Legends from the deep rise up in Nusantara fantasy book 'Bentala Naga'

‘We need to remember we have our own legends, ’ says Ninot. Photo: Handout

Many ancient South-East Asian kingdoms have tales of people living beneath the waves. One of these classic seafaring stories, first told generations ago, now sets sail again.

Bentala Naga: A Makyong Tale is a Nusantara fantasy adapted from the mak yong dance form. It is now retold for modern readers by Ninot Aziz and accompanied by illustrations from Walid Muhammad, Dani Warguide and Atiqah Nik Ghazali.

Bentala Naga is an intergenerational tale featuring the mythical kingdom of the Naga, a sea-serpent people, and their relationships with their human neighbours. Its central character is Bentala Naga, a wise and powerful Naga queen who ends up looking after Puteri Gak Jitra, a human child. Noble princes, magic powers, and all the beloved elements of fairytales feature in this story.

Bentala Naga is published by Silverfish Books as part of its Hikayat series, which publishes Malaysian heritage tales for readers of all ages. This series is presented in hardcover format.

This is the second book in the Hikayat series after Bidasari And The Djinn in 2018.

The Australian-born Pahang-raised Ninot says she had first been introduced to the story of Bentala Naga back in 1996. Then, she was involved in a mak yong performance at the Royal Lake Club in KL, featuring the late mak yong practitioner Khatijah Awang and her troupe.

“She performed excerpts from a few mak yong pieces. During her three nights of rehearsal, I wrote down everything she sang and did and talked about. This was so we could present a narrative to the audience. The show was a hit, and made me decide I wanted to collate all the mak yong stories together, ” recalls Ninot, who has worked on a diverse range of books, including novels, anthologies, and YA fiction.

She is known for books such as Hikayat: From The Ancient Malay Kingdoms (2012), Naga: A Legend Of Tasik Chini (2012) and Kirana: Dreams After The Rose (2017).

Traditional stories have always been close to her heart. The mak yong experience sparked Ninot’s love for the art form, and she went on to collect stories by watching mak yong performances and interviewing individuals from this traditional theatre community.

This research came in useful during the writing of her new book.

According to Ninot, the tale of Bentala Naga contains elements from three stories found in mak yong. They include the tales of Endeng Tejali, Anak Raja Gondang and Raja Bongsu Sakti.

She mentions these stories are usually performed separately. However, after researching and speaking to mak yong practitioners, Ninot realised they were all connected.

Her book focuses on the unlikely bond between Bentala Naga and Puteri Gak Jitra.

“The fascination is really with Bentala Naga. Why did a Naga keep a human princess? That’s the story that I really wanted to unveil. And through the story of that relationship comes the story of the mak yong. And I think that’s essential because the legend of the Naga is a strong part of Nusantara culture. It binds us together. In Champa, Laos, Thailand, Tanah Melayu, Borneo, the Naga is a key mythological being in this region, ” says Ninot.

While writing the story of the Naga was demanding enough, bringing the characters to life proved another challenge.

As Bentala Naga is an illustrated book, the right individuals were needed to draw these mythical serpent-people. The illustrators, led by Walid, worked through a list of creature concepts before finding the right look for their story.

“The challenge of designing such a Naga was to make it look fresh and stay true to local sources. I needed to avoid the look of a typical mermaid and focus on the serpent-like features, ” says illustrator and lecturer Walid, whose work has also appeared in the comic book Kembara Laksamana Hang Tuah (2018).

“It took me one year to complete the illustrations. Some may ask, what took so long? The challenge was getting the right visual concept to match the author and publisher’s vision.

“For example, for one illustration, I had to redraw it up to five times to get things right. I also had to explore and research on certain subject matter, such as the mak yong dance... I wanted the artwork to complement the characters in the story, ” says Walid.

Pandemic or not, the book has taken a long route to see the light of day, but Bentala Naga is finally available now.

Just like the book’s creative team, Silverfish Books founder Raman Krishnan hopes Bentala Naga will help spur a desire in Malaysian readers to appreciate such stories.

“We are a tribe, floating around in the air with no roots. But these stories are our roots, this is who we are. Our culture is grounded in them. Stories inspire us, and make us to do things we’ve never done, ” says Raman.

Ninot wants to see a book like Bentala Naga making an impression among a cross-section of readers, where it can attract those into fantasy books right to fans of graphic novels.

“We can’t keep thinking the best stories, the best heroes and princesses are all from the Western world. We have to move away from that. We need to remember we have our own legends. We need our younger generation, actually even people our age, to remember these legends are part of our culture, ” concludes Ninot.

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