So Much Noise, Yet Nothing: Tradition, Invention and the Politics of Culture in Contemporary Malaysia
At the Centre for Creative Collaboration, 5 December 2010
Malaysian cultural activist Eddin Khoo delivered at talk at C4CC on 5 December 2010 titled ‘So Much Noise, Yet Nothing: Tradition, Invention and the Politics of Culture in Contemporary Malaysia.’
Securing a future for the endangered ritual arts of the state of Kelantan (Malaysia) means understanding how tradition is perceived and read, and the forces that define it in political and religious contexts. These arts, and the battle to sustain them, must be seen in relation to Islam in cosmopolitan Malaysia. Eddin is a Malaysian, but is neither Malay nor Kelantanese, and his outsider status allows him a privileged perspective on the state’s cultural politics and the everyday changes affecting artistic practice.
Wayang kulit in Malaysia is a bastardized, hybrid tradition with influences from Java, Thailand and other parts of Asia. Its core story, the Ramayana, came to Kelantan by sea and land, where it became settled in a remote and wild setting, and indigenized over hundreds years as the Hikayat Maharaja Wana, after the epic’s central antagonist. (As the protagonist Rama is considered insipid and moralizing.) Stories altered to account for Islam – the monkey warrior Hanuman serves Rama not because he is divine, but because he is Rama’s son, the product of a brief encounter between Rama and Sita when they were temporarily transformed into monkeys.
Though considered ‘Hindu’ by Islamists, ceremonial wayang kulit performances such as semah angin involve spiritual rather than strictly religious discipline. In this ceremony, the screen is taken down and the spirits of major puppets are called, with a shaman guiding the imbibing of spirits. The puppeteer, or tok dalang, takes on the character and dances.
In fact all village performance in Kelantan is rooted in two essential beliefs – semangat (elevated spirit) and angin (wind, temperament). Art revitalizes these aspects of character. Angin gives desire and also shapes identity. A person from an artist family is said to be unable to escape the arts – the angin wind will push him or her into the profession. Eddin noticed this proclivity when Pusaka was sponsored by a telecommunications company in 2006 to train a group of Kelantanese teenagers. The ones who excelled in makyong were from artist families; they had natural talent, unrelated to prior exposure.
Main puteri, one of the oldest of Kelantan’s ritual traditions, is a healing tradition conducted in the event of psychological illness. The spirit of the patient is teased into health. A patient enters an elevated state of semangat. Performances give license to behaviour not normally permitted- for example, a patient can beat up her neglectful husband on stage. Some patients undergo regular treatment – a transsexual woman who gets depressed regularly due to her inability to conceive undergoes annual sessions of main puteri sponsored by Pusaka. She expresses her frustrations to her empathetic community, relates her suspicions of her husband’s infidelities and is pushed and shoved into the state of sadar diri, coming into herself.
These village performances have come under the purview of centralized institutions administered by bureaucrats which were founded after the 1972 national cultural conference. Dialogue had been suppressed in the wake of the 1969 race riots, and the goal of creating a hegemonic culture, with community created in the image of politics, was implemented by collecting ‘master performers’ of various traditions to house in central institutions. These performers were told by bureaucrats what they needed to perform. The oligarchs of Malay culture gave them scripts to perform. Traditions were thereby classicized. For example, an Indian Ramayana was imposed on wayang kulit. Some artists rejected the state’s overtures. Among them was the subversive and stubborn Dollah Baju Merah, the populist ‘hooligan’ puppeteer of Kelantan. Dollah was known for his puppet of an Islamic official or Imam, who was extremely pedantic and doctrinal but also had a permanent erection. Hereditary performers did not see themselves in the past as ‘traditional’. This was a term introduced by bureaucrats to cultivate a monumental culture.
Eddin was working as a journalist when he heard of the ban on traditional arts by the Partai Islam SeMalaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party), which captured Kelantan in a 1990 election. The party was dominated by Wahhabists educated in the Middle East who wished to ‘cleanse’ the Malay Muslim mind of the pre-Islamic past. In 1991, the Kelantanese state assembly banned all forms of traditional theatre. Wayang was deemed to have ‘Hindu’ roots, mak yong was suspicious as it was performed by women, manora was deemed to be rooted in Buddhist ritual etc. This was the culmination of a 30 year project to homogenize Malay identity to a universal Islamic identity, an attempt to indoctrinate Malays into a larger world view at the expense of their own culture and history. The ban gave rise to puritanical vigilante gangs known as dakwah (prayer) groups, who, armed with sticks, disrupted illicit performances. Ritual performance was seen as outdated, magic, the work of devils, spirit workshop. Such characterization bears no relation to the mystical practices of psychological healing that practitioners carry out.
Pusaka has never directly confronted the ban on performance in Kelantan. It makes alliances with traditionalists and sponsors performances in areas where dakwah groups would not venture. The current struggle around traditional performing arts is a struggle within the umma (Islamic community) to define its identity, an anxious confrontation with history and cultural complexity. Malaysia has centuries of dealing with plurality. But through rejection of cultural strategies for dealing with complexity, many young people lack a rooted sense of self and possess overly inflated opinions of their place in the world and inflate the contributions of Islam to the world in particular. Malaysia’s last election demonstrated discontent with Islamism. A multi-racial politics was promised but has yet to be implemented.
(Summary by Matthew Isaac Cohen)
Eddin Khoo is Founder-Director of the cultural organisation Pusaka. For the past two decades he has worked intimately with some of the leading figures of the traditional arts in Malaysia, principally in the northeast Malaysian state of Kelantan. The co-author (with the historian Farish Noor) of Spirit of Wood – a study of the traditional art of Malay woodcarving, he recently collaborated with the famed Malaysian artist Ibrahim Hussein to complete his autobiography, IB: A Life, and has most recently translated the poetry of the Malay poet Latiff Mohidin and the Indonesian poet Goenawan Mohamad for Two Lines – the journal of the Centre for the Art of Translation, San Francisco and is completing a series of essays on performance and politics in Kelantan, entitled The Verandah of Mecca.