Monday, January 24, 2005

(D) January 8, 2004 - Awang Sulung Merah Muda

AWANG Sulung Merah Muda is a story familiar to most Malaysians – well, at least to those (yours truly) who endured this as compulsory reading in Malay Literature studies, in addition to other classics such as Hikayat Hang Tuah and Sejarah Melayu. The story, staged as a dance drama by the Petronas Performing Arts Group, was presented over two days last weekend at the Dewan Philharmonic Petronas in Kuala Lumpur.

This folktale and many others could have been lost to us if not for a few English blokes who were interested enough in matters other than politics, governance and trade, to pen down stories narrated by various Malay penglipur lara (storytellers) in the days of yore. These stories were collected by Abraham Hale in Negri Sembilan and by A.J. Sturrock and Sir Richard Winstedt in Perak, and published in the Royal Asiatic Society journals.

Winstedt captured the more familiar version of Awang Sulung Merah Muda from the famed storyteller, Pawang Ana. In this dance drama, the adaptation of the text is quite different from the original story which details the birth of Awang Sulung Merah Muda, his journey and adventures, and finally a happy ending in which he achieves success in all his endeavours, and marries four princesses rather than two.

Scriptwriter-cum-director Zahari Hamzah has chosen to put more emphasis on the warrior and thus has developed the story around the character. In fact, he even introduces a few characters such as Putera Kediri, Pangli-ma Hitam and Puteri Duyung.

Dance movements, music and song are the main elements used to enhance the characters. Non-representational acting, which relies on exaggerated acting, makes the eight-scene dance drama even more dramatic.

The set design is simple and is split into two levels to depict the land and the sea. Dewan Philharmonic Petronas was built for excellent acoustic effects but, due to stage limitations, it is hardly a choice venue for an elaborate set and a dance drama where voice and sound take second seat to body movements and facial expressions. If not for the excellent musicians and chorus singers hidden behind the stage making beautiful music and songs, the capacities of the hall would have been quite wasted.

The story begins with Awang Sulung and his wife Puteri Nuramah on their honeymoon. The choreography in this scene is a simple contemporary Malay fan dance depicting the Malayan jungle. What steals the show is the beautiful green costume complemented with a big red flower as head gear, and the matching fan prop made to look like banana leaves.

Bujang Selamat informs Awang Sulung that there is a man lying on the beach and they both go off to investigate. Meanwhile, Puteri Nuramah goes off to bathe, taking with her a basket of food.

The man who is washed ashore awakes and wanders around the island. He stumbles upon the food and devours it before he notices the princess. Just at that moment, Awang Sulung and Bujang Selamat arrive and see the stranger looking at Puteri Nuramah. Awang Sulung pounces on him and demands an apology for being rude to his wife. The man then reveals that he is Putera Kediri, the Prince of Mangkahulu, and starts to tell them how he ended up on the beach. As he relates the tale, the sound of the rebab takes the lead.

From here on, as the travel and adventure begin, we see the meeting of two cultures – Malay and Javanese – in the dance choreographies.

The dance of the concubines, which is a contemporary form of the Javanese Jaipong, is very teasing with its unique and flamboyant head, arm and shoulder movements. Coupled with music, I found this to be a very attractive and seductive dance.

At Mangkahulu, one of the concubines seduces Putera Kediri but he is framed for trying to seduce her instead. The King, in his blind anger, sends him into exile.

Meanwhile, Raja Mambang sends Panglima Hitam to kill the prince. Panglima Hitam arrives at the island and demands that Awang Sulung hand Putera Kediri over to him. A brawl takes place and Putera Kediri is killed. Panglima Hitam captures Puteri Nuramah and takes her back to Mangkahulu.

In this fight, we see two different types of movements used by the male characters. In Awang Sulung and Bujang Selamat, we clearly see movements that resemble those of silat whereas Panglima Hitam and his followers display movements similar to the Javanese “Gaga-han” characters in their large movements.

Awang Sulung then prays for help. His prayer is answered when all of a sudden Puteri Duyung appears from the sea. She gives him a magic walking stick (Tongkat Semberani) and a sacred mousedeer (Kijang Kencana Emas) to assist him in his mission. This scene introduces animal-like movements depicted by Puteri Duyung in her beautiful “scaly” dress as a fish swimming on stage and the prancing mousedeer that skips and hops with pointed feet.

Gifts accepted, the nafiri heralds the start of Awang Sulung and Bujang Selamat’s journey to rescue Puteri Nuramah.

The people of Mangkahulu lead a hard life after a mishap befalls them. In a deliberately listless dance, they beg for assistance from Panglima Hitam and the ministers of Mang-kahulu but to no avail.

Upon arriving at the country, Awang Sulung witnesses the hardship faced by the people and helps them by using his magic walking stick. The noble act touches the heart of Puteri Seri Jawa, the daughter of the King of Mangkahulu.

In the next scene, it is not established that a spell has been cast on the King of Mangka-hulu. He enters the scene already half-para-lysed and is escorted to the palace by Puteri Seri Jawa and Raja Mambang Saujana. Amongst the subjects of Mangkahulu are Awang Sulung and Bujang Selamat who have disguised themselves as paupers. Awang Sulung waves the “Tongkat Sembrani” which instantly sets the King free from the spell cast by Raja Mambang Saujana.
As a gesture of gratitude, the King grants Awang Sulung permission to marry his daughter. Raja Mambang Saujana, in his last attempt to gain power, threatens to kill Puteri Nuramah if the King refuses to hand the throne over to him. A ferocious fight ensues and Raja Mambang Saujana is killed. Awang Sulung Merah Muda is reunited with Puteri Nuramah; he also accepts Puteri Seri Jawa as his second wife.

All in all, the dance drama was a good effort at bringing literature to live.

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