be called off, Saari’s agile mind quickly found alternative ways of ensuring that performances went on. The ensuing contributions drew public attention to the sad plight of Mak Yong in Kelantan, as well as positive reactions from the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage. I am certain that, in some small measure, this particular crisis — and Saari’s solutions to it — benefited Mak Yong, what with all the follow-up support in preserving this important genre of theatre.
Mak Yong is now recognized by UNESCO, as one of 43 cultural masterpieces part of the collective Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity — and Saari is, in a small way, responsible for this.
Now that Saari Abdullah has so suddenly left us — all too soon, the well known but unrecognised man — there is a gnawing gap in the traditional performing arts of Kelantan. The future of Saari’s own group, Kumpulan Sri Temenggung II, hangs in the balance. One can only hope that his wife, Ruhani, has the strength and fortitude to assume his mantle, with the support of her daughters — and all others, wherever they may be, devoted to the beautiful art of Mak Yong.
May his soul rest in peace. Al Fatihah.
Professor Ghulam-Sarwar Yousuf is the world’s foremost Mak Yong scholar and expert.
First Published:12.10.2006 on Kakiseni