Cultural organisation Pusaka launches online resource to document traditional arts

The Kumpulan Wayang Kulit Sri Warisan Pusaka from Machang, Kelantan, performed the Hikayat Maharaja Wana in Texas, Florida and Georgia in early 2015. Photo: Cheryl Hoffmann

How often do elders lecture the younger generation on the importance on “knowing your roots”, without actually going into the nitty gritty of it all? How familiar is their lament on how traditions are falling by the wayside and being discarded in favour of shiny, brighter things?

But speak to Eddin Khoo, founder and director of KL-based cultural organisation Pusaka, and you will see that his take is far from the gloom and doom version of “saving” our cultural heritage.

“Old traditions are rooted in time, are deeply philosophical, and go very much against the grain of the snapshot culture we live in today. Paradoxically, that is also what gives rise to increasing interest in these traditions,” he says.

The appreciation for local culture, customs and traditions, has increased over the years, and Khoo attributes that mainly to the involvement among young people. He notes that the interest has always been present, but what has improved greatly over the years is “concern”.

“When our traditions were first forced into the margins in the 1990s as a result of religious, cultural and identity politics, there was consternation among the public that expressed itself mainly in nostalgia and sentimentality. Younger people, however, search for these traditions with a greater sense of purpose because they are not acquainted with them. They suffer from a large cultural and historical hole in their souls, they seek greater meaning of themselves through these traditions, and they are getting increasingly weary of the inanities of cultural, religious and identity politics which have disposed them of all this knowledge,” he says.

Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari seen during a Pusaka Evenings set in KL. Photo: Ahmad Fikry Anwar

The East Coast

Pusaka started out by documenting the traditional arts in Kelantan, an obvious place to begin, says Khoo, because of the proscription by the Kelantan state government in 1991. From there, work spread to other states in the peninsula, with relationships with communities in Sabah and Sarawak being forged in recent years.

What started out as a project with a reportage skew – who are these Mak Yong, Main Puteri, Manora, Wayang Kulit performers, what do these art forms mean to us – has evolved into something bigger today. The organisation partners with 25 communities of traditional performers throughout Malaysia, revitalise these traditions at the community level through performance platforms, and seeks to provide an intellectual context for the contemplation of broader aspects of culture, tradition and ideas.

Pusaka’s list of collaborators include Mah Meri dance and Kompang Jawa of Selangor, Kuda Kepang and Kompang Jidor of Johor, Portuguese dance of Malacca, Boria and Teochew Puppetry of Penang, Awang Batil of Perlis, Nading Rhapsody of Sarawak, and the Urumee Melum drumming tradition.

In an interview with Pusaka, the late great wayang kulit master puppeteer Tok Dalang Dollah Baju Merah (from Kelantan) once reflected on the purpose of wayang kulit: “It is for pengetahuan (knowledge) – to distinguish between good and bad, and to understand our jati diri (inner selves). Without that, what would you have? Nothing. Just observe the world around you – only noise. So much noise, but nothing.”

“I have often described Pusaka’s work to be an ‘odyssey’. These traditions kept the secrets of our interactions as a community, which have long predated our nation. I discovered also that in unravelling these traditions there was much to be gleaned about history, about worldviews and about ‘ways and approaches to living’. There is never ‘completion’ in a quest like this, but there are established foundations that we can look to achieving,” muses Khoo, 48.

A Teochew puppetry performance, with Penang's Kim Giak Low Choon Teochew Puppetry Troupe narrating folk tales and legends by using marionette puppets.

Mapping of traditions

Another milestone for Pusaka arrived recently as it unveils, in stages, a comprehensive archive of traditional performance in Malaysia on drawn from more than 300 hours of raw film footage, hundreds of hours of interviews and thousands of photographs. A new tradition and community will be revealed every two weeks, starting this weekend.

“The website aspires to create a proper mapping of traditions, an archive that the public can delve into, and enable us to be part of the large conservation occuring in the world about the destiny of such traditions. The method of introducing traditions every two weeks is an attempt to streamline the documentation we have while allowing the public to gain insight into the various traditions extant in our landscape gradually,” he shares.

Lest you imagine a dry, academic approach to archiving, he assures that this is not the case as through this website, Pusaka aims to demonstrate that efforts of archiving and documenting can be done “with a great deal of imagination and artistry”.

Writers, photographers and filmmakers have come together to create a highly artistic approach to documentation and to convey discoveries in non-conventional ways that emphasise the literary and poetic dimensions of documentation, and not simply the academic.

“This is an effort at archiving passing histories, and in doing so, hope to demonstrate that there are different and original ways to create multiple narratives. Once the host of traditions are introduced and uploaded, we will find other dimensions of the work to present,” he explains.

Kumpulan Dikir Barat Arjunasukma presenting its signature dikir barat (a traditional spontaneous song/verse and chorus-chanting Kelantanese performance) at Pusaka Evenings series Tak Tun: Malam Gendang performance in Kuala Lumpur in late 2016. Photo: Pusaka

Moving ahead

Besides Pusaka’s field work, events and performances, and now, the archive, Khoo shares that the team is looking to bring the traditional and contemporary communities together in radical and innovative ways. One of his dreams is to create a repertory theatre where plays are performed by a regular team of performers who are trained in the art of theatre by traditional performers.

“I still believe that no contemporary expression can have much originality and legitimacy if it does not emerge from tradition,” he states.

Pak Romli Mahmud, the last Awang Batil (traditional storyteller) of Perlis, closes out a Pusaka's traditional programme in KL in 2015. Photo: Ahmad Fikry Mohd Anwar

While he believes that the principal success of Pusaka’s efforts has been the forging of relationships with the communities it works with, ensuring the dissemination of these traditions to a younger generation of practitioners, and creating a broader empathy and awareness among the public at large, he is also adamant that the fate of work of this nature lies in creating the necessary balance between autonomy and partnership.

Pusaka has had some “very fruitful” partnerships with institutions, on a project to project basis, but a long-term relationship would, of course, be inspiring, he says.

As for what is to come, expect publications that will consolidate one of the key objectives of Pusaka’s work: to create a solid intellectual context for our deep and rich traditions.

“At the heart of it all is that the dignity of the traditions should always be preserved. It will always be a race against time to document the early arts and old world Malaysian cultures, especially since we, as a world community, perceive things in increasingly reductive ways. What Pusaka has tried to do is create a synthesis in time: employ modern technology to explore, document, capture, archive, makes sense of the world of these old cultures.

"It is a race against time, yes, because we also live in a time of forgetfulness, but it is a race that can nevertheless be run if the desired imagination, creativity and intellect compels it,” he concludes.

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