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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Main Puteri — Poetics And Politics

“Whatever the term is, be it Main Puteri, Main Teri, or Pateri, the tradition is an expression of how human beings try to make sense of the complexity of life.”

The rebab surrounded by offerings.
The rebab surrounded by offerings. Courtesy of PUSAKA, photo by Cheryl Hoffmann.

Din Puteri leans back against the corner post of the balai, next to a row of trays lined with offerings of eggs, yellow glutinous rice, bananas, roasted chicken, and assorted flowers. His eyes fall on the tok minduk, smoking leaf cigarettes as he blows the dust off the rebab (spike fiddle). His black t-shirt and shabby sarong are still soaked with sweat. At his waist are two pieces of batik lepas cloth that he had tied at the start of the menghadap rebab ceremony. The balai is now filled with chatter and laughter from the awak-awak (musicians) who are packing up their drums, canang, kesi and the gong.

He now shifts his gaze to the inang (handmaids) who are enjoying laksam on the veranda of Kak Yah’s house, the host of that night’s event. The golden yellow baju kurung worn by the inang illuminates the corner of the village. Amidst the thicket of wild trees, Kak Yah’s courtyard—which had moments ago transformed into a magnificent palace—returns to its original state. The two nights of Main Puteri performance at Pulau Keseng village in Kelantan has just come to an end.

Din Puteri knows well what has been troubling him all this while. To him, religion was always part and parcel of life, seamlessly co-existing with older belief systems. However, growing up, the embracing intimacy of Islam has been tainted with hatred and misunderstanding. Through the eyes of the reigning authorities, life is seen as black and white, right and wrong, halal and haram. Now, he continues to practice Main Puteri in the quietness of the night, among those who still honour the dignity of their roots and their ancestors.

Cultural Purification and Political Posturing

Din Puteri was first stirred by the sounds of gendang and serunai of Main Puteri as a child, watching his sister lying unconscious in the balai and in need of psychological healing. He tried to make sense of the scenes unfolding in the balai: the dishevelled state of his sister, the poetic conversation between the tok minduk and tok puteri. Enchanted by the subliminal power of the ritual-performance, Din began travelling from one balai to another, delving into the layered language of Main Puteri.

Din grew up when Kelantan was in the throes of a state-wide social and cultural purification project by the Islamic party-led state government. Cultural practices that were deemed to be antithetical to Islamic teachings were banned and demonised, including Main Puteri.

I met Din Puteri or Ahmad Shaifuldin Jusoh in February 2020, at a Semah Angin Mak Yong ceremony organised by the cultural organisation, PUSAKA, in Kuala Besut, Terengganu. A few weeks before, the state government had introduced guidelines for entertainment, cultural performances, tourism, and sports activities, meant to educate society and ensure the implementation of Syariah laws in all aspects of life for Terengganu folks. The announcement has made the violation of Islamic laws punishable by the state.

What was taking place in Terengganu was a reflection of three-decades of cultural proscription in its neighbour state, Kelantan. After taking over Kelantan in 1990’s, the Islamic party (PAS)—many of them graduates from universities and madrasah in the Middle East—began their process of cultural purification. Everyday language, public administration, state sponsored events, and government buildings in the state were given an “Islamic” facelift. Wearing tudung has been made compulsory for women, and Kelantanese traditional performing arts including Main Puteri are prohibited until today.

PAS’ project of cultural redefinition is characterised by political posturing and rooted in fundamental misunderstanding. The state leadership labels the traditional performing arts and healing rituals as “entertainment”. Today, cultural practitioners are subject to a lengthy checklist of restrictions and rigid guidelines. Women are no longer allowed to be on stage in official events, undermining the spirit of Che Siti Wan Kembang and the traditional power of women in Kelantan. Din laments, “In the past, the state leadership understood the deep significance of Main Puteri to the Kelantanese. Unlike today.”

One of the casualties in this war on culture is language. Leaders no longer understand the language of their own people. The evocative language of metaphor and symbolism in Main Puteri have been reduced to elements of “worship”, khurafat and syirik, while bureaucrats plot to reconfigure, and disfigure, traditions that have been passed down for centuries. As one of the state leaders proclaimed, “…all the dialogues (in arts performances) will be modified by adding lines and excerpts from Quran and hadith”. Din Puteri can only smile cynically at that.

Din Puteri
Courtesy of PUSAKA, photo by Karl Rafiq Nadzarin.

Language of Symbolism and Metaphor

Din Puteri is a shaman who speaks in poetry. Like wayang kulit dalang, musicians, or filmmakers, the role of a Tok Puteri is to transport us to the deepest, quietest, and most personal part of ourselves—the uncharted territories of everyday life. This is where we look within, negotiating and evaluating our relationship with the natural and spiritual world.

Melancholy and yearning—impulses that urge human beings to return to the self. Earthly love, madness, and lust carry human beings away from the territory of jiwa (the soul). We sometimes long to play with jiwa. Therefore, Main Puteri serves to unite the realms of the soul and the body, by strengthening the semangat (life force) that connects these two entities. In Main Puteri—a healing ritual that combines the elements of music and dance—the Tok Puteri shaman cajoles the angin (inner wind) of the patient, inviting them to express their innermost self.

Main Puteri begins with bertabuh, played by a musical ensemble consisting of rebab, gendang, canang, kesi, and gong. The opening song is followed by bertabib by the Tok Minduk to “tell” the purpose of the ceremony to the audience. This is where gerak angin (stirring of the inner winds) begins: cradled by the cry of the rebab, the energies of the performers and audience circulate and intermingle while the Tok Puteri scatters flowers and turmeric rice in the balai.

The Tok Puteri acts as a medium between the patient and his or her semangat, allowing various ‘spirits’ to enter his body. The Tok Minduk acts as a ‘spirit interrogator’, diagnosing the patient’s illness through a series of conversations with the Tok Puteri. The “conversation” between Tok Minduk and the Tok Puteri embodying the patient’s semangat begins after the Tok Puteri achieves lupa (trance).

Din Puteri believes that language or cara percakapan (a way of saying) in a wider sense is a doorway to the soul. According to him, “we usually limit ourselves with spoken language, and hardly speak with gerak angin and body language. Thus, the ecstatic trance, dance, incantations and offerings in Main Puteri is a pathway for us to return to the place we long for most.”

Under the lelangit (cloth suspended from the roof) of the balai, Din Puteri “berbari” (narrates) and “meniup” (blows) to revitalise the semangat of villagers who seek him out for healing. He now understands that the dance movements and poetic utterances he encountered as a child are metaphors of another dimension. Like poetry, Main Puteri is a human struggle with language to express the inexpressible. “Like the Quran,” Din reflects, “that is read according to rules, the language of Main Puteri is a form of storytelling with its own set of principles. It is a cure for the soul”.

What Din Puteri has been witnessing for the past three decades is the slow death of “bahasa” (language) in his own society. More surprising to him, this is happening to the “Malay language” that is fluid and amorphous by nature.

To understand these symbolisms and to break the confusion one needs to “understand cara percakapan and laras bahasa (tone and tenor) of the Kelantanese according to context, the way people in the past embraced Main Puteri and its elements”, says Din Puteri. This would open up a new kind of understanding of what the ritual is. Main Puteri is an affirmation of one’s respect for the origins of all things.

For Din Puteri, the Tok Minduk dan the awak-awak, Main Puteri is far more than mere entertainment. Din was born to be a Tok Puteri. The offerings, the striking of gong and gendang, the hypnotic poetry that he recites in the balai, his conversations with alam nyata and alam tak nyata (the seen and unseen realms), and the commemoration of teachers and ancestors, are all an act of returning to oneself.

To cease practicing what he has been doing since the age of nine would mean a slow death for him. He only hopes that people open their minds to understand, without preconceived judgement, the real meaning of Main Puteri. As Din remarks, “Whatever the term is, be it Main Puteri, Main Teri, or Pateri, the tradition is an expression of how human beings try to make sense of the complexity of life.”

*This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, November 2021.


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