Mak Yong, one of Malaysia's oldest forms of dance theatre, is a Unesco 'masterpiece'


  • Arts
  • Thursday, 16 Apr 2020

If you have ever wanted to discover the story behind Mak Yong, one of the country’s oldest forms of dance-dramas from northern Malaysia, this movement control order (MCO) period might be the best time.

Traditional arts and culture organisation Pusaka, together with Walkabout Asia, has recently presented an online video series about Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari and community based in Kuala Besut, Terengganu.

“Any time is a good time for Malaysians to learn about our cultural traditions, but many of us now have more time on our hands due to the MCO, ” says Pusaka’s creative director Pauline Fan in a recent interview.

In 2005, Mak Yong was recognised by Unesco as one of the 'Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity'.

Ropeah Kancil, a Mak Yong actress from Kuala Besut's Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari. Photo: Karl Rafiq NadzarinRopeah Kancil, a Mak Yong actress from Kuala Besut's Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari. Photo: Karl Rafiq Nadzarin

Mak Yong, also seen as a healing ritual, is currently performed in the northern Malaysia states of Kelantan and Terengganu. It is traditionally staged in the round, which allows the audience to surround the performance and experience the event from multiple perspectives.

The close proximity provides an immediate connection between the performers and the audience to which allows the members of the audience to observe minute details of the Mak Yong performance. The performance incorporates music, dance and slapstick humour.

The videos are based on a cultural immersion trip organised in late February by Pusaka in collaboration with Malaysia Reform Initiative (MARI), USAID (US Agency for International Development), and US Embassy Kuala Lumpur.

Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari has been one of Pusaka’s longtime community partners for almost 30 years,

Rohana Abdul Kadir (left), the principal performer of Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari, plays the Pak Yong role. Photo: Karl Rafiq NadzarinRohana Abdul Kadir (left), the principal performer of Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari, plays the Pak Yong role. Photo: Karl Rafiq Nadzarin

Fan explains that the group traces its lineage back seven generations. The members are the family and descendants of the late Che Ning, one of the most renowned performers of Mak Yong in Malaysia. Among the principal performers in today's Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari are Che Ning's granddaughters, Rohana Abdul Kadir, Che Esa and Che Yom.

The series of Mak Yong videos provide insight into the deep tradition of Mak Yong. Three of the videos, produced by Walkabout Asia, feature interviews with principal performers and custodians of Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari in Kuala Besut.

"We (Pusaka) also have a 16-minute general introduction to the Mak Yong tradition and its context, including the cultural politics that surrounds Mak Yong in Kelantan and Terengganu, and another short video that documents the impressions of the participants who joined us for the Mak Yong Cultural Immersion in February," says Fan.

A Mak Yong performance incorporates music, dance and slapstick humour. Photo: Karl Rafiq NadzarinA Mak Yong performance incorporates music, dance and slapstick humour. Photo: Karl Rafiq Nadzarin

During the recent trip, the participants witnessed a two-day "semah angin" Mak Yong performance, held for purposes of healing.

"It was an unforgettable experience for the participants, most of whom had never seen a Mak Yong performance in a traditional community setting. Participants were struck not only by the depth and beauty of the Mak Yong, but also the primordial power wielded by women in Mak Yong, and the way the entire community participates in a performance," recounts Fan.

The videos, available for viewing now, offer interviews with Che Siti Dollah, elder custodian of Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari, and Poksu Agel, gendang (drum) master and head musician of Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari, who explains the role of music in the Mak Yong tradition.

"Viewers will discover the beauty and depth of Mak Yong tradition and learn about the way it is practised in its local community setting," says Fan.

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