MAK YONG – A beautiful and ancient form of dance theatre

MAK YONG  is an ancient theatre form – combining  acting, vocal and instrumental music, gestures and elaborate costumes. Specific to the villages of Kelantan in northwest Malaysia, where the tradition originated, MAK YONG is performed mainly as entertainment or for ritual purposes related to healing practices.

Experts believe that MAK YONG appeared well before the Islamization of the country. It was performed as a royal theatre under the direct patronage of the Kelantan Sultanate until the 1920s. Hence, the tradition was perpetuated in a rural context without forsaking the numerous refinements acquired at court, such as sophisticated costume design. A typical Mak Yong performance opens with an offering followed by dances, acting and music as well as improvised monologues and dialogues.

Image by : Ahmad Zakii Anwar

A single story can be presented over several consecutive nights in a series of three-hour performances. In the traditional village setting, the performances are held on a temporary open stage built of wood and palm leaves. The audience sits on three sides of the stage, the fourth side being reserved for the orchestra consisting of a three-stringed spiked fiddle (rebab), a pair of doubleheaded barrel drums (gendang) and hanging knobbed gongs (tetawak).

It is traditionally staged in a 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 – which allows the members of the audience to observe minute details of the MAK YONG performance.

Most roles are performed by women, and the stories are based on ancient Malay folk tales peopled with royal characters, divinities and clowns. MAK YONG  is also associated with rituals in which shamans attempt to heal through song, trance-dance and spirit possession.

Image by : Ahmad Zakii Anwar
Image : Ahmad Zakii Anwar

The stylised movements of the MAK YONG  involve subtle gestures of hand and arm, soft hand positions, slow steps and graceful turns. The principal roles are pak yong (lead male character), mak yong (lead female character) and peran (clown or attendant). The repertoire consists of 12 main stories including Dewa Muda, Dewa Pechil and Anak Raja Gondang. The stories of the MAK YONG  mostly recount the adventures and destinies of royal-celestial figures, rooted in the mythology of the old Kelantan-Pattani Sultanates, dating back to the Srivijaya Empire (7th-13th Century). A few of these stories are derived from Buddhist Jataka tales. The most elaborate sequence in a MAK YONG performance is the opening song, menghadap rebab, during which the dancers face east in salutation to the rebab (spike fiddle) before the main story unfolds.

Mak Yong, requires long years of training, has been preserved until the present largely through oral transmission. In today’s society, few young people are willing to commit to such rigorous apprenticeships. As a result, this important tradition is undergoing steady decline, as attested by reduced dramatic and musical repertories and a shortage of seasoned performers.

In the past theatre troupes would travel throughout northern Malaysia, southern Thailand, and the Riau archipelago of Indonesia. Incorporated into national displays of Malaysian cultural heritage since the mid-1970s, Mak Yong was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005. The UNESCO intangible cultural heritage (ICH) designation for Mak Yong was filed and accepted while the ancient dance form  was officially banned in its home state of Kelantan by overzealous religious leaders.

Image : Ahmad Zakii Anwar

In Kelantan today, art forms continue to hit against the wall of these overzealous leaders, however there has been pressure in the opposite direction too, with traditional art activists urging the state government to drop its stance for these ancient and beautiful art forms to thrive.

The Kelantan state government lifted its ban in on the dance in 2019 after more than two decades. At the time the state’s deputy chief minister Datuk Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah however said those who wish to stage the dance can only do so after they comply with syariah requirements and guidelines, that include making it compulsory for MAK YONG performers to cover their aurat. ( certain parts of the body, which is considered compulsory to be covered)

The organisers also need to ensure separation between men and women on stage and in the audience – and to ensure that there is no element of ritual worship in the performances. Before MAK YONG was traditionally performed by troupes specific to each locality, but its now mostly performed in a more puritanical way by state-sanctioned arts groups.