By Akanksha Raja
(1050 words, four-minute read)
George Town Festival is now in its ninth year, and one of the distinctive qualities in every edition is the balance it strikes between presenting international touring works, and Malaysian shows that are rooted in local society and culture. Kelantan – A Living Heritage, the headliner event opening this year’s edition of the festival, affirms again the festival’s focus on providing platform and visibility for Malaysian culture, particularly the traditional arts.
Often referred to as the “cradle of Malay culture”, Kelantan, one of the northern Malaysian states that share a border with Thailand, is the birthplace of some of the most iconic traditional Malay art forms, such as Mak Yong, Dikir Barat, and Wayang Kulit. Co-directed by festival director Joe Sidek and multidisciplinary artist Kamal Sabran, Kelantan is an epic showcase of performances highlighting some of these indigenous arts forms.
In an attempt to distinguish Kelantan from the variety program format beloved of government-type “cultural” events, Kelantan uses a narrative framing: a father, introducing his son to the different art forms from the state. Played by real life father-son duo, Khairal Baisah Hussin and his 7-year-old Kamarul Baihaqi, their conversation followed an expert-novice structure as a way to provide exposition and explanation about the forms, and emphasise the importance of preserving tradition. Unfortunately, the stilted, ‘educative’ quality of the dialogue made the device appear didactic and contrived. The strong and well-executed performances more than spoke for themselves. The youthful energy in all of the individual performances were testament to how traditional art forms are still very much alive, and make a convincing argument for the need for their continued practice.
The show opens with the resounding, anthemic beat of the rebana ubi – six of these large drums are spread across the stage and played by two drummers each. The drums remain on stage throughout the entire production. None of these performances are presented in isolation – dancers, musicians and musical equipment stay on set even as other groups and performers take the stage. On one hand it symbolises the abundance of different threads of Kelantan’s cultural fabric coexisting together in the same space, creating a visual or spatial tapestry, but at points it had an overcrowded effect; some pieces were overshadowed by the presence of non-essential elements sharing the stage.
The rebana ubi performance is followed by the opulent and operatic Mak Yong, the ancient dance-drama form that has seen controversy over the years for its “un-Islamic” roots. One of its most staunch champions today is Zamzuriah Zahari, who opens the performance with a ceremonious entrance from the back of the auditorium, resplendent and magnetic in a dress of blue velvet and shimmering details. Her voice is powerful and inimitable, but it was unfortunately marred by the erratic and jarring quality of the production’s sound system.
Indeed, the overproduced quality of the show itself left a sour taste because it similarly does a disservice to the eloquence of the performances. Presumably in an effort to include “modern” elements to a showcase of largely traditional works, large digital screens cascading from above the stage flash abstracted traditional motifs and designs in a kaleidoscopic fashion throughout the show. The sporadic and inconsistent inclusion of surtitles, which appeared in support of the dialogue between Kamarul and Khairal, but disappeared during other spoken segments of the production, may have been due to the improvisational nature of these forms, but it left those who could not follow the Kelantanese dialect out of the evident humour of the performers.
The delicate and elegant 17th century court dance, Asyik, is followed by Baihaiqi taking to the stage for a Wayang Kulit segment. Even at such a young age, Baihaqi’s skill and mastery of the form was impressive. This child is clearly no novice to the traditional arts, unlike the character he plays in Kelantan. Instead of a traditional staging of wayang, the audience was given full sight of the dalang’s back and the puppets against the small wayang screen. However, a large overhead projection presented a more conventional view of the shadow play. This may have been a well-intentioned attempt to reveal the mechanics of the form – a touch of the contemporary perhaps – but the resulting two screens, with the same story in inverse orientations, had a distracting effect.
In the next segment featuring Tari Inai, the energy on stage opens up to the house, with audience members being invited onstage. In a display of body bending acrobatics, the dancers bend backwards walked on all fours, while twisting their heads to pick up objects on the stage floor with their teeth, drawing gasps of amusement and enthralled applause from most of the audience.
In a nice nod to the tensions between preservation and innovation, the next scene, of a contemporary work, begins with the father telling the son that traditional forms must not be altered. New York-based Malaysian choreographer Raziman Sarbini’s “Dikir” then took the stage, with dancers from ASK. First staged in 2015, “Dikir” stood out as the only performance not created specifically for this production, and also as one that blended traditional form with a contemporary approach, seeking to use the form to communicate socio-political concerns about power structures in a society.
It appeared that the show had concluded with dikir barat and an uproarious comedy routine by dikir group Sunang Detaga Arjunasukma led by Muslih Sang Saka and Kamal Sabran. As the audience’s applause rose and the performers gathered closely together on stage seemingly for a final curtain call, there was an all too short and sudden display of Songket fashion that lasted for a couple of minutes, as a procession of models walked briskly from the back entrance of the auditorium to the stage. Such a large auditorium isn’t conducive to the aims of a fashion show: unless you were seated very close to the aisles in the stalls, you wouldn’t be able to catch a glimpse of the intricacy and detail of the textile. Besides, the fleeting fashion show felt distinctly out-of-place among a series of elaborate theatrical performances.
Based on the quality of individual artists alone, Kelantan proves that Malaysian traditional art forms and practitioners, are forces to be reckoned with. However, this particular staging should be seen as an ongoing experiment in how to present these forms in a production that honours the artistry and talent, rather than as a finished product.
Kelantan: A Living Heritage was staged from 4 – 5 August 2018 at Dewan Sri Pinang as part of the Georgetown Festival 2018. Akanksha Raja is ArtsEquator’s Asst. Editor. This article was published on Aug 16 2018, and lightly edited on Aug 17 2018.