THEATER IN MALAYSIA

INDIGENOUS TRADITIONS: MAIN PUTERI

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “Like most of the Southeast countries, Malaysia also has several theatre and dance traditions that still clearly have their roots in indigenous animism. Many of them have flourished in Sabah and Sarawak and at least two in the Malay Peninsula. These two are the healing ritual called main puteri and an indigenous form of sung dance-drama, called mak yong. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~|]

“Main puteri is a healing ritual with some theatrical features. It has been practised in the state of Kelantan, on the east cost of the peninsula. Its primus motor is a shaman (bomoh), who also often plays a three-stringed rebab violin. With his or her assistant the shaman aims to heal a patient by personifying the illness as a malevolent spirit. Main puteri has features common to some other animistic ritual performances around Southeast Asia and even Sri Lanka. This seems to confirm the fact that it is indeed is a tradition originating from pre-Islamic times. It may also reflect the Tantric belief-system, common in regions before the arrival of Islam. |~|

“The rituals usually take place at night. Hours of prayers are followed by invocations and offerings. The actual healing ritual is saved until just before the dawn, when the spirits are believed to be forced to withdraw from the human world. The main puteri ceremony is accompanied by a small orchestra. The ceremony usually takes one whole night to perform, sometimes even several nights. |~|

“The theatrical features of a main puteri ritual include dances accompanied by singing and an orchestra. The spirit’s arrival is made known by the change of the dance style towards uncontrolled, jerky trance movements. Then follows the actual communication with the spirit including offerings and negotiations by the shaman. This dialogue-like communication with the spirit of the illness may last long and it often includes even obscene humour.” |~|

Mak Yong, Ancient Malay Dance-Drama

Mak yong or mak yung is a traditional form of dance-drama from northern Malaysia, particularly the state of Kelantan. It was banned by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party in 1991 because of its animist and Hindu-Buddhist roots which pre-date Islam in the Asian region by far. In 2005 UNESCO declared mak yong a "Masterpiece Of The Oral And Intangible Heritage Of Humanity". The late Cik Ning was a leading mak yong performer in the 1980s. [Source: Wikipedia]

Mak yong is considered the most authentic and representative of Malay performing arts because it is mostly untouched by external sources. Although most traditional Malay dances were influenced by India, Java and other parts of Southeast Asia, mak yong's singing and musical repertoire are unique. Of the major stories performed in mak yong, most are derived from Kelantan-Pattani mythology. Some of those obtained from outside the Malayan-Thai region have now died out elsewhere such as Anak Raja Gondang, a story originally from the Jataka tales but now almost unknown in India.

According to UNESCO: This ancient theatre form created by Malaysia’s Malay communities combines 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. [Source: UNESCO]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “The Malays are the largest individual ethnic group in modern-day Malaysia, but they have only a few drama traditions of their own. The most sophisticated, albeit rarely performed, tradition is mak yong, an ancient form of sung dance-drama from the state of Kelantan. In the 20th century it gradually developed into a folk form, usually performed by the wives of rice farmers in remote areas in Kelantan. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~|]

History of Mak Yong

According to UNESCO: “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. Henceforth the tradition was perpetuated in its original rural context without forsaking the numerous refinements acquired at the court, such as sophisticated costume design. Mak Yong has been preserved until the present day thanks largely to oral transmission, which requires long years of training. 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.[Source: UNESCO]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “Mak yong is believed to be derived from ancient shamanistic healing rituals, and even today its performances are regarded as having magical significance and a special healing effect. Sometimes it is actually performed combined with the healing ritual described above, main puteri. Present-day mak yong combines indigenous rituals with elements borrowed from Indonesia, the Near East, and the nora tradition of Thailand. It has a vast repertoire consisting mainly of dramatised folk-tales. The performances combine dialogue, hypnotic music and singing with dance and are staged under small bamboo roof structures open at the sides. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~|]

“It is generally agreed that mak yong evolved from indigenous animistic rituals. Later it became popular folk dance-drama, accompanied by an orchestra including a rebab violin, bronze gongs and drums. Its music consists of 35 fixed-type melodies including extremely expressive singing. In the 1920s its popularity led, for a short period, to close ties with the Kelantan court and its cast grew to 20 dancers, singers and musicians. After this, in the 1970s, commercial mak yong groups also performed for a short time. |~|

Mak Yong Performances

A typical Mak Yong performance opens with an offering followed by dances, acting and music as well as improvised monologues and dialogues. 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-walled stage constructed 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 double-headed barrel drums (gendang) and hanging knobbed gongs (tetawak). 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. [Source: UNESCO]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “The repertory of mak yong includes 12 stock stories. One of them, Deva Muda, a kind of “original” mak yong legend, gives a mythical explanation of how mak yong was created. It also represents an indigenous literary tradition without traces of outside influences. As is often the case in Asia, the stories are rarely staged from the beginning to the end. Selected scenes from the basic stories, already familiar to the audience, are enacted, and much space is given to the improvisation. The performance starts with rituals, in which, among others, the rebab violin, the leading instrument of the orchestra, is venerated. After the formal ceremonies the traditional opening melodies are played. The actual drama proper usually starts with an audience at the palace. After the introduction of the story’s main character the actual drama starts. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~|]

“Since the early 1900s female performers have been seen in all the leading roles of mak yong, including the heroes (pak yong) and the heroines (mak yong). Male actors can, however, appear in minor comic roles. Thus the hypnotic songs, characteristic of the genre, are always sung by actresses. All the actors are present through the whole performance. The leads, the supporting choir and the orchestra sit in a circular formation. The most dramatic scenes take place inside this circle. Long songs are sung either in a couching or a sitting position. |~|

“No stage decorations are employed, but some stylised stage properties, such as a sword, a dagger etc. may be used when necessary. Scene changes are announced by means of dances, which are performed inside the circle. The solemn female dance technique includes few symbolic hand gestures, reflecting the influence of Indianised culture. The dances of the males are more lively and accentuated in character. |~|

“Originally the mak yong performances lasted for several days, sometimes even weeks. Nowadays the performances usually start at around 8 PM and end at around midnight. At present, mak yong is very rare, high-quality performers are becoming scarce, and even recordings of mak yong, either on CD or DVD seem almost impossible to find in Malaysia.” |~|

Shadow Puppetry in Malaysia

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “The Indonesian influence is particularly present in the traditions of Malaysia’s shadow theatre traditions, while the Thai influence is evident both in shadow theatre and in a dance-drama called nora. All these traditions, either in their story material or in their performance techniques, bear influences that were received through the trade contacts from India already hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~|]

“All the three traditional forms of shadow theatre in Malaysia technically present the same basic type of shadow theatre as the whole wayang family in Indonesia and the nang talung of Thailand. In all these forms the centre of the whole performance is the narrator-puppeteer (dalang). He sits behind the white screen, operates the puppets, tells and improvises the story, and also leads the accompanying percussion-dominated orchestra. |~|

“The old Javanese influence can be traced in the wayang kulit djava and the wayang kulit melayu, two of Malaysia’s three forms of shadow theatre. These genres differ mainly in the styles of their puppets. In wayang kulit djava, the puppets are highly stylised in the Javanese fashion, and both arms are movable. The wayang kulit melayu puppets, on the other hand, are less stylized, with only one movable arm. The stories in both genres have been mainly borrowed from the Javanese tradition, that is, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Prince Panji cycle. They are, however, all recited in dialects of the Malay language. Sometimes Islamic stories, such as the Adventures of Amir Hamzah, are performed. The new story material and a clear Arabic influence in the accompanying music are clear contributions of Islam to the traditional theatre of Malaysia. |~|

“The third type of Malay shadow theatre, the wayang kulit siam, is linked to the culture of the Thais, Malaysia’s northern Buddhist neighbours. The northern provinces of Malaysia were at times under Thai rule, and the population of the border areas has intermingled, and it is thus only natural that the Thai traditions of the performing arts were established in these areas. The puppets of wayang kulit siam, its performing technique, and the stories enacted all bear a close resemblance to the nang talung shadow theatre of South Thailand. |~|

“The basic story is the Ramayana, although among its main characters also appear local comic or demonic characters. The leather silhouette figures were painted in older times with non-transparent enamel colours, whereas now transparent ink is generally used. In a similar way as in Thai shadow theatre puppets, so too in wayang kulit siam the puppets have either one or two moving hands. Their exquisite design follows exact rules and models. Details are made clear by punching holes in leather.” |~|

Wayang Kilit

Wayang kulit is a traditional theatre form that brings together the playfulness of a puppet show, and the elusive quality and charming simplicity of a shadow play. The flat two-dimensional puppets are intricately carved, then painted by hand. It is either made of cow or buffalo hide. Each puppet, a stylised exaggeration of the human shape, is given a distinctive appearance and not unlike its string puppet cousins, has jointed "arms". Conducted by a singular master storyteller called Tok Dalang, wayang kulit usually dramatises ancient Indian epics.

Wayang kulit is similar to forms of shadow puppet drama popular in Indonesia. It is are based on the Hindu epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata and performed by puppeteers known as dalang who stands behind a screen and chants the story. Unlike the Indonesian shadow puppetry, it is not performed to gamelon music, but rather to music performed by aderams (long drums), painted wooden xylophone and serunai (an oboe-like instrument).

Wayang kulit was originally introduced from India and has traditionally been an art form that thrived in villages and rural areas. It has been performed at birthdays and harvest celebrations and to help people cleanse themselves of “bad air.” The performances have mystical side. Skilled dalang have been credited with “giving life” to their puppets. It is not unusual for performances to draw audiences of 800 people and last several nights. The dalang is either paid by the host or by a communal contribution.

Describing a performance Marty Logan of Reuters wrote, “The dalang sits cross-legged, a bare lightbulb suspended between him and a large white screen. Sauteed on the floor are the puppets, cut from buffalo or goat hide and painted in bright colors to represent patience, goodness, courage and other virtues. Seated in the dark, the audience watch the figure of the virtuous Sri Rama suddenly appear. Then the black shadow of the evil demon Ravana swoops to confront him. the figures feint and threaten. The dlang works their jaws, speaking a mix of Kelantanese and Thai while the sound of drums, gongs and horn rises to a crescendo.”

Islamic rulers in the state of Kelantan have banned wayang kulit on the grounds that is unIslamic. In some places performances are only allowed to be staged for tourists not local people. Interest in the art form has been waning as people have turned to television, karaokes and DVDs for entertainment.

Nora Dance-Drama

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “Nora is a form of dance-drama mainly performed in the southernmost provinces of Thailand and northern parts of Malaysia. The name nora is a shortened form of the name Manora, the standard heroine of an ancient tale, which often serves as the plot material for this type of dance-drama. Traditionally, nora has been interwoven with elements of ancestor worship and spirit possession while, at the same time, it is also a complex form of dance-drama. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~|]

“Nora has its own musical tradition and its movement techniques appear to have come almost directly from far-off India; and it has an undeniable magical character. Its origin has been the subject of much speculation. According to one theory, it is the link between the ancient theatrical forms of the Malay Peninsula and the lakhon dance-drama of Central Thailand. |~|

“It has also been claimed that nora separated from the Central Thai tradition at an early stage, developing in isolation. It seems to be clear, however, that nora is a result of cultural contacts with Sri Lanka and/or India. This is supported by the fact that its dance poses include direct borrowings from early Indian dance as well as Sri Lankan dance. Furthermore, South Thailand and North Malaysia, where nora still flourishes, were the crossroads of ancient sea trade routes which connected the area with India as well as with Sri Lanka.” |~|

Whatever its origin, nora is a unique theatre tradition in its inimitability and expressiveness. It is an embodiment of the complex syncretistic belief system of the region where it is performed. Its ritual elements reflect the local animism, its central plot material is derived from Buddhist lore, and its movement technique is related to the Indian Hindu tradition, while the tradition is now thriving in predominantly Muslim communities.

Bangsawan Popular Theater

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “The popular theatre of the Malays is called bangsawan (bangsa: people; wan: noble). Its stories are from Arabian romances, other Islamic literature, and Malay history. They usually deal with rulers and aristocrats and some themes are borrowed from Western theatre. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~|]

“Bangsawan is a kind of melodramatic, semi-operatic form of drama that combines songs with spoken dialogue. Its popularity has recently faded, but it was extremely well liked, especially before World War II, when bangsawan troupes toured as far as Sumatra and Java, influencing popular theatre there. |~|

“The origins of bangsawan can be traced back to popular Indian theatre. In 1875 a Parsi theatre company from Bombay performed with great success in Penang, which led to the creation of bangsawan. It is usually performed on a Western-kind of proscenium stage with painted backdrops and semi-historical costuming. From the very beginning it has been purely commercial theatre without any links to either courts of the religion. |~|

“In bangsawan throughout written scripts are rare. The more or less fantastic plots give only rough outlines of the action, thus leaving much space for improvisation. The stories include Arab material, such as the Thousand and One Nights, as well as Indian, Indonesian, and Chinese stories. Even Western stories are popular, including Shakespeare’s plays. |~|

“In their quality the colourful, painted backdrops reflected the economic standing of the troupe. The wealthier the group, the more pompous were the paintings. A set of backdrops usually includes a curtain, a street scene, a garden, a palace hall, and a jungle view. Until the early 20th century it was customary that these scenes followed each other in a certain order, but this practice was later abolished. |~|

“Even troupes with less elaborate backdrops aimed to create “local flavour” in their productions. For example, plays with Indian themes are accompanied by Indian Bollywood-kind music and costuming in order to refer to India, and Chinese stories were staged similarly with some references to Chinese music and visual elements. |~|

“Although the story material of the bangsawan repertoire is vast and heterogeneous, the role types seen on the stage follow a fixed system. The lead is often a young man, even a poor one, but through his cleverness and other qualities he attains his status as a hero. The female lead is usually a charming maiden. Other stock characters are a king, ministers and courtiers. Spirits, hermits and clowns may also be included, according to general Southeast Asia tradition. |~|

“The acting is not limited by any rigid style, which is often the case in ceremonial or court traditions. Bangsawan acting is characterised by melodramatics and improvisation, as well as a kind of elasticity, which makes it possible to change the style according to the performers’ skills and the needs of the play performed. Battle scenes are often enacted by the use of movements and poses of the pentjak silat martial arts. |~|

Modern Theater in Malaysia

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “Malaysia’s traditional performing arts are in a serious crisis. The reason is the multi-ethnicity of the country and the official cultural policy, dictated by the Muslin-dominated bureaucrats. Most of the traditional performing art traditions described above belong to a smaller cultural sphere, main puteri and mak yong to sultanates of the east coast, with its long Hindu-Buddhist tradition, and others to either Chinese or Indian etc. minorities. The significant Chinese community, amounting to roughly one third of the population, brought their once thriving operatic tradition with them. Chinese puppet theatre can also sometimes be seen.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~|]

“The official cultural policy in some of the sultanates, however, follows the guidelines set mainly by fundamentalist Muslims, who do not appreciate cultural traditions stemming from other belief systems. For example, in 2001, staging the unique performing art traditions of the east coast was, if not completely banned, at least seriously restricted. |~|

“The cultural climate varies from region to region. In the capital, Kuala Lumpur, various kinds of performances can be seen. Bangsawan, a form of folk theatre, was still a kind of Pan-Malaysian form of entertainment some decades ago, which was not restricted to any particular local tradition. In 1979 an attempt was made by the theatre specialist Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof to create a new kind of shadow theatre, wayang kulit malaysia. The old Hindu Ramayana was replaced by stories that were not contradictory to the tradition of Islam. |~|

“All kinds of forms of Western entertainment from movies to musicals are popular. The only bangsawan troupe still active is connected to the Universiti Sains Malaysia, in Penang. This university is one of the active centres of theatre and theatre research. It has, for example, invited dalang puppeteer masters to teach there. The university theatres serve as platforms for a new generation of playwrights, directors and actors, who often work in the field of Western-influenced spoken drama. However, interesting experiments have been made in the modern performance arts as well in dance. Several dancers and choreographers are aiming to create a new kind of dance by combining Malaysian traditions, such as main puteri and silat, with contemporary elements.” |~|

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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