Decades of exaggeration and ignorance may have deterred traditional dance theatre Mak Yong from flourishing, but that won’t stop Zamzuriah Zahari and her family from sharing the art with the world.
I recently met with this family troupe called BaiZam Generation during the Made in Malaysia event organised by AirAsia Foundation in Kuala Lumpur where Zamzuriah Zahari, who has been teaching Mak Yong at National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (Aswara) for the past 20 years, quashed the stigma haunting the artform to this day.
Throughout the 15-minute performance where Kelantan-born Zamzuriah danced and sang to the short versions of Mengadab Rebab, Sedayung Mak Yong and Tari Inai, she was so deep in the dance that her every move made it seem like she was possessed by an age-old spirit.
I wasn’t the only one mesmerised by the performance as entire space was so tense you could cut it with a knife.
No thanks to the label saying Mak Yong un-Islamic as it takes form of a spiritual dance, I had to address the elephant in the room during my chat with 37-year-old Zamzuriah:
Is Mak Yong a Dark Art?
“NO. Only outsiders paint a negative picture on Mak Yong, calling it khurafat (superstitious) or syirik (polytheism). Kelantanese never have any issue with it. If you read statements made by ‘experts’ in newspaper reports claiming Mak Yong as un-Islamic, they are all outsiders. Kelantanese would not say such a thing,” Zamzuriah said.
“There’s no mystical elements in Mak Yong. If anything, the healing ritual of Main Puteri is the one religious authorities should look into.
“The confusion arise because Mak Yong moves are used in Main Puteri, and the fact that both art forms use the same costumes. There are plenty of repertoire mixed into Main Puteri like Angin Mak Yong, Angin Silat and Angin Bidan, among others.
“It is believed that, for example, if a Mak Yong dancer falls ill because she had not danced for a certain amount of time, she can be healed using Main Puteri.”
Zamzuriah said Mak Yong’s origins still needs to be studied as it doesn’t exclusively fall in Kelantan or Pattani.
“There are a handful of legends about Mak Yong and the development of the dance itself has plenty of history. Other than Kelantan, the dance also reached Kepulauan Melayu Riau, Kedah, Pattani,” she said.
“Back in the day, the dance expands thanks to trading activities. When performers start a family at a new place, say Kedah for example, that’s when you have Mak Yong Kedah.
“The same thing goes to Kepulauan Melayu Riau. During my short stint there, I asked the origin of Mak Yong Kepulauan Melayu Riau and they said it came from Kelantan. However, they performed Mak Yong Kelantan in Kedah repertoire, sharing the similarity with Mek Mulung (a dance from Kedah). Even Mak Yong Pattani’s performance uses Kelantanese dialect because the Thai state was once part of Kelantan.”
Mak Yong Survival and Politics
Because of the infamous spiritual label, conservative Kelantan government banned Mak Yong and other traditional performances like Wayang Kulit and Menora in 1998 under the Entertainment and Places of Entertainment Control Enactment.
Since then, there have been fears that the state’s performance arts will die out.
“Despite the ban, Mak Yong’s alive and well even to this day. Our audience may not reach millions but the dance will never fade. There are still a number of important figures in Kelantan still practising the art, sharing their expertise to researchers. Even if we can’t perform on a big stage in Kelantan, Mak Yong has been widely performed elsewhere, Kuala Lumpur is a big example,” Zamzuriah said.
“The only reason why the younger generation isn’t exposed to Mak Yong is because of the ‘un-Islamic’ stigma. When I taught my students the theory and practical segments of the dance, they understood the culture and identity and fell in love with Mak Yong.
“Generating interest among the younger crowds isn’t a big challenge because everything’s online. We just need to explain the theory and logic behind every move. By then they will be able to see there is no such thing as ritualistic or mystical about the dance that could jeopardise their faith.
“I love my religion and at the same time, I love this art, so there’s always the balance. But when you were pushed to a corner and told to pick one, religion remains a priority.
“With PAS at the helm, religion takes centre stage. But during the past election races, the Kelantan people, performance arts community specifically, were thrown into the political game.
“The opposition once promised 100% support on performance arts, saying Mak Yong, Dikir Barat and others will flourish where they will build big stages and other sweet promises. We gave them a resounding ‘No’ because religion stays on top. But that didn’t mean we let our arts take the back seat!”
Small Kampung Performances
Zamzuriah rejected the speculation that Mak Yong is a dying art in Kelantan, saying performances are still going strong in kampung and even universities like Universiti Malaysia Kelantan, albeit on smaller stage.
“We had built two stages at my father in-law’s home in Kelantan and we would perform every time we’re in the kampung,” she said.
“We don’t send out any promo posters ahead of the event, not even tickets. We would just send out a message on social media like ‘Oh, we’re performing Mak Yong tonight’ and people would come in droves.
“At times, hundreds of people would fill our lawn. My family would even prepare dinner for the audience. It’s not all about profit, we do this for the soul.
“The choreography you saw just now is under threat of being forgotten because it’s tough and there are hardly any reference since putting things on tape back in the day was a luxury. Performances today are mostly simplified version of Mak Yong so people would not lose interest having to sit down for too long. But we take it as a challenge and we strive to remain as authentic as possible.
“Just now, I had to combine two songs into a 15-minute performance. In reality, even the Mengadab Rebab takes 20 minutes to perform. Back in the day, troupes would even perform up to 40 days at a time.”
Kelantan Lift’s Ban, But at Big Cost
On 25 September 2019, the Kelantan government was reported to have lifted the 21-year ban on Mak Yong.
A local English daily quoted Kelantan deputy chief minister Datuk Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah saying the dance can take to a bigger stage including official events after complying with syariah requirements and guidelines including covering their modesty (aurat) and separating men and women on stage as well as in the audience.
This decision came after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) called on the state government to lift the ban in 2017, 12 years after it proclaimed Mak Yong a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The daily also reported that when Kelantan Department of Arts and Culture (JKKN) hosted a syariah-compliant Mak Yong performance for 20 Kelantan state officers including state executive councillors and mufti earlier this year, several officers (including the mufti) who had been in the government for years admitted to not having seen a Mak Yong performance before. They were shocked to see the use of Surah Yusuf in the Raja Besar Maha Gading repertoire.
Dewan Budaya Universiti Sains Malaysia director Associate Professor Dr A.S. Hardy Shafii, who attended the event, was quoted saying the verse had been the mainstay in Mak Yong performances in Kelantan since the 14th or 15th century.
“They thought it was all khurafat (superstitious), but then they saw the show and realised this repertoire with the (Quranic) verses was the same thing they said was haram (forbidden),” Hardy said.
Is it possible the state’s ignorance has led to the massive bump faced by traditional arts practitioners? You be the judge of that.
A local news channel reported JKKN director Mohamed Raizuli Mat Jusoh saying part of the syariah-compliant requirements include not allowing female cast on stage and rewriting dialogues so it won’t sound un-Islamic.
Zamzuriah said such a policy will tarnish the authenticity and identity of the dance that performers are better off performing on smaller stages instead of an official event.
“I’d rather play in a kampung than taking the bigger stage only to be controlled,” she said.
“Since time immemorial, Mak Yong dancers comprise predominantly female cast including the lead character Pak Yong. The male cast member would play supporting roles like Peran (the jester) as well as responsible for musical arrangements.
“If women aren’t allowed on stage, that means the all-male cast will imitate women to play female roles, which is a sinful act in Islam. How ironic would it be for the conservative state government to allow that?
“The late primadonna Khatijah Awang, who won the Anugerah Seniman Negara (in 1999), made her name through Mak Yong. She observed religious restrictions and was still recognised for her success in the performance art.
“Why can’t the powers-that-be accept the fact is Mak Yong is purely dance?
“We’re not doing this for outsiders, we perform to fill our soul, the Kelantanese soul. People can say anything they want, but Mak Yong, Wayang Kulit and other traditional arts will live on forever.”