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.

The Batik Block Artisan

 

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We often hear of batiks in Malaysia and imagine them to be hand drawn through the canting technique. In Malaysia, hand made batik designs are drawn on the fabric with hot liquid wax by using a metal object called “canting” – it is like a small receptacle that pours out hot wax in small lines instead of paint.

When the wax outlines are done, artists use brushes to paint the dyes within the outlines. The use of brush allows for the creation of shaded and multi-hued designs.

Batik block printing however requires a different skill even though it is still hand made batik. The rhythmic patterns of a batik block can create outstanding batiks – and the art of making a batik block is a skill on its own. Batik block makers are artisans themselves, and often specialize in making batik blocks and not the same artisans who design and make batik textiles.

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A batik block maker, Abdul Ghani Mat was awarded a title of Master Artisan by Kraftangan Malaysia for his creative and highly skilful work in hand tooling copper batik blocks. In our previous blog, we had mentioned that the owner of Ayu Batik in Kelantan has a collection of over 5000 batik blocks dating over several decades, which form an important archive of the creative history of Malaysian batik patterns.

In a block print batik, the canting tool is replaced by a hand tooled copper block that is designed with the patterns or motifs that will be repeated on the cloth to create a piece of batik. Sometimes a wooden stamp is used that has a carved patterned bottom.

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The block is dipped into the wax and printed onto the fabric, which is then dip-dyed. Then the wax will be removed and batik with single color is produced. To create multi-colors and complex batik, waxing with different blocks, dying and de-waxing have to be done many times.

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In Kelantan, the heart of the Malaysian batik industry, we visited a batik block workshop. We were pleasantly surprised to see three industrious young men including the owner, creating intricate copper batik blocks for batik artists and designers in Malaysia. The owner started his own batik block making business after being trained as a block batik artisan himself. The workshop was strategically located in an area with clusters of batik workshops and ateliers including Ruzz Gahara.

According to the enterprising young man, he noticed a constant demand for batik blocks from batik artisans and designers. He decided to open a small workshop of his own and started training batik block makers amongst the youths in the village who were interested. His workshop is a simple hut shaded under a few trees, next to a narrow dirt lane that was a bit too small for a car to go through. The hut was nestled in a small village, tucked away from the main road, the idyllic silence around them only broken once in a while with the sounds of children playing in the neighborhood or stray chickens looking for food.

 

The making of batik blocks requires as much concentration as making the batiks themselves. Using blow torches and a myriad of hand tools, the batik block “boys” painstakingly cut, bend and meld small parts of copper that gradually expand to resemble the full picture of patterns and motifs provided by artists for customized block prints.PHOTO-2020-07-16-16-25-25

Depending on the intricacy of the motifs, one batik block can take up a few days to a few weeks to make and the cost will also depend on the motifs. The batik block young artisans looked up briefly from their work when we went in before focusing once again on bits of copper on their tables. They looked like any teenagers on the streets, wearing sneakers, jeans and t-shirts – we would not have guessed that they were traditional artisans if we had bumped into them outside the workshop. We asked one of them when he had started making batik blocks, he told us he was 16 when he started. For them, continuing the tradition was a way of life in the village.

 

Suryani Senja

The Future of Craft – the Young Artisans of National Craft Institute (Institut Kraf Negara), Kuala Lumpur.

 

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In a green, peaceful oasis just a few kilometres from the KL city centre, there was a big secret that hardly anyone from the creative industry knew about – until now. Institut Kraf Negara (IKN), or the National Craft Institute is a campus of 250 students studying six of Malaysia’s crafts under the patronage of Kraftangan Malaysia – textile weaving, batik making, basketry, wood carving, ceramics and jewellery and metalsmithing.

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For 3 years, these students learn craftsmanship and skills that are vital towards preserving our culture and heritage – they are an important part of Malaysia’s future of crafts.

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The founder of Senijari who is also the current Chairwoman of Kraftangan Malaysia visited the IKN campus recently to chair a roundtable discussion amongst a selection of Malaysian’s creative industry professionals from architecture, fashion, film, interior design and branding agency. The British Council facilitated the discussion as part of their Craft Futures program in the region.

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The creative professionals were surprised to find a craft school in Kuala Lumpur with students from all over Malaysia who showed skills and passion in continuing Malaysia’s craft heritage. They were suitably impressed, and excited at this opportunity to create meaningful collaborations with the young, skilled and creative talents of IKN who are like undiscovered gems.

Amongst others, participants such as Fashion designer Melinda Looi, Lina Tan of Red Films, Lillian Tay, the President of the Malaysian Architecture Association, architects and furniture designer duo Farah and Adela of Bikin Studio and William Harald Wong, owner of WHW Associates, a design agency provided critical feedback on how to integrate the IKN students closer to the creative industry in Malaysia. It is now critical to inject fresh innovation and new life in Malaysian crafts and the other creative industries as well as to provide a clearer career path development for our future artisans.

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The students come from IKN come from all over Malaysia, and we were delighted to speak to young women who were defying gender stereotypes in the departments of metalsmithing and wood carving – a very physically challenging area of crafts. We spoke to a ceramic student from Sabah who spoke of her reason for studying the craft of ceramics – simply a keen interest in the craft.

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Students from Sabah and Sarawak were also doing basketry as they learnt the craft from young and also learnt to love the craft. In the batik department, a third year student was producing an intricate “canting halus” piece of batik with dedication, and was beaming with pride when Melinda Looi admired her work and encouraged her to continue creating beautiful pieces of batik.

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It was refreshing to be among students who look at Malaysian crafts as their future. IKN is doing important work, and now will need even more support from the creative industry, the Ministries and policy makers so that their graduates survive and thrive in the global creative industry.

IKN’s convocation is coming up on the 13th of November, and as we are at the threshold of 2020, we see the unique potential of IKN to be one of the premier creative hubs in Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia with our young artisans leading the way. In an exciting development, IKN is planning to open up the campus to the public with their graduate shows and new short courses. The creative industry is already talking about potential collaborations on internships, creative projects and even a reality TV craft & fashion show. The future of craft suddenly looks brighter.

 

 

 

East Coast of Malaysia : The Cultural and Craft Hub

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Malaysians are fortunate that we still live close to our culture, traditions and craft. Our culture has provided us beautiful and useful objects as well as a sense of community and belonging to a distinct and rich culture. The East coast of Malaysia namely the states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang are particularly known for their textile culture. Batik, songket, tenun and telepuk are some of the known textiles that are still made and designed by hand either on the loom or in the case of batik, with the wax resist and dye along with brushing technique.  Other major crafts in the East Coast of Malaysia include wood-carving, silver-smithing, copper and the art of weaving mats from rattan or pandan leaves.

On a trip to the Pesta Kraf Pantai Timur (East Coast Craft Festival) recently, Senijari’s founder and creative director discovered that our artisans remain committed to their craft and that craft culture is alive and well. However, the outside world seems unaware of our heritage, or at least knows little about them. We need to find creative ways to tell our craft and artisan stories better and broadcast them to the wider world so that more know about our wonderful heritage of handicrafts.

One of the highlights of the trip was meeting two artisans who were given the award of “Adiguru 2018”. The Adiguru is an award by Kraftangan Malaysia that recognizes the mastery of craft by master artisans who can also teach their craft. The master artisan who is awarded the Adiguru title receives a cash prize and a monthly stipend for a fixed period of time.

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Pak Non, the Master Wau maker was awarded the Adiguru title in 2018 for creating the unique 5-layer carved motifs for traditional kites based on the Wau Kelantan – most kites are made with only 3 layers of carved motifs on coloured paper. Pak Non, who is passionate about his Wau craft, cites nature, especially the surrounding paddy fields as his inspiration.

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Even though he makes the Wau Kelantan, he actually resides in Kedah and goes for kite flying competitions with his kite creations. He says that the competition for the best traditional kites is based on how the kite looks on the ground and how high the kite can fly – so the Wau is assessed both on its physical beauty on earth as well as its technical prowess in the sky.

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Cik Kalsom, a petite and diminutive mat weaver from Terengganu is passionate about and proud of her masterful skills. She was awarded the Adiguru title in 2018 for her mastery of weaving mats and other products using the intricate and complex “kelerai” technique, with soft pandan leaves.

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This technique according to her is backbreaking and not easy to learn. She laments that the younger generation is not as patient when learning, and usually end up adopting easier techniques of weaving that are not as intricate as the “kelerai” technique.

She continues to weave despite her back aches, as she says that it is reward enough when she sees a piece of mat of complex patterns completed, the sense of accomplishment and pride at her skill motivates to once again continue.

The Pesta Kraf Pantai Timur in Kelantan and Terengganu displayed some of the best artisans and their work in batik, songket, wood carving, silver and copper.

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We visited batik workshops in Kelantan that were highlighted for their authentic and traditional batik block print and wax resist techniques. One workshop, Ayu Batik, was remarkable for their environmentally friendly approach by recycling water used to wash the dye off the batik textiles as well as recycling the wax used for the batik dyeing and colouring process.

 

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Ayu Batik has an incredible collection over 5000 batik block prints dated from the 60’s, some of which are meticulously restored and showcased. Its legacy continues with the owner and his son who continues designing with the authentic block print technique for batik.

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In Terengganu, the wood carving association at Desa Ukiran Kayu in Besut presented their impressive skills in traditional wood carving in a beautiful gallery at the Desa Ukiran Kayu.

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It was eye opening to meet the Master Malay Wood Carver Norhaiza Noordin (norhaizanoordin.wordpress.com). He has used his talents not only for wood carving, but he has created a stunning private art space and a residency for wood carving students that has to be experienced called Bakawali in Kg. Raja, Besut,Terengganu.

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After the visit to the East Coast, we have no doubt that craft and the mastery of craft in Malaysia are alive and well. Now we just need to tell the world about them.  

Fashion with a difference – the debut of Theatre of Fashion, Rainforest Fringe Festival 2017

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I have always known that Joe Sidek (the Festival Director of George Town Festival, Penang) was talented and used to organize fashion shows, but he proves that creativity can surpass itself over and over again. 

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