When I speak about Mak Yong with the elegant Pauline Fan, Creative Director of PUSAKA, and the resilient Mak Yong Prima Donna Zamzuriah Zahari, also Dean of the Dance faculty of ASWARA, a recurring theme is that of the powerful concept of angin in traditional Mak Yong. It is the one thing that sets apart a genuine, traditional, and compelling performance from a hollow one.
The concept of angin, as Fan puts forward in her essay for the Axon: Creative Explorations academic journal, refers to “Inner Winds”. Cultural anthropologist, Carol Laderman, describes angin as “close to Western concepts of temperament…. Everyone is born with angin, the traits, talents, and desires representing our ancestors’ heritage, but some have more, or stronger angin…. If they are able to express their angin, they can lead untroubled and productive lives…. In the context of Kelantanese ritual theatre…angin encompasses the need of the Self to express itself through a particular art form, as well as an individual’s affinity to archetypal figures of the Kelantanese imagination.”
Zamzuriah Zahari says, “In traditional art forms such as Mak Yong, Mek Mulung (a Kedah version of Mak Yong), Mak Yong from the Riau Islands and Tari Inai (sometimes performed in Mak Yong), the concept of angin can be intense, fostered and tempered by their own rituals and spiritual rites. Whenever I perform, people say that I have the spirit or the angin. Sometimes, the angin is so overwhelming that it touches audiences and they cry, faint, or may feel compelled to join us in the performance. It is similar to us hearing music which touches us deeply.”
Mak Yong is a traditional form of dance-drama from the northern states of Malaysia, especially Kelantan and Kedah. It is one of the most authentic representations of Malay performing arts and is believed to have originated in the ancient kingdoms of Pattani Kelantan about 800 years ago, existing both as a folk tradition and also in royal courts. However, it now exists more as the former.
Mak Yong stories are unique and different from those of the Wayang Kulit, which had its origins in the Ramayana. Out of approximately 30 main stories, the most important are the Dewa Muda (young celestial prince) and Dewa Pechil (exiled celestial prince). Some of the stories may have been adapted from Jataka tales, that is, tales of the previous lives of Buddha. An example would be Anak Raja Gondang, the story of a celestial prince born in a conch shell. Fan says, “Dewa Muda is the romantic hero archetype while Dewa Pechil represents the tragic hero. Dewa Pechil is an intense story which evokes strong emotions.”
The Mak Yong performance usually begins with Buka Panggung which is a consecration of the stage and the commemoration of the teachers. This is followed by a musical prelude (lagu bertabuh) which is when the drums (gendang) are played. Then comes Menghadap Rebab or Salutations to the Rebab, which is the opening dance sequence and lasts 15 to 20 minutes. The main performer, the Pak Yong, and the accompanying maidens, will face the rebab, which is the main and only melodic instrument in the performance. The rebab’s melody is evocative and sounds like a melancholic human voice in its rendition.
Next would be solo songs by the Pak Yong and then by the Mak Yong. This is followed by Ziarah Bilik Pengasuh which is the invitation to the palace courtiers to join the performance. When they arrive, the plot of the stories begins. Tutup Panggung or the symbolic closing of the performance takes place after the three to four-hour performance. The performances, especially those which involve rituals and healing, can last as long as three days.
Misunderstandings over the nature of the performances – including its commemorative rituals, the concept of angin and its effects on audiences – led to its ban in the state of Kelantan. Fan says, “In the past, there was never this conflict. If you look at Kelantanese society, they have always been a traditionalist Islamic society, even before political Islam. However, there was an openness to things that came before and they adapted.”
The discomfort and struggle with the performances could also be due to Mak Yong’s main characters usually being played by women. Fan says, “This is ironic though, since Kelantanese women have always been traditionally powerful. It seemed natural for a tradition such as Mak Yong to have originated in the Pattani Kelantan area as the women there are so strong. Their mythical history is rooted in women. The formidable Cik Siti Wan Kembang, the great queen of Kelantan, and her daughter, Puteri Saadong, are commanding entities of mythical imagination in Kelantan.”
Zamzuriah Zahari adds, “There were some forced developments in recent times where only male performers were allowed to perform. To me, this goes against the fundamental nature of the art form. Fortunately, this does not really happen anymore.”
Fan continued, “The bans have been extremely detrimental in many ways. Firstly, public performances have been disallowed. There is also now a stigma put on the art form which affects the perception of the younger generation, especially as they have had little exposure to it. The ban also discourages masters from teaching in Kelantan.”
Aside from the ban, there are other challenges. Among them are that most Mak Yong masters remain in villages, for example, in Besut, Tanah Merah and Pasir Mas. Zamzuriah Zahari says, “It would be good if more authorities would reach out to them. I try to involve them as much as possible in ASWARA’s webinars and performances. For example, once when Cendana gave us the opportunity to perform at Dataran Merdeka, pre-pandemic, I invited most of the masters from Kelantan to perform. They were so passionate about their performance that they did not even request for payment.”
Fortunately, there are highlights for this traditional art form. In 2005, Mak Yong was recognised as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, which reflects the finesse of a nation’s cultural tradition.
Since then, universities and institutions of higher learning with traditional performance art syllabuses have begun to incorporate Mak Yong into their repertoire. These include Universiti Malaya, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, Universiti Malaysia Kelantan, and Sunway College.
As Dean of the Dance Faculty of ASWARA, Zamzuriah Zahari has also been active in enabling platforms for Mak Yong performances and teaching; organising webinars that explore the growth and challenges of Mak Yong locally as well as in the region. Recordings of these webinars are available on ASWARA’s online channels.
Additionally, PUSAKA has worked closely with traditional Mak Yong masters for more than 20 years. PUSAKA Founder Eddin Khoo first met the legendary Mak Yong Prima Donna, the late Che Ning, and her troupe Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari in 1990s, when the Kelantan state government first announced the ban on traditional arts. Since then, PUSAKA has done extensive documentation of traditional Mak Yong, organised countless performances locally and abroad, and successfully trained the next generation of performers in this group, with the support of partners including the Asia Foundation.
Cendana’s Adiguru grants for traditional master performers have also helped motivate Mak Yong masters to continue to teach the younger generations in their community, as well as to document their work. PUSAKA is programme partner for the Cendana Adiguru grants, bringing their many years of experience of working with masters of traditional arts to shape the grant programme.
Nevertheless, more remains to be done. Both Fan and Zamzuriah Zahari express their wish for Mak Yong to continue to be established, with a greater focus on the traditional, authentic and vibrant. Zamzuriah says, “Mak Yong reflects our original identity and will always be relevant. Since the UNESCO recognition in 2005, more needs to be done to cultivate traditional Mak Yong – to develop, nurture and brand it as well as traditional arts in other countries, for example, Noh and Kabuki in Japan.”
Fan hopes that the current one-year Cendana Adiguru programmes may be extended for longer terms, such as for up to five years. She also stresses the importance of documentation, whether by PUSAKA or scholars. She says, “It is extremely important that these oral traditions be captured as much as possible, as once a master performer goes, she brings along an entire body of knowledge with her.”
Fan also hopes that the perception towards Mak Yong may be more open. She urges, “Whenever there is an opportunity to experience or learn about authentic Mak Yong, please embrace it for it is a uniquely Malaysian art form and captures the folk genius of our communities.”
Cover image: Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari in performance, featuring Rohana Abdul Kadir. (Photo by Ahmad Fikri Anwar courtesy of PUSAKA)