Monday, January 24, 2005

(D) August 22, 2003 - Mak Yong With Modern Elements

SINCE I have given back everything I know about traditional Malay performing arts to my lecturer, I was glad that he was at the performance as my reference! Professor Mohd Anis Md Nor from Universiti Malaya was present at the preview of Mak Yong: Raja Tangkai Hati, the much talked about production, held at Istana Budaya, Kuala Lumpur, to study the developments of Mak Yong.

Well, exciting developments are at hand and this is causing a buzz in the Malay arts community. Like Prof Anis, the audience was all very eager to see how Mak Yong takes the stage.

Traditionally, Mak Yong is performed in a small circular space where the audience would all sit around the performers as they dance, sing and act. Putting Mak Yong on the proscenium stage is an unnatural act in itself. But with Istana Budaya’s policy of championing a Malay art form each year (last year was Bangsawan with Siti Zubaidah), they are spending a great deal to ensure that this year, Mak Yong takes off in a big way.

According to Dr Ghulam Sarwar Yousof, scriptwriter for this production, this is easily the most spectacular Mak Yong performance ever staged in the world.

The first concern is, of course, how to fill up the space on stage. The choice of story plays an important role in this. The reason why they chose Raja Tangkai Hati, one of Mak Yong’s 12 stories, is because there are more characters in it. Other stories, even the more popular ones only have two to three characters in it. But then, surely this story cannot be performed over and over again as it would sideline the others.

That said, it is an ambitious attempt by Norzizi Zulkefli who directed and also took on the lead role of Raja Tangkai Hati. Barely 27 years old, this multi-talented artiste showed great potential under the guidance of Fatimah Abdullah who hails from a Mak Yong family.

The play began with Mengadab Rebab, the piece in which all performers danced and paid respect to the rebab (a middle-eastern violin) and to the spirit of Mak Yong. While they danced, they also sang along with the rebab in a dondang (chorus).

The tale tells the story of Raja Tangkai Hati who goes sailing accompanied by his wife Puteri Cempaka Emas and their two princes, Malim Bisnun and Malim Bongsu. Unknown to them, Puteri Bota is intent on seeking revenge as she is resentful of Raja Tangkai Hati who refused to marry her. Transforming herself into a beetle, she flies to the ship and cursed all the passengers and crew except for the queen and her two sons. The beetle then transforms into a flower, which is then plucked by Puteri Cempaka Emas at the coaxing of Malim Bongsu. Puteri Bota thus appears, snatches Puteri Cempaka and takes her to a secret hiding place. There, Puteri Cempaka Emas is tortured and cursed into a half-human creature. Continuing with her web of spite and hate, Puteri Bota disguises herself as the queen. But the two princes sensed that the vision of their mother is an apparition of Puteri Bota and that their mother is in grave danger. Their father refuses to believe them and at the suggestion of the “queen”, they are cast into the sea as traitors.

The preview of the performance, which lasted close to two hours, ended at that point of the story. The second act will relate the adventures of the princes as they try to save their mother. In the end good triumphs over evil and the royal family is reunited.

The legend is filled with gods and earthly rulers as well as mythological figures. But more importantly, it is about family as the basic social institution held together by strong family values.

To the concern on how Mak Yong would take the stage, I think it has done very well for a first attempt to utilise the capacities of Istana Budaya’s stage. The juxtaposition of the old (the traditions of Mak Yong) and the new (stage technology) was clear. Sufficient but not overdone props dressed the stage.

The use of simple stage mechanisms was manipulated to form a two-tiered and three-tiered stage on several occasions, making it look even smaller.

It seems that these days we can’t do without a multimedia projection in productions. The larger than life images on the screen gives the a complete and space-covered feel like we are watching on the big screens of the cinema.

The projections were also used to denote height and location where one actor would look up towards the screen and talks to another who seemed to be responding from the window or balcony of a building.

It was difficult for me to catch the dialogues initially because it was spoken in the Kelantanese dialect. Thankfully, it became easier on my ear later on. Although there is a script, the licence to improvise was accorded to the actors and actresses. So do not be surprised if you catch current-day vocabulary such as “KLCC”, “Internet” and “chatting” in the dialogue.

As the play proceeded, it began to look more like just another Malay drama and less like Mak Yong (which I can only speak for the first act). With all the sophistication at play, it was even harder for me to imagine how Mak Yong can also be used to “heal” the sick.

With the exception of the Mengadab Rebab and the supporting traditional Malay orchestra, I fear that the true spirit of Mak Yong may be lost in its urbanisation and perhaps prostituted for tourism.

I was personally a little disappointed as I came expecting something more authentic. But it is a chicken and egg situation. With hearsays such as there are only three remaining groups of Mak Yong still in existence, and the top serunai (flute) player in the country being a trishaw rider in his full-time job, it is no wonder that the art has to evolve with times (and source of financial support).

I would not even attempt to translate the title Raja Tangkai Hati for it would sound something literal and ridiculous like “‘King of Liver Stem”. My point here is that some things are just better off in its original state.

But taking it further to its biological and medical function, that part of the body is important because it holds the heart in place. In short, it is the pillar of strength to the heartbeats of life, just as culture is to society.

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