Malaysia’s first waterproof matchsticks, freshly baked bread and theatrical drama – what is the common thread here?
Answer: Sabera Shaik.
In her role as Lady Swettenham, she shouts, laughs, cries and draws us into the British colonial world of Malaya, with her manic depressive ravings set against sharp British humour.
As Puteri Saadong, she mesmerises us with the magic of old Kelantan and Siam through the haunting melodies of the Mak Yong.
Her catalogue of characters – funny bones to tragic ones – is a long list.
Many know Sabera as a veteran of Malaysian drama and theatre – for over 35 years.
Born in Kota Baru, Kelantan, Sabera is from a family of 11 siblings, the children of one time well-known matchstick manufacturer Datuk Abdul Rahim G. Shaik.
“My father was a young man from Gujarat who founded the Kelantan Match Factory in 1933. He was a dynamic man who was always searching for new ways to improve his matches. He was an artist too, so was my mother who also gave him ideas on what his labels should look like. I remember we had at least seven labels at one time – the Star, Rhinoceros, Cili, 999, Double happiness, Crab (for a company in Penang), Fisherman (which became very popular with the East Coast fishermen!). His designs had labels with our different races in mind and those days, with no Internet, we had people from all over the world writing to my father to ask for these labels to add to their matchbox collection!” recalls Sabera, 66, in a recent interview.
Clearly, innovation and creativity runs in the Shaik family DNA. Cooking good food is another one of them.
“I remember my mother painstakingly making kueh lapis from scratch and we, the children used to watch her as she did this by the fire. This went on until midnight as we helped her in whatever she instructed us to do.”
At the age of 15, Sabera fascinated with the making of foods and the methods of preparation told her mum to give the cook the day off every Friday and she would cook for the family. And so began her journey into the culinary world of northern Indian and Kelantanese cuisine.
Theatre however continued to be an overriding passion from a young age.
“I think I was about nine when I first went on stage to dance. I always enjoyed having lines to speak and being on stage continued well into my Form Six year. That year I met the late (Tan Sri) P. Ramlee who had come to our school to sing and play his violin. What a charmer he was. At that age, I was in love with the violin – bought one with my savings a year earlier – and when I told P. Ramlee that there was no one in Kota Baru who could teach me, he said he didn’t mind teaching me!” says Sabera.
After completing her Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Universiti Malaya, she worked for two years in Kuala Lumpur before going off to the United States for her Masters in Theatre Arts at the Pennsylvania State University.
On her return, Sabera worked in the private sector for a couple of years, before she decided she needed to be her own boss. When she found out that the bakery below her apartment was up for sale, she obtained a bank loan and some financial help from a sibling and took over the business. Topaz, the bakery, went on for 16 years.
Sabera became one of the first bakers in Kuala Lumpur to make and deliver whole wheat bread to customers. That was in the 1980s before the supermarkets started to stock brown and whole wheat bread.
“It was hard because I was putting 12-16 hour days while doing theatre at the same time. In the beginning it was really hard work as I did not have the financial resources and so had to deliver bread all over Damansara and Bangsar in my little Ford.
“We eventually bought a van and with a driver, I spent less time on the road and more in the factory to make sure that quality was maintained. I would spend about seven hours at the factory, rest a couple of hours or attend meetings and then go off to the bakery in Kenny Hills for another five hours. If I had a play to rehearse, I would learn my lines while baking or driving with the help of a tape recorder.”
While Sabera loved the bakery, something had to give.
She had a lot ideas she wanted to implement on stage, and she wanted to improve her acting. Doing it part-time was no longer an option. She sold the bakery and in 2003, established Masakini Theatre Company with four objectives: to utilise theatre as a force for good; to unify the different races in Malaysia through showcasing Asian and local works; to give voice to youth and their concerns and finally to raise the appreciation and quality of English in Malaysia.
In 2009, Sabera built a kindergarten called Benchaq in a kampung near Kampar, Perak. It was for the orang asli children. In Janda Baik, Pahang, she taught young orang asli children English through theatre, music and craft.
“Projek Cahaya is something my friends – Sue Tiong, Normah Nordin and I – started when Sue got a call from her friend, a teacher in Sarawak about a need to reach out to special students. I thought theatre would be a great avenue for them to express themselves and develop self-confidence, among other things. Who else could I think of who has a million years of theatre experience than our great Normah Nordin! When she said yes, I felt doubly blessed. Today we have another actor Linda Hew who has joined us in our trips to Semenggok and Padawan in Sarawak. We are looking for more theatre people to join us and learn theatre therapy,” says Sabera.
And as if that is not enough on her plate, Sabera constantly updates herself with the latest in the theatre industry with visits to Denmark, Austria, Germany and Russia.
In Kuala Lumpur, Masakini Theatre Company is currently the only company doing shadow theatre, to much critical acclaim. Sabera trained in Germany under the shadow master Norbert Gotz and recently under Teatro Gioco Vita’s Fabrizzio Montecchi and Nicoletta Garioni.
She also writes and produces her own works and tours with her shadow theatre performance called Wayang – Malaysian Stories.
Masakini Theatre Company presents Sabera Shaik in two After Dinner Theatre shows next month at the Studio Ramli Hassan space, No 8A, Tepian Tunku, Bukit Tunku in Kuala Lumpur. Sabera will perform the one-woman shows - Lady Swettenham on Jan 12 and Puteri Saadong on Jan 19. More details: www.masakini theatre.com. FB: masakinitheatre. Tickets: theatreantics.com.