The humanism of Mak Yong

OCTOBER 1 — I consider myself a sci-fi fan, but somehow I was never really into Star Trek. So following the slick JJ Abrams reboot — set in the “Kelvin Timeline”, according to fans — I was more than excited to dip my toes into the new Star Trek: Discovery.

Having our own Michelle Yeoh making an appearance as the kickass, albeit by-the-book, Captain Philippa Georgiou of the USS Shenzhou was an attractive bonus.

There is just something about seeing your countryman in sci-fi, especially after Yeoh’s recent cameo in the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel as the superhero Aleta.

A certain scene in Discovery’s premiere episode got many Malaysians excited, even those who are not Trekkies. In her captain’s office, and on a shelf behind her desk, was a curious decoration: a wayang kulit puppet.

I saw that puppet on Twitter hours before I actually watched the episode. Local geeks were excited that there was seemingly a reference to Malaysia in the Star Trek universe, and the muggles followed shortly after.

As a measure of how many Malaysians were excited, even Prime Minister Najib Razak tweeted a screenshot of the scene. “Who’s following the new #StarTrekDiscovery series? Apart from our very own TS Michelle Yeoh, what else do u see here that reminds u of Malaysia?” Najib wrote, referring to the prop.

That specific puppet though is not a Malaysian wayang kulit character.

Instead, as explained by cultural activist Eddin Khoo of non-profit group Pusaka, that specific character is Antareja from the Javanese version of wayang kulit.

“What we must never do is call him a Malaysian character. He would be scandalised,” Khoo wrote on Facebook, referring to Antareja.

“In Malaysia, we have other characters — Seri Rama, Maharaja Wana, Sita Dewi and the great Hanuman brothers. We have Pak Dogol, the comics Samad and Said, which you will never find in the Indian Ramayana because they are a realisation of the Malay, principally Kelantan-Pattani, imagination,” he added.

If not for Khoo, many of us would not know the difference. The wayang kulit in the minds of younger Malaysians may be nothing more than an imagination, its tangibility thinner and flatter than the 2D puppets. Wayang kulit is something we have been taught is ours, yet many of us have never seen it performed.

A screenshot of a Mak Yong performance taken from YouTube... not many Malaysians have actually ever seen a ‘live’ performance.
A screenshot of a Mak Yong performance taken from YouTube... not many Malaysians have actually ever seen a ‘live’ performance.

Even in its birthplace in Kelantan, public performances of traditional wayang kulit have been banned ever since PAS took power in 1990. The Entertainment and Places of Entertainment Control Enactment passed in 1998 may have been the nail in the coffin for Malay performance arts such as wayang kulit, Mak Yong, Menora, and Main Puteri.

Coincidentally, I met Khoo this past week to talk about Mak Yong, which is a form of dance-drama theatre. Earlier this month, the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, had urged Kelantan to lift the ban.

Mak Yong may seem more esoteric than wayang kulit, or even Dikir Barat, but is no less mystifying. And perhaps mystical, so much that it bothers the Islamists who deem the performance un-Islamic, and therefore needs to be erased from Kelantan’s memory.

It will be a shame if Mak Yong and the other arts were to die, for with its death, the Malays especially Kelantan folks would lose a part of their culture which I have just realised to be very humanistic.

The most obvious part of its humanism is of course its power to draw crowds. Before social media, before TV... theatre was where society converged: for entertainment, for companionship, for commune.

But there is more to that, especially when it comes to Mak Yong. Ritual plays a huge part in it, but more specifically it is ritual healing — of one’s angin... mood, temperament.

From what I understand, Mak Yong is usually performed on request, when there is unsettled angin in the community — whether it is manic pent-up angin, or the depression of sapped angin — leading to uneasiness, friction, tension, discord.

The stage then becomes an arena for one to get lost in stories in order to find oneself, reliving the tales of demi-gods Dewa Muda, or Dewa Pechil.

When the stage turns to joget, or dance, it offers a safe space for a release, rather than repression, of lust and longing among the young.

“The suppressed erotic desire of the girls hung thickly in the air of the panggung. Their nascent sexuality and subconscious longings were being playfully expressed and sublimated through the joget.

“The impulses, inhibitions, rapture and frustrations of desire were being negotiated here in full view of the community, albeit in a ritual space, under the guidance of elders,” Pusaka’s cultural director Pauline Fan wrote in an essay in 2013, relating her experience watching Mak Yong.

Fan also told of an instance when the stage was transformed into a public forum to solve domestic problems, for husbands and wives to negotiate their clashes through theatrical silat duels.

For all the accusations of idolatry and spirit worship, an important role of Mak Yong seems lost to the religionists — and ultimately us, as we echo their deficient and constricted views — that what is being healed here is the relationship between humans.

When living in a community, there is bound to be negativity. It is just an inevitable side-effect of human relationships that are defined by geography. When we deny ways to repair this relationship, by curbing our humanism, in favour of gods and to seek the favour of gods — that is when society starts to crumble.

We feel the quakes now as headlines reveal the widening chasm among us as the powerful choose gods over fellow humans. It is uncertain how much longer we can bend until we break.

We need to heal. We need to pave the cracks. With Mak Yong or otherwise, to live with humans is to value our ties with each other, and to consider humanism.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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