Culture and the arts under threat

Sutra Foundation chairman Datuk Ramli Ibrahim leads the artistic direction for Spellbound Odissi featuring Young Dancers of Sutra Dance Outreach Programme on Sept 4.

I DETEST the decision to disallow Datuk Ramli Ibrahim (pic) from giving a talk on how dance transcends race.

As an esteemed institution of higher learning, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) is sending all the wrong messages. It should uphold academic excellence first and last, and be the bastion of healthy discourse and conversation.Sadly, it allows its Islamic Centre to decide what is appropriate and what is not, and in the case of Ramli, his talk was cancelled so as “not to offend any party”.

Who are they, may I ask? UTM, the university that prides itself on being the beacon of intellectual scholarship and technological disciplines, has to come to that? It is a sad day for culture and the arts.

Ramli is no ordinary bloke. He is one of the finest dancers the country has ever produced. He is an artiste extraordinaire. To say that his work transcends race is an understatement.

He is a Muslim perfecting Indian classical dance. He is a natural-born cultural icon. Watching him performing the Odissi is like watching a true maestro exulting grace, poise and finesse.

Artistic expressions have been so stifled the last two decades in this country. Everything is being defined by religious authorities. Religiosity is rearing its ugly head. It started perhaps with good intentions, “untuk menerapkan nilai-nilai Islam” (to inculcate Islamic values) as a policy.Suddenly, everyone has his or her own interpretation of what that means. Malaysia has a new brand of “Islam”. Ministers in charge of religion too are positing their own labels of Islam.

There is intense competition among Malay political parties to be holier than the other. It matters little if gestures and attire are more towards Arabisation rather than Islamisation. As the Malays become more “Muslim”, they become less Malay.There have been discussions that national schools are now run by religious teachers. Even principals and head teachers are at the mercy of these people. They decide what is right and what is not for students (and teachers). Adherence to their interpretation of the Islamic code is paramount.

There has been a constant call to bring back the “national” in our national schools. If we want to make our national schools the school of choice, we need to rethink our entire philosophy of education.I spent almost my entire adult life directly or indirectly involved in culture and the arts. I learned a lot from my days watching Bangsawan and Chinese opera in my kampung back in the 1960s and early 1970s.

I used to write and direct plays and act under other people’s direction. I was involved with the late Krishen Jit in organising Universiti Malaya’s Theatre Festival in 1979. I was later the chairman of a company that produced thousands of hours of content, including TV dramas and films.

At Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in the late 1970s and 1980s, I was involved with some of the magazines published under its stable. One in particular, Dewan Budaya, is a specialised magazine on culture and the arts.

As a reporter, I met legendary players in various disciplines. I followed the great Dollah Baju Merah (Abdullah Ibrahim), one of the most respected dalang of wayang kulit who ever lived.

I spent many weeks with the late Khatijah Awang, the prima donna of mak yong. I was with Pak Leh Tapang (Haji Mat Salleh Ahmad), believed to be the pioneer of dikir barat in Kelantan.

And I am close to Bangsawan legend Rahman B (Abdul Rahman Bakar), the last of the Mohicans. He is 85 and not in the best of health. He was the orang muda (literally, young man) who played the hero in his father’s troupe, the famous Bintang Timur Opera.

Talk to him about reviving Bangsawan and he remains as enthusiastic as he was when I met him as a boy in my kampung, where his troupe performed for many months.None of them are rich but they dedicated themselves to the arts. There are thousands like them out there who were in ketoprak, wayang wong, menora, main puteri, kuda kepang and wayang geduk, who lived rough.And we must always remember those in the Malay film industry in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s – many of them made barely enough money to survive. But like candles, they burned themselves in the name of seni filem (the art of film).

Things have changed dramatically. Many of these art forms have become unacceptable and labelled “unIslamic”. Many traditional theatre forms are not even allowed to be performed. It doesn’t matter if one of the genres is hailed as “a masterpiece of humanity” by Unesco.

The arts scene has been shaken partly by cluelessness and indifference, but mostly by bigotry and self-serving intentions.

We can never recreate the golden era of Malay cinema. Those were the days of openness and tolerance. Now nothing can survive the scrutiny of religious zealots masquerading as guardians of the religion.

What would be left of the arts if we let convoluted thinking permeate even the walls of higher learning? Will the arts be totally suppressed in the name of religion? Is there such a thing as “religious thuggery” in the country, as described by Ramli?What happens if a dance tradition dies with the dancer just as how, in many cases, the wayang dies with the dalang?

Lest we forget, let’s learn from the great Wali Songo (the Nine Saints) of Java. Hinduism had already been embedded in Javanese society since the rule of the Chola rulers. It was not easy to preach Islam to the populace. Many of the saints knew how the Javanese revered their culture.

It was through folk theatre that they made inroads. They didn’t discard the epic stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. They gave them Javanese names – Seri Rama and Pandawa Lima respectively. They added new characters – Islamic ones – to entice the people.

They used literature extensively to preach. They didn’t stop the Javanese traditional rituals associated with animism (the concept of kejawen), but they utilised them cleverly as a tool. By the 15th century, thanks to the nine saints, Java was “Islamised”.

Culture and the arts are part of our jati diri (character building). It is more than just creative expression. It is all about us. It is our heritage. Whether it is Bangsawan, modern plays or wayang kulit, these are our manifestations of creativity in many colours.

To add to that, we have the cultural expressions of all the ethnic groups in the country, especially those from Sabah and Sarawak. We must allow these to flourish without fear of being stifled.

Cultural diversity makes a nation. envisioned by our forefathers as one like a rainbow in the sky: exuberant and multi-coloured. Beneath all that is our belief that our country must not get engulfed in a whirlpool of intolerance and bigotry.

Johan Jaaffar is a journalist and the author of Jejak Seni: Dari Pentas Bangsawan Ke Media Prima Berhad, an autobiography of his involvement in culture and the arts. The writer’s views are his own.

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Johan Jaafar , Commentary


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