Ariff Awaluddin and Soraya Yusof Talismail, husband-and-wife artists/photographers, are no strangers to the state of Kelantan. Over 10 years ago, they made visits and photographic excursions to the East Coast state which is famed for its traditional art forms and cultural heritage.
They are not the first to document the arts there.
But in their collaborative photography series Brehi: Kelantan, Under The Skin, the couple wanted to specifically capture the pulse and energy of the practitioners and people in the Kelantan arts scene.
The complex issues regarding the survival of these traditional performances still persist today in Kelantan with the PAS-led state government prohibiting traditional art forms like mak yong along with menora, wayang kulit and main puteri.
That didn’t stop Ariff and Soraya, as independent cultural archivists, from compiling a lively and heartfelt photo series which has now been turned into a book and exhibition.
These photographs – taken from 10 trips made to Kota Baru between 2005 and 2006 – can now be viewed at the Brehi: Kelantan, Under The Skin exhibition at the National Art Gallery in KL.
The photo book accompanying this exhibition Brehi, which means “desire”, contains over 80 black and white and colour photos showcasing the couple’s study of five Kelantanese art forms: wayang kulit, menora, dikir barat, main puteri and mak yong.
Brehi accentuates the human side of these art forms, showcasing the images of the people behind these performances from tok dalangs, singers, choreographers, musicians and dancers, and even the audience members of these shows.
This multimedia exhibition aims to give the masses a decidedly non-academic view of the rituals, acting, dancing, songs and stories from Kelantan. It's an exhibition with the Kelantanese people at heart.
“The exhibition and book aim to demystify these (traditional) art forms and make them accessible to the public,” says Soraya, 50.
"This is our perspective of the Kelantanese, from the point of view of outsiders for outsiders who do not even understand the Kelantanese dialect," she adds.
At the gallery, the Brehi: Kelantan, Under The Skin photographs are exhibited in a unique way, with specific areas dedicated to a particular art form.
There is even a wayang kulit theatre platform built as an installation work, with traditional shadow puppets, percussive instruments and classic makeup mirrors featured.
A "main pantun" booth also serves to bring light to the art of traditional spoken word events that have entertained through the generations.
The idea is to give the exhibition a feel of an actual performance, with the performers and audience being inseparable.
“They clap in unison and build up so much energy, and then suddenly and abruptly, it ends, with a deafening silence,” she adds.
One of the most striking images, however, is the face of man contorted with wild delight.
According to Ariff, 63, this person was a mentally-challenged man who had come to watch one of the shows.
“It was a mak yong performance. He really enjoyed himself, being caught in the moment. He stayed from the beginning to the end,” recalls Ariff.
A series of photographs of the legendary Pak Dollah Baju Merah (Red Shirt) of Kok Lanas, Kelantan, who died in 2005, is already worth the price of admission. In Kelantan, the late Pak Dollah's name remains synonymous with wayang kulit. To view photographs of his last performance in his beloved home state makes for a deeply poignant experience.
“We knew we had to do something with all the material we had. And we need to expose this side of Kelantan to the masses.”
These art forms have also survived and evolved through time.
“There are very creative people keeping them alive. For example, take the dikir barat. The tukang karut has to be very aware of his surroundings. He has to be able to talk about politics, economics, everything around him ... not only in Kelantan but in Malaysia and the rest of the world!” explains Ariff, referring to the tukang karut, the leader of a dikir barat group.
“Brehi is not just the performers and the musicians. It is also about the audience. They are so colourful. We fell in love with the people in Kelantan,” he adds.
The Brehi: Kelantan, Under The Skin photography series was shot entirely on film.
Soraya agrees that Kelantan is special as it is seen the cradle of Malay arts and heritage.
In many aspects, Brehi is an exhibition that shows that the appreciation for the arts is after all, intuitive.
“This attachment to culture is so much part of the people there. It’s very fascinating and inspiring all at once,” she points out.