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  • Manora: More Than a Ritualistic Dance

    The Manora dance encapsulates human beings’ relationship with the mythical realm, and commemorates teachers, ancestors and elders.” The cultural cross-pollination among the Thais and the Malays in the peninsula had already begun long before the 1940 Agreement was even in place. This agreement introduced a border pass for crossing between British Malaya and Thailand, thus reinforcing the formation of the modern nation-state. In the age of Kerajaan (kingdoms), the political borders were non-existent; the movement of people around the Indochinese peninsula was a regular phenomenon. Among them were monks, musicians, and common folk who had turned against their leaders and were in constant search for a new home. Today, in the Malaysian states of Kedah, Penang, and Kelantan, the culturally mixed Siamese communities continue to preserve their identities and cultural traits. One of the cultural traditions of the Siamese communities in this border region is the dance-drama Manora. I came to know Manora or Nora when I was growing up in Kelantan, through word of mouth. The mysterious silhouette of a dancer adorned with an elegant kecopong (headdress) and canggai (long curved nails) came to life in my imagination, even though I had never witnessed a live Manora performance. In the late 90’s, it was a rare chance to get to see Manora performance. The ritualistic dance was traditionally performed at social festivities particularly in Buddhist temple ceremonies. According to Khun Amnuai, the principal dancer of the Cit Manit Manora troupe, in the early days of his involvement in Manora, there were only two Manora groups left in Kelantan — the Manora Nim group of Bukit Panau in Tanah Merah and the Manora Eh Chom Cahaya Bulan of Kampung Ju Bakar in Tumpat. Interestingly, I watched my first Manora performance not in Kelantan, but many years later in Penang, at an experimental art showcase held in a small Siamese kampung in Pulau Tikus. I was struck by the sense of familiarity that enveloped me. The haunting cry of the serunai, the resonance of gong and gendang reminded me of the landscape I call home. These same musical instruments emanate their cacophony and lyricism in Wayang Kulit, Makyong, and Main Puteri, summoning the semangat of performers and audience. The presence of Siamese culture formed an inextricable part of my childhood. I grew up under the care of Khadijah, my pengasuh, listening to the lilting tones of her Patani dialect as she chatted with her companions, Aminah and Mariam. Their conversations moved seamlessly between Malay and Thai, shaping my sense of what it means to be Kelantanese. My tastebuds, too, became attuned to the delectable treats offered by Kak Lah, a relative who lived and sold Thai kueh near the banks of Sungai Golok. Even the landscape of my childhood was coloured with Thai architectural forms. Siamese temples loom everywhere in Kelantan. From my family home in Kampung Kuchelong, it takes only a short drive to behold the magnificent Wat Photsikyan Phutthaktam and Wat Ariyakiri. The Manora tradition is a microcosm of the cultural fluidity between the Siamese and Malay communities in Kelantan. More than just a dance-drama, it encapsulates human beings’ relationship with the mythical realm, and enacts a commemoration of teachers, ancestors and elders. Fluidity and Confluence of Culture My encounter with Kelantanese traditional music, particularly its performing arts, began with Wayang Kulit, Mak Yong, and Main Puteri—due to the relative visibility of these traditions in Kelantan despite decades of ban by the PAS state government. Kelantan cultural landscape is a confluence of many streams of civilisation, cultures and religions including Islam. This lush land is a cradle of Malay culture — with myriad art traditions rooted in the pre-Islamic era that still survive today amidst an overt Islamic identity. My preoccupation with Kelantanese traditional arts seeks to understand how these pre-Islamic traditions negotiate with growing religiosity of Kelantanese society. Against a long history of contestation and adaptation, the question of how stories are passed down and reinterpreted through generations remains my subject of observation. The variations of traditional narratives is evident in the Manora, with different versions of the Manora myth existing in the Kelantan and the north-western states. A distinctive version found in Penang and Kedah tells of a princess named Mesi Mala who was sent to an isolated island by her father on the advice of the royal shaman. He believed that if he kept Mesi Mala at the palace, misfortune would befall his kingdom. While in isolation in the jungle, Mesi Mala and her companions started creating their own music and dance, imitating the sounds of nature they heard and the movements of birds they saw. After many moons, word of these mysterious dancing maidens travelled far and wide. Mesi Mala’s father yearned to witness their performance and invited them to his kingdom. Stunned by Mesi Mala’s beauty, he attempted to take her as his bride but only to discover that she was his own flesh and blood, the daughter he had banished. From that day, Mesi Mala was welcomed back to her kingdom and given a stage to perform the Manora. Manora performers in Kelantan inherit a different version of this legend, based on a Buddhist Jataka tale. Princess Manora, a heavenly bird-princess (kinaree) who lived in the celestial realm of Himavanta. She was abducted by a villager while bathing in the river and presented to a human prince, Phra Suthon, heir to the earthly kingdom of Uttarapancala. Manora and Phra Suthon fell in love and became husband and wife. However, some courtiers were jealous of Manora and began plotting her downfall. While Phra Suthon was away on a mission, the courtiers warned the king that a great misfortune would destroy the kingdom, unless Manora was offered as a sacrifice. Manora escaped and returned to her home of Himavanta. When Phra Suthon discovered that his beloved Manora was gone, he left his kingdom and went in search of her. Eventually, Phra Suthon and Manora were reunited in Himavanta. This legend of Manora and Phra Suthon was so popular in Kelantanese Manora that the principal dancer was associated with the figure of Phra Suthon, and over time became known as ‘Pak Sitong’. Although the legend is no longer enacted during a performance, the Pak Sitong (principal dancer) embodies characteristics of both Phra Suthon and princess Manora. The gender fluidity found in Manora also informs other Kelantanese traditional arts, where the convergence of masculinity and femininity reveals a complex and layered understanding of human nature. The legendary Manora dancer, the late Pak Eh Chom of Kumpulan Cahaya Bulan, was said to have been raised for a few years as a girl in order to cultivate the required femininity for a Pak Sitong. While Siamese communities in southern Thailand continued to perform the Manora dance during festive days such as Loy Krathong and Songkran or to celebrate the birthday of the head monk, Siamese migrants who settled in villages in Kelantan began to collaborate with the locals. Both Kelantanese Malay and Siamese began to improvise the tradition particularly by adopting the Malay language and Kelantanese musical instruments. Before the state government ban, Manora troupes were itinerant performers, travelling through towns and villages upon the invitation of temples, affluent individuals and communities. For centuries, Siamese temples in Kelantan have been a vibrant community space, contributing significantly to sustaining the Manora tradition. The confluence of Kelantanese Malay and Siamese cultures gave birth to a distinct variation of the Manora, emerging from the amalgamation of two age-old civilizations. Kelantan Manora has in many ways incorporated characteristics of Kelantanese Malay performing arts. While the lengthy invocations and the kinaree-like dance has retained much of its original form, the improvised lakon (drama) segment of Kelantanese Manora absorbed the style of the Makyong tradition. The adoption of Kelantanese Malay dialect not only testifies to the versatility of the Manora performers, it also reveals the cross-cultural nature of the local audience. Perhaps, the confluence of cultures was ushered by the flexibility and interplay between Kelantanese art practitioners and musicians who, more often than not, practice multiple art traditions. Music is a primal element of Kelantanese performance traditions including Manora, forming a distinct magical realm in the subculture of Kelantanese traditional arts. Performers of Manora, Wayang Kulit or Mak Yong must collaborate with experienced session musicians who in most cases are Malays. One of the most renowned gendang masters in Kelantan is Md Gel Mat Dali, known affectionately as Pak Su Agel. Here, with his musical prowess, the sound of phi nai, the Southern Thai Manora reed instrument, metamorphoses into the hypnotic sound of Kelantanese serunai. The gendang, geduk, gedombak, gong, canang, kesi and cerek dance to the angin of Siamese and Malay aesthetics. I find that improvisation and reinterpretation are common characteristics across Kelantanese traditional performing arts, which occur organically in the kampung setting. The Manora is usually passed down within families, with each lineage carrying a distinct interpretation of the tradition. Hence, the role of the guru (master), as the fount of wisdom and knowledge, is paramount in the Manora tradition. Between Worship and Sembah While the ban on Makyong was ostensibly lifted in 2020, allowing it to be performed under strict conditions, the Manora tradition was not part of the state government’s revisionist posturing. It is still deemed syirik, a vessel of polytheism that goes against the teaching of Islam. Once known as a splendour of Kelantanese Siamese and Malay culture, the Manora folk dance is now confined to the walls of Siamese temples. Even so, some temples refuse to hold ceremonies that involve the Manora dance, partly due to the involvement of Malay-Muslim musicians. Over the years, Manora dancers like Khun Amnuai have witnessed a decline in the number of Manora practitioners and students in Kelantan. Meanwhile in Southern Thailand, the birthplace of Manora, the drama-dance has become the emblem of Patani identity and sees the participation of Buddhist Thais as well as Muslim Malays. To ensure that the Manora dance is preserved as national heritage, the Thai government pushed forward the tradition to be listed in the UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The Thai government is implementing a comprehensive programme to sustain the Manora tradition, with instruction offered in schools and encouraging prospects for young people to become professional Manora dancers. In Kelantan, the cultural politics of the last few decades has created a misunderstanding of the terms pemujaan and penyembahan which are often equated with the word “worship”. While the term ‘sembah’ literally translates to ‘worship’, in the context of Kelantanese traditional arts, ‘sembah’ is more accurately understood as ‘honouring’. A prime example of this worldview is the sembah guru ceremony, practised across Kelantanese cultural traditions, which is held to honour the lineage of masters. In the same vein, the ritualistic aspects of a Manora performance involve the commemoration of teachers and elders, yet this has been interpreted by religious authorities as ‘worship’ or ‘casting spells’. The khun khru incantations that open Manora performance, are verses that have been passed down for generations, not a recitation of religious scripture. For Pak Su Agel, a gendang master who plays with Manora Cit Manit musical ensemble, there is no “jampi serapah” (spells) or “pemujaan” (worship) in khun khru, it is simply the Pak Sitong paying respect to his elders. This reverence for teachers pervades my own memories of rites of passage in childhood. I remember offering pulut kuning (yellow glutinous rice) to my tok guru during my khatam Al-Quran and witnessing perlimau rituals that my late grandfather Hassan, a silat gayong master, used to host at his home. These two ceremonies reflect the unbreakable bond between master and disciple, between me and my gurus. The opening verses of khun khru in Manora express this universal relationship and sentiment profoundly and poetically: “Khun khru nak mearn park nam phark khong kha… chom-chom cak eii héng… yang lau ko lei ma… yang mei ru sin mei ru sut…” “The knowledge and teachings of the master are like the River Ganges, which flows without end/ through monsoon and drought, it keeps flowing, without complaint.” *Note: The khun khru verse was translated by Amnuai Eler and Pauline Fan. **This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, March 2022.

  • Perihal Kebudayaan Kebangsaan

    “Apakah yang sudah dan akan terus terjadi kepada kerencaman budaya kita apabila negara semakin mengukuhkan kedaulatannya dengan menentukan apa sahaja yang boleh dan yang tidak boleh, atau yang milik kita dan yang bukan milik kita?” Budaya tidak pernah tenteram. Dalam sejarah panjang manusia, perkelahian, perdamaian, penolakan, dan penerimaan antara pelbagai kebudayaan senantiasa terjadi. Manusia tanpa putus menentukan dan merunding nilai, kepercayaan, pemikiran, dan makna dalam kehidupan harian. Maka, kerana sifatnya juga yang cair, perubahan-perubahan dalam budaya—baik yang tampak atau tidak—adalah sesuatu yang tidak dapat dielakkan. “Budaya Barat” yang kita kenal pada hari ini misalnya berterima kasih dengan proses penghijrahan manusia khususnya perpindahan masyarakat dari kebudayaan-kebudayaan Eropah. Sejak kejatuhan empayar Rom, negara-negara Eropah yang sedia memiliki kebudayaan tersendiri lahir, dan kadang-kala berseteru antara satu sama lain. Pada hari ini, pengaruh-pengaruh orang Eropah terlihat di mana-mana. Namun, kenyataan-kenyataan hidup manusia tidak hanya dibentuk oleh politik, tetapi lebih penting melalui hal-hal keseharian—melalui hubungan manusia dengan persekitaran mereka. “Budaya Timur”, biarpun pada awal perkembangannya banyak dipengaruhi oleh penyebaran agama, turut dipengaruhi oleh kegiatan penanaman, khususnya padi. Kita kemudian tahu bahawa dalam masyarakat yang dianggap sebagai “Timur” oleh orang Eropah ini, yang agama dan yang sekular sering bercampur-aduk. Budaya menjadi liar kerana manusia sentiasa bertegur-sapa, baik secara sopan ataupun kasar. Proses yang berlaku secara berterusan ini menyebabkan pelbagai budaya saling mempengaruhi satu sama lain. Di rantau ini, kita bertembung dengan hakikat sedemikian sejak sekian lama. Orang-orang dari pelbagai kebudayaan bertukar-tukar makanan, muzik, pakaian, bahasa, dan sebagainya jauh sebelum datangnya penjajah seperti Belanda ataupun Inggeris. Jadi, kita mungkin tidak akan menemukan apa pun yang asli dalam mana-mana kebudayaan yang ada. Sudah tentu bahawa kekacauan budaya ini tidak teruruskan. Interaksi dan perpindahan budaya terjadi di peringkat paling bawah iaitu masyarakat. Maka, kita tertanya-tanya: apakah yang berlaku ketika kekuasaan atau negara mula terlibat dalam kerja menertibkan sesuatu yang sifatnya liar sejak azali? Apakah yang sudah dan akan terus terjadi kepada kerencaman budaya kita apabila negara semakin mengukuhkan kedaulatannya dengan menentukan apa sahaja yang boleh dan yang tidak boleh, atau yang milik kita dan yang bukan milik kita? Masalah kebudayaan ini biasanya dihadapi oleh negara-negara yang baru merdeka dari penjajahan seperti Malaysia. Bagi pemerintah-pemerintah yang baru mengambil alih tampuk pemerintahan daripada bekas penjajah, masalah kerencaman budaya perlu diselesaikan terlebih dahulu sebelum pembangunan dalam aspek-aspek lain boleh dilakukan. Walau bagaimanapun, negara cenderung mengambil jalan mudah dengan memaksakan suatu identiti kebangsaan. Budaya yang pelbagai akhirnya dirangkum di bawah satu payung kebudayaan. Di negara ini, tuntutan sedemikian terjelma melalui Dasar Kebudayaan Kebangsaan (DKK) yang diwujudkan pada tahun 1971. Setelah terjadinya rusuhan kaum pada bulan Mei tahun 1969, usaha untuk mentakrifkan kebudayaan negara dan mengembalikan kerukunan masyarakat dilihat semakin mendesak. Namun bagi DKK, kebudayaan kebangsaan perlu bertunjang kepada “kebudayaan Melayu” dengan tidak menolak kemasukan budaya lain asalkan tidak berlawanan dengan Islam. Kerja-kerja menyusun-atur kebudayaan di negara ini terus berlangsung dengan kelahiran institusi-institusi yang dipertanggungjawabkan untuk menguruskan dan secara tidak langsung “memurnikan” ciri-ciri budaya yang sedia wujud dalam masyarakat. Budaya, baik seni persembahan atau apa pun, perlahan-lahan diambil-alih oleh negara dan bukan sekadar menjadi sumber identiti tetapi juga sebagai alat untuk tujuan dagangan. Maka di sini kita tahu bahawa dasar, peraturan, atau garis panduan yang diciptakan oleh kekuasaan tidak semestinya menjadi jawapan kepada persoalan kebudayaan kebangsaan. Lebih malang, negara-negara yang teringin menentukan kebudayaan apa yang harus dipakai oleh orang ramai cenderung menjadi autoritarian. Malah, budaya—dalam hal ini kebudayaan Melayu—yang cuba dipertahankan oleh negara itu sendiri menjadi mangsa. Ketika seni persembahan seperti mak yong dan wayang kulit sudah ditarik naik ke pentas yang ditetapkan oleh negara, yang tertinggal di tangga pentas adalah aspek-aspek yang lebih mendalam seperti psikologi, falsafah, dan pandangan dunianya. Tampaknya, orang lebih berpegang kuat kepada budaya berbanding negara. Bagi menghadapi persoalan kebudayaan kebangsaan, negara barangkali perlu berdiri di pinggir dan membiarkan pelbagai budaya untuk terus berinteraksi antara satu sama lain. Perkara utama yang perlu sentiasa dipastikan oleh negara adalah ruang-ruang perbincangan, dialog, dan kritik dalam masyarakat terus wujud. Di sini berlakunya proses tawar-menawar. Wacana-wacana kebudayaan yang terbentuk melalui dialog, forum, kongres dan sebagainya bukan tidak pernah berlaku. Malah, proses-proses pembentukan dan pentakrifan budaya yang lebih organik dalam kalangan masyarakat negara ini sudah berlangsung sejak sebelum negara mula mengambil kedudukan di tengah. Kerja-kerja mengetengahkan, menawar-nawar, dan memindahkan budaya ini sudah sekian lama dilakukan oleh para cendekiawan, seniman, penggiat budaya, penulis, dan penyair. Seperti kata Clifford Geertz, seorang ahli antropologi Amerika, “manusia adalah haiwan yang bersangkut kepada jaringan makna yang dicipta oleh mereka sendiri”. Setiap daripada kita terikat kepada tanda-tanda yang tujuannya adalah untuk menghasilkan dan mengekalkan makna. Tanda-tanda ini menjadi tunjang bagi pandangan alam kita, menyimpan segala panduan dalam melalui liku-liku hidup. Maka, menghadirkan pelbagai jenis dasar, garis panduan, dan peraturan baharu terhadap hal ehwal kebudayaan kita tidak semestinya produktif. Sebaliknya, negara perlu lebih bersifat terbuka dan berhenti daripada menjalankan kerja-kerja memoralkan manusia. Itu kerja tuhan. *Esei ini pertama kali diterbitkan di Suara Nadi, Penang Institute.

  • GTLF2021: Dari Cermin Tilik Ke Mikro-Cosmos

    Menyusun-atur GTLF pada tahun ini seperti berumah di tepi pantai. Kita merasa percikan air masinnya, tertiup oleh bayunya... Pertama kali saya menyertai George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) adalah pada tahun 2015, sebagai seorang sukarelawan. Seperti para sukarelawan lain, tugas saya hanya tertumpu kepada hal-hal teknikal; saya perlu memastikan pentas-pentas siap sebelum setiap acara bermula; menuntun para peserta yang datang dari pelbagai negara ke lokasi-lokasi acara; dan sering ke hulu ke hilir untuk dilihat sibuk. Enak menjadi sukarelawan. Kerjanya tidak terlalu berat, tetapi saya tetap mampu bertegur sapa dengan para penulis yang saya kenal dan tidak kenali. Sebahagiannya sudah saya baca karya-karya mereka. Namun, sialnya menjadi sukarelawan, saya tidak langsung berkesempatan mengikuti perbualan-perbualan pilihan saya. Maka, di sela waktu, saya akan pulang ke Bangunan UAB, pentas utama festival, dan beristirehat di lobinya. Di situlah tempat para penulis berkumpul sambil menunggu acara mereka, kedai-kedai buku membentangkan judul-judul terbaru, dan warung-warung menjual makanan yang kebanyakannya khas Pulau Pinang. Saya sering melabuh punggung di meja kopi di situ—mencari peluang untuk meminta penulis mencoretkan tandatangan pada buku-buku mereka yang saya beli. Di situlah juga tempatnya saya membelek-belek buku panduan festival. Kerana tidak berkesempatan mengikuti acara sebenar, saya menjelajah ke setiap acara melalui buku tersebut. Tahun berikutnya saya ikut serta lagi. Tetapi kali ini sebagai salah seorang pemudahcara untuk dua buah sesi perbualan dalam bahasa Melayu. Salah satunya adalah perbualan bersama Sasterawan Negara A. Samad Said dan Muhammad Haji Salleh, serta Eddin Khoo, dan Amir Muhammad. Kami berbual tentang Hang Tuah dan hal-hal seputar dunia penterjemahan. Yang menariknya adalah, itulah kali pertama GTLF menampilkan sesi perbualan dalam bahasa selain bahasa Inggeris. Ada rasa canggung juga mengendalikan acara berbahasa Melayu di tengah-tengah festival yang umumnya berbahasa Inggeris. Apalagi kalau itu satu-satunya. Saya fikir GTLF hanya meraikan Pulau Pinang sebagai sebuah wilayah yang sifatnya rancak dan kosmopolitan. Sejak berabad lama, di pulau kecil itu, orang dari serata dunia datang membina hidup. Mereka membawa bersama kebudayaan masing-masing untuk ditawarkan di tempat baharu. Apa yang kita lihat di Pulau Pinang pada hari ini adalah sebuah kelahiran baharu hasil daripada nikah campur. Hal ini terpapar pada senibina bangunan-bangunannya, makanannya, dan tidak terkecuali bahasanya—baik bahasa Melayu, Cina, Tamil, sekalipun Inggeris. Dalam keserabutan itu, bahasa Inggeris secara tidak langsung menjadi bahasa perantara. * Pada hujung tahun 2019, saya menerima panggilan dari Pauline Fan. Penulis dan penterjemah Malaysia itu baru sahaja sempat menarik nafas panjang setelah selesai menguruskan GTLF 2019. Beliau mengundang saya untuk membantu beliau dalam merencana GTLF bagi tahun-tahun hadapan. Kali ini sebagai kurator. Saya kurang pasti apa alasannya Pauline memperkirakan saya. Namun saya kemudian tahu bahawa Pauline, yang baru sahaja menjadi pengarah GTLF, sedang menanggung kegusaran. Bagi beliau, festival sastera terbesar di Malaysia ini terlalu Inggeris sifatnya, baik dari aspek bahasa mahupun isi-isi perbualannya. Beliau sendiri tidak mahu kalau GTLF kemudian hari dianggap hanya meminjam tempat, tetapi berpaling dari melihat pergolakan di sekeliling—atau lebih jauh di rantau ini. Jalannya adalah melalui bahasa. Namun, beliau tidak mahu bahasa Melayu hanya menjadi sekadar token, diberikan satu sudut kecil untuk bermain di festival. GTLF perlu menjadi antarabangsa dan dalam masa yang sama tetap Malaysia baunya. Saya rasa tidak pelik kalau beliau menanggung keresahan tersebut. Sebagai orang yang fasih berbahasa Inggeris, Melayu, malah Jerman, dan sudah sekian lama menterjemahkan karya-karya sastera dari ketiga-tiga bahasa ini, serta kerja hariannya juga adalah bersama para penggiat seni tradisional di kampung-kampung, Pauline faham benar dengan politik bahasa yang berlegar. Bagi Pauline, “Bahasa bukan sahaja wahana sastera dan pemikiran. Ia mengungkapkan semangat, naluri, dan kata hati seseorang dan masyarakat. Setiap bahasa mempunyai nuansa tersendiri yang dibentuk oleh pengalaman dan pandangan dunia, yang tidak selalunya dapat ditangkap dalam bahasa perantaraan antarabangsa.” Tambahnya lagi, “Tanah air kita begitu subur dengan kepelbagaian bahasa — oleh itu, saya ingin menjadikan GTLF sebuah landasan yang mendukung kesemua aliran sastera di Malaysia, baik yang wujud dalam bahasa Melayu, Inggeris, Cina, dan Tamil, mahupun bahasa-bahasa orang asli di Semenanjung dan masyarakat pribumi di Sabah dan Sarawak.” Kehadiran saya sebagai kurator bukan semata-mata untuk membangun dan menguruskan acara-acara berbahasa Melayu. Pauline sangat licik. Dengan saya, beliau berbahas, menawar-nawar, merenung, mempersoal, terus-menerus berbalah, dan menghempaskan kekecewaan terhadap pelbagai tajuk seputar sastera, bahasa dan dunia penulisan secara umum. Dari situ kami perlahan-lahan membangun GTLF secara keseluruhan. Asasnya adalah untuk menghubungkan yang antarabangsa dengan yang tempatan; meraikan yang baharu dan yang lama; dan menggali-gali sastera dari puluhan bahasa pribumi—khususnya bahasa-bahasa yang ada di kepulauan Borneo—untuk dibawa ke GTLF, dan kalau beruntung, dapat diterjemahkan kemudian. * Namun, baru ingin saya mengelamun—membayangkan diri saya tercegat di hadapan gedung festival sambil merokok tanda puas dengan segala yang telah saya bantu aturkan—kami menerima berita buruk: Malaysia baru mencatatkan kes Covid-19 pertamanya. Tidak berapa lama kemudian, seluruh negara diarahkan untuk berkurung di rumah. Celakanya, rencana kami untuk menganjurkan festival sastera itu secara fizikal menjadi kabur. Malah saya sendiri tidak dapat membayangkan bagaimana GTLF atau “festival” secara umum dapat diadakan lagi. Bagaimana mungkin pesta yang sifatnya diraikan bersama dapat dilakukan ketika orang mula menjauhi satu sama lain. Akhirnya, untuk tetap memahami dunia yang sedang mengenal-ngenal pelbagai kosa kata baharu atau yang jarang digunakan seperti “kuncitara”, “penjarakan sosial”, dan “kuarantin”, maka kami memutuskan untuk berpindah ke atas talian. Kami menyesuaikan diri dengan perubahan yang berlaku di sekeliling. Pada waktu itu banyak kegiatan beralih ke atas talian dengan pelbagai platform sudah tersedia. Hampir setiap hari ada acara di atas talian. Kumpulan-kumpulan penyair khususnya yang muda-muda mengajurkan maraton bacaan puisi. Mereka menganjurkan forum-forum membahas hal-hal seputar sastera Malaysia, serantau, dan antarabangsa. Yang jelas, orang cuba memberi makna; merawat rasa terkejut apabila pertama kali dipaksa berkurung untuk suatu tempoh yang tidak jelas hujungnya. Walau bagaimanapun, GTLF tidak ingin menambah kepada “kepenatan digital”, kebisingan, kelemasan, dan rasa “janggal” yang sudah mula dirasai sejak beberapa bulan selepas wabak. Apakan tidak, sebelum ini jika ingin ke pertemuan-pertemuan sastera, orang perlu bersiap-siap setidak-tidaknya satu jam lebih awal; mandi dan makan, kemudian menaiki teksi atau LRT untuk ke tempat acara sastera. Selepas acara, kita boleh berbual-bual santai sambil mengopi sebelum berangkat pulang. Di layar komputer atau telefon, kita hanya tinggal menekan butang sign out. Habis. Maka, kami memilih jalan yang lebih perlahan, namun tetap cuba untuk menyuntik semangat “festival” kepada khalayak. Dengan kerjasama Nusantara Audiobook yang berpangkalan di Kuala Lumpur, kami menghasilkan podcast. Matlamatnya adalah untuk memberi peluang kepada para pengikut setia GTLF bersenang-senang dengan festival ini. Saya kira podcast di awal tahun 2020 masih belum popular di Malaysia. Tidak banyak channel podcast kendalian orang Malaysia yang boleh ditemui di Spotify atau Apple Podcast. Ketika dunia sedang diselubungi wabak, kita pula melalui waktu merawat. Kita merintih apa yang telah hilang atau yang kita abaikan selama ini. Salah satunya adalah bagaimana kita merindui pertemuan fizikal, dan bagaimana media sosial merampas kemampuan kita untuk mendengar dengan lebih tekun dan “hadir”. Oleh itu, GTLF dengan tema “Through the Looking Glass” pada tahun itu memberi tumpuan kepada meningkatkan kepuasan mendengar dengan menyediakan kualiti audio yang terbaik. Jadi, orang boleh menentukan masa sendiri untuk “berfestival”. Kebetulan, saya juga lebih awal sedang mengendalikan podcast sendiri. Hasilnya, dalam segala kesempitan, GTLF 2020 berhasil menghadirkan seramai 82 orang penulis dan penyair secara maya, serta menerbitkan kurang lebih 28 episod podcast, 11 daripadanya berbahasa Melayu, yang boleh terus didengari sehingga ke hari ini. * Tahun 2020 menjadi tahun gelap, sepi, dan hampir hilang. Ia adalah tahun di mana kita hanya mampu menghadap cermin tilik—baik secara harfiah mahupun kiasan. Termangu, kita menilai kembali hubungan kita dengan masyarakat dan alam. Kita meratapi bagaimana penutupan sempadan dan pergerakan yang terbatas telah memberi kesan besar kepada landskap budaya. Tidak hanya GTLF, festival-festival sastera lain di seluruh dunia, baik besar atau kecil, menanggung nasib yang sama. Lebih dari setahun, sastera—baik menulis atau membaca—menjadi sebuah pengalaman yang amat sunyi dan bersendiri. Oleh itu, ketika Pauline mengundang saya untuk sekali lagi mengaturkan festival sastera ini buat tahun 2021, saya sedikit ragu-ragu. Apa sahaja festival, tidak mungkin seperti dahulu lagi. Namun, setelah bermain tarik tali buat kesekian kalinya, kami bersetuju untuk duduk merancang kalau GTLF tidak sekadar meratapi atau mengenang sengsara wabak. Bagi masa hadapan, GTLF perlu merombak cara pandang alam dan terbuka kepada pelbagai khayalan tentang dunia yang baharu. Biarpun hidup dalam keterkurungan, pandangan tetap harus ditala ke luar jendela. Maka, dari kejauhan (tidak sempat sekalipun para panitia festival bertemu secara bersemuka), kami memutuskan untuk bergerak dengan tema Mikro-cosmos—untuk meneroka semangat kosmopolitanisme dan kesalinghubungan yang terjalin melalui sastera, bahasa, dan pemikiran. Kami percaya bahawa, sekalipun kepayahan yang kita hadapi hari ini telah mengaburi keberadaan kita dan memperdalam lagi perpecahan masyarakat, kata-kata tetap setia dengan tugasnya. Ia membawa kita menjelajah bagi melihat pelbagai kemungkinan hubungan yang nikmatnya melampaui pahit manis hidup dalam pengasingan. Melihat dari kaca mata Mikro-cosmos menjauhkan kita dari rasa terperuk, sekali gus mengangkat setiap daripada kita menjadi warga dunia—warga kosmopolitan. Kepulauan Nusantara setidak-tidaknya sudah lama merangkul semangat sedemikian. Kepulauan yang terbuka dan buas ini senantiasa menyeru kepada angin pertemuan, keraian, pertentangan, mahupun percanggahan. Untuk memahami sifatnya yang tidak terjinakkan ini, kita mendampingi kesusasteraan, baik yang di rantau ini atau rantau lainnya. Sudah tentu kita juga menoleh ke Pulau Pinang, melihat tanah tempat lahir GTLF ini sebagai sebuah mikrokosma kosmopolitan yang rancak di Nusantara. Ia menjadi sebuah wilayah tempat berakarnya ingatan, mekarnya khayalan, dan bernafasnya cerita. Pada kesempatan ini saya menjadi lebih rapat dengan para penyair dari pulau Borneo seperti Thira Mohamad, Kulleh Grasi, Clariessa Kesulai, dan Nelson Dino yang akrab dengan ensera kaum Iban dan kissa kaum Suluk. Mereka sudah lama menjalinkan bebenang lisan dengan yang tersurat. Di kesempatan yang sama juga saya dibawa “merantau” oleh Faisal Tehrani dan penulis Singapura, Azhar Ibrahim yang membedah konsep kembara, kelana, petualang, dan pelimbang dalam kesusasteraan Nusantara. Menyusun-atur GTLF pada tahun ini seperti berumah di tepi pantai. Kita merasa percikan air masinnya, tertiup oleh bayunya, apatah lagi ketika mendengar Wan Hanafi Su membacakan petikan dari Angin Timur Laut karya S. Othman Kelantan. Malah, perbualan Pauline Fan bersama penulis Jepun, Minae Mizumura dalam The Shifting Shores of Language tentang pengaruh pantai kebudayaan dan bahasa Jepun dan Amerika terhadap karya Minae turut membawa semangat yang sama. Optimis dengan pengantarabangsaan tidak bermakna kita tidak langsung bersikap kritikal terhadapnya. Kita juga mengintai sisi-sisi gelap pengantarabangsaan serta kuasa seperti penjajahan, penjarahan, dan kapitalisme global. Melalui perbualan Adriana Manan bersama Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Juvita Tatan Wan, dan Nazry Bahrawi, kita meneroka bagaimana sastera melakukan penyah-jajahan di rantau Asia dan Afrika. Senarainya memang panjang dan tidak dapat dibicarakan dalam catatan pendek ini. Namun, ketika sibuk mengatur festival GTLF pada tahun lalu, saya sempat mengeluh kepada Pauline bahawa, menghadirkan sebuah festival sastera secara maya adalah suatu kerja yang lebih memenatkan. Malah, bagi saya, ruang maya tetap tidak mampu memberikan sensasi festival fizikal. Ruang maya sememangnya membantu, tetapi ianya tidak harus menggantikan yang fizikal. Saya memikirkan bahawa perlunya kita perlahan-lahan kembali ke azali, menghadirkan sesuatu yang boleh disentuh dan dihidu. Dengan kerjasama jurnal Svara, maka lahirlah sebuah jurnal sastera bercetak yang diberi nama Muara: Confluence|Pertemuan—sekali lagi namanya berbau pasir pantai atau lebih tepatnya mencerminkan kecairan dan keterhubungan. Alasan untuk menerbitkan Muara juga sebahagiannya adalah untuk meraikan ulang tahun kesepuluh GTLF. Di lembar Muara, kami mencuba untuk mempertemukan diri di dalam ingatan dan kedalaman yang tidak berdasar. Melalui esei, cereka, sajak, ulasan buku, dan terjemahan, seramai 36 orang penulis, penyair, dan penterjemah bermain dengan pelbagai bentuk idea dan khayalan, lalu mentafsirkan kenyataan-kenyataan kita yang tidak menentu. * Tahun ini adalah tahun penganjuran GTLF yang kesebelas. Seperti biasa, GTLF sentiasa cuba untuk menghadirkan segala (khususnya angin dan semangat) yang baharu pada setiap tahun. Malah, jumlah penulis dan penyair yang siap untuk menyertai—biarpun secara maya—adalah lebih ramai berbanding tahun-tahun sebelumnya. Di meja tulis, saya duduk merenung bagaimana saya mula terlibat dalam penganjuran festival sastera terbesar di Malaysia ini. Saya hadir ketika GTLF sudah berumur remaja. Jalan yang saya ambil adalah jalan yang sudah dirintis cantik oleh para pendahulu saya. Kini, tugas berat yang perlu dipikul oleh Pauline dan saya sendiri adalah untuk memastikan hal itu: menjadikan GTLF sentiasa Malaysia dan bergetah remaja. *Esei ini pernah diterbitkan di JendelaDBP.

  • Wayang Kulit: Surviving Beyond The Shadows

    It is a journey of self-reflection and the replenishment of semangat. There were around forty people that night. Some of them, who arrived from the nearby kampung and town, had settled comfortably on the mengkuang mats, scattered within the small plot of land of the rubber estate in Kampung Joh, Kelantan. My father and I stood in the dark, joining those who had come later after the Isyak prayer. The acrid smell of the rubber and gasoline from the portable electric generator that powered the temporary stage in front of us filled the air. As soon as the siak (caretaker) switched off the light and shut the gate of the nearby surau, the shrill sound of the serunai followed by the clangour of gendang, gedombak, geduk, gong, canang, and kesi reverberated the surrounding, drowning the chattering from the spectators. All eyes were now drawn to the kelir, a stretched linen canvas at the stage, dividing the Tok Dalang (master puppeteer) and the musicians with the audiences. The Wayang Kulit show, organised by a Chinese family to entertain the wandering spirits during the Hungry Ghost Festival, was about to begin. While the music played, shadows of Wayang Kulit props and characters appeared on the kelir, beginning with the majestic form of the pohon beringin (tree of life). Then: the bent figure of Maharishi, the sage, and a pair of playful Dewa Anak Panah who engage in a cosmic dance. I later learned that this opening ritual was the buka panggung (consecration of the stage). The Tok Dalang began narrating the story of Seri Rama and Sita Dewi, transporting us to a realm of romance, betrayal, and heroism. Those four nights of performance was my first magical encounter with the Hikayat Maharaja Wana, the Kelantanese Wayang Kulit version based on the Indian epic of Ramayana. What fascinated me was the confluence of many cultures, in both the shadow play as well as the crowd of kampung folk who had gathered for the performance. Improvisation and Reinterpretation The ancient Sanskrit epic of Ramayana that narrates the story of Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his beloved wife with the help of a monkey warrior has moved beyond the Indian subcontinent. In Southeast Asia — by means of East and Southern Indian traders and scholars — it travelled by sea particularly into Indonesia, by land into Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, eventually settling down in the state of Kelantan. Along the way, the epic has constantly been retold and metamorphosed into local contexts, taking on different influences, creating numerous versions and interpretations. In the Malay literary world, it incarnates into the Jawi script Hikayat Seri Rama and the oral Hikayat Maharaja Wana that contains the worldviews of the Kelantan Malays with some influences from the Patani version of the epic. The cerita pokok (trunk story) of the Wayang Kulit Kelantan follows the narrative arc of the Ramayana. The figure of the Tok Dalang in Wayang Kulit Kelantan is not only a master storyteller and puppeteer, but also a master of improvisation. In the process of adaptation to the local context, improvisation is a vital element in encapsulating and expressing the Kelantanese sensibility. Among Kelantanese Wayang Kulit practitioners, one is not considered a good dalang if he doesn't improvise. Improvisation is something that thrives in Wayang groups in local communities but eludes more institutionalised forms of Wayang, such as those taught in academies and universities. Wayang Kulit in Kelantan is traditionally a community art form that exists as an oral tradition, passed down from master to student, without being codified in a syllabus and text. In an organic process of ‘secularisation’ that took place over centuries, the characters of Rama, Sita, Ravana are no longer Hindu deities in the Kelantanese version of the epic. They are beings of kayangan (the celestial realm), delinked from their overtly divine aspects, humanised, and made completely Kelantanese. When I look back at my first encounter with Wayang in that rubber estate twenty years ago, it now strikes me that the characters that captivated me most are all inventions of Kelantanese genius. Pak Dogol — black, potbellied, with a bald head and protruding nose — is Seri Rama’s pengasuh (guardian), who possesses both worldly wisdom and spiritual powers. Pak Dogol’s companions, a host of comic characters called Wak Long, Wok Yoh, Samad and Said, were formed from his daki (dirt from the skin). During improvised scenes, these comic characters engage in banter, at times ridiculing the politics of the day and offering commentary on current social issues. Cultural Politics Up until 1990, Wayang Kulit flourished in a climate of freedom. When the Islamic party (PAS) took over the state government of Kelantan, they began a programme of cultural purification and “restructured” the arts, cultural, and entertainment activities. Wayang Kulit, along with other forms of Kelantanese art traditions such as Mak Yong, Main Puteri, and Menora, were soon proscribed on grounds that they contained Hindu and pre-Islamic elements. The ban was then codified in 1998 with the Entertainment and Places of Entertainment Enactment. “We need to purify our local theatre from those alien elements. Fantasy and dance gestures not akin to Islam will not be accepted”, announced the then Kelantan Chief Minister, Nik Aziz Nik Mat, as he addressed local reporters after officiating the state cultural awards night at Hotel Perdana in Kota Bharu in 2006. The state-imposed cultural transformation had now taken place and only approved performances were allowed and held in cultural centers. Over the past few years, I’ve been engaging with PUSAKA, a Kuala Lumpur-based independent cultural organisation that works closely with Wayang Kulit performers and other traditional arts communities in Kelantan. I mainly wanted to comprehend the aesthetics of Wayang Kulit as well as the cultural politics that has been enveloping Kelantan for three decades. Since the Islamic party assumed control, the numbers of Tok Dalangs and Wayang Kulit groups have been gradually decreasing. Even though the bans “were rarely imposed” and were done in a “somewhat gestural manner, more noise than substance”, as asserted by Eddin Khoo, Founder-Director of PUSAKA, it pushes Wayang Kulit performers to the margins. Some persist, but others have no choice but to abandon the tradition. Today, only nine to ten Wayang Kulit groups are still active in Kelantan, according to Khairul Sezali, a Kelantanese traditional musician who performs in a Wayang Kulit ensemble. The obsession to steer the state towards a more Islamic outlook was partly influenced by the need to create a distinct Islamic image from that of its UMNO counterpart that was gaining support in Kelantan. The PAS state government had to position itself at the opposite extreme, by portraying a more conservative, puritan self-image and claiming to propagate the truest version of Islam. The Movement of Traditional Arts The diminished freedom in PAS-governed Kelantan, combined with economic pressures, drove many Kelantanese, especially the younger generation, to migrate to cities like Penang and Kuala Lumpur. Some of them brought along cultural traditions such as Dikir Barat, a popular form of Kelantanese community art. The Kelantanese diaspora in Kuala Lumpur gave rise to groups like Arjunasukma, who keep alive a sense of Kelantanese identity and community through the practice of Kelantanese arts. In the case of Wayang Kulit, a process of nationalisation and institutionalisation took place in the wake of the National Culture Policy of 1971, which proclaimed Wayang Kulit as part of a ‘national Malaysian culture’. Wayang and later Mak Yong were introduced into arts academies and universities and taught according to a codified syllabus. Cleansed of ritual and devoid of the organic spontaneity of oral traditions, these variants of ‘traditional arts’ that are nurtured in government institutions are often oriented towards tourism and cultural commodification. In cosmopolitan hubs like Penang and Singapore, some traditional arts groups have embraced the Wayang Kulit tradition as their own, in seeking to present Malay culture to urban audiences. In Singapore, for example, the group Sri Setia Pulau Singa performs Kelantanese-style Wayang in standard Malay (bahasa baku). While the earthy intonations of the Kelantanese dialect are absent, their performances allow spectators to glimpse an intriguing aspect of Malay culture. Similarly in Penang, groups like Wak Long Music and Art Centre offer audiences a range of Malay art forms, including Gamelan, Kuda Kepang, and Wayang Kulit. Their rendition of Wayang Kulit is adapted to their perception of what an international audience wants to see, shaped by Penang’s status as a hub for international arts festivals. Last year, I had the opportunity to join PUSAKA in a cultural immersion programme with a Mak Yong community in Kuala Besut. I had a conversation with Pauline Fan, Creative Director of PUSAKA, about the vitality of Kelantanese traditional arts and the challenges faced by performers in the local communities. We also spoke of the Wayang Kulit performance that PUSAKA had presented at the George Town Literary Festival in 2016. I had been struck by the captivating play of shadows of Wayang Kulit Kelantan against the resplendent architecture of the Khoo Kongsi. “Wayang kulit has always been an innovative tradition, marked by uninhibited imagination and improvisation,” Pauline reflected. “However, Wayang Kulit can only truly flourish if it remains rooted in its local community. There are many young Kelantanese who are passionate about Wayang — they are the ones who inherit the legacy of Wayang Kulit and will ensure its continuity.” Today, ruminating my first encounter with Wayang Kulit Kelantan, watching many versions of Ramayana stories told by different Tok Dalangs, I have come to realise that Wayang Kulit exists beyond the shadows we see on the kelir. It is a journey of self-reflection and the replenishment of semangat. *This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, July 2021.

  • 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.” 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. 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.

  • Kesunyian dan Media Sosial

    Di sini, suara-suara bertanding untuk mendapatkan perhatian dan tindak-balas. Buat kesekian kalinya kita terkunci di rumah. Bagi kebanyakan orang, tempoh kurungan ini adalah peluang untuk memencilkan diri dan bersanggama dengan kesunyian. Dalam kesendirian dan kesunyian, kita membuka gerbang untuk menapak ke dalam, merenung, dan memahami hakikat diri sebagai manusia. Di sini, waktu seakan-akan terhenti dan ia mengajak kita untuk mengimbas sejenak ke belakang, dan mengatur jalan ke depan. Jauh ke dalam sunyi dan kesendirian, kita berkelahi dengan bahasa dan menemui metafora-metafora untuk mengungkapkan diri. Begitu yang dilakukan oleh ramai penyair dan penulis. Penyair Indonesia, Sapardi Djoko Damono misalnya mengungkapkan, “Sunyi itu menyentuh. Dalam sunyi, saya bisa dengarkan bunyi-bunyi yang paling lembut, termasuk bunyi dari tubuh sendiri.” Malah, Franz Kafka, novelis asal Prague lebih dalam mendakap kesunyian. “Saya memerlukan kesendirian untuk menulis; bukan ‘seperti pertapa’ — itu tidak cukup — tetapi seperti orang mati.” Namun, hidup terpencil dalam kurungan secara paksa tidak selalunya menghadirkan sunyi dan kesendirian, apatah lagi ketika banyak urusan kehidupan sudah beralih ke atas talian. Kesunyian mungkin terjadi di pekan-pekan dan jalan-jalan di kota pada saat ini. Bagi kebanyakan orang lain, terperuk di rumah bermakna memasuki suatu alam yang penuh dengan kebisingan. Kita terkurung di alam media sosial yang tidak pernah diam dengan sahut-sahutan sehingga kesunyian akhirnya seakan-akan menjadi barang langka. Alam Tak Berpenghujung Hakikatnya, media sosial adalah tempat untuk mempertautkan kembali hubungan-hubungan yang pernah terputus. Itu yang dibayangkan oleh Mark Zuckerberg atau Jack Dorsey ketika membangunkan Facebook dan Twitter — antara laman sosial yang kini tidak hanya menjadi persinggahan tetapi tempat menetap bagi ramai orang. Teknologi hari ini mendekatkan yang jauh dan merapatkan yang dekat. Untung, pada waktu wabak seperti sekarang, ruang-ruang ini memberi jalan untuk kita bertanya khabar orang lain walaupun tidak semestinya bertentang mata. Walau bagaimanapun, di media sosial, kita memasuki sebuah alam yang tidak berpenghujung. Di dalamnya, ruang dan waktu seakan-akan mencair. Kita tidak lagi mengenal siang dan malam sebagai tanda waktu manusia bekerja dan berehat. Yang terpapar saat kita melangkah masuk ke dunia tidak berbatas ini adalah simpang-siur maklumat, berita, atau raungan yang menuntut perhatian. Malah, tidak pernah kita bayangkan akan kemampuan untuk mengikuti banyak perbualan dalam satu masa. Sudah tentu, seperti pelbagai teknologi buatan manusia yang lain, media sosial ibarat pisau bermata dua. Pada satu sisi, ia mungkin menyambung kembali perhubungan manusia, dan kita — yang hidup di setiap penjuru dunia — merasa seperti sebuah masyarakat global. Pada sisi lain, media sosial menjadi alat pengeras suara untuk sekian banyak pendapat yang dahulunya terpencil dan tidak mampu diungkapkan. Barangkali, yang turut menyusul dari kecepatan perkembangan teknologi telefon pintar dan Internet adalah keruntuhan wibawa atau autoriti. Kewibawaan yang pada suatu ketika dimiliki oleh media tradisional seperti surat khabar kini melebur dan menyebar di media sosial. Setiap orang memiliki hak dan peluang yang sama untuk menyampaikan maklumat dan mencetuskan pelbagai wacana dalam masyarakat. Sekalipun bukan sebagai pakar, media sosial membuka ruang untuk kita bersuara dan berpendapat tentang segala macam hal semahunya. Keruntuhan wibawa ini juga akhirnya merancakkan lagi demokrasi. Rakyat kini memiliki wewenang yang lebih luas untuk membuat atau mempengaruhi keputusan-keputusan penting, bukan sekadar menyerahkan segalanya kepada segelintir orang di tampuk pemerintahan. Namun, dalam kerancakan demokrasi di media sosial, kita turut berhadapan dengan kebisingan — seperti kebisingan yang terhasil ketika para pemuzik orkestra menala alatan muzik sebelum memulakan persembahan. Bunyinya pincang tidak bermelodi. Perbincangan-perbincangan yang kononnya berisi, rintihan-rintihan kekecewaan, kemarahan, dan sebagainya bercampur-aduk di pentas media sosial. Malah, dalam kebisingan alam tidak berpenghujung ini, kita bertembung dengan hakikat bahawa hayat suara dan perhatian kita terus-menerus memendek. Di sini, suara-suara bertanding untuk mendapatkan perhatian dan tindak-balas. Yang malang, kegagalan untuk mendapatkan perhatian akan membuka risiko untuk tenggelam, hilang, dan menjadi tidak relevan. Jangan-jangan orang ingin lari dari kesunyian ketika mereka ke media sosial. Rasa bingit sunyi kadang-kala menjadi pintu untuk pelbagai masalah lain: gemuruh, tekanan, dan sebagainya. Namun, media sosial belum tentu menjadi pengubat. Malah, ada kesunyian lain yang turut menanti, lebih-lebih lagi kalau media sosial dijadikan pengganti kepada perhubungan-perhubungan di luar talian. Biarpun dalam keramaian dan kebisingan, kita mungkin tetap akan rasa terasing dan tidak didengari. Mengembalikan Kemanusiaan Hidup dalam kurungan fizikal adalah perkara yang tidak selalu diinginkan, apatah lagi jika kurungan terjadi secara paksa. Namun, kurungan paksa seperti ini setidak-tidaknya membuka peluang untuk kita melakukan pengasingan ke dalam diri (internal exile). Kita memisahkan diri dari dunia buat seketika dan merenung, baik tentang hakikat diri mahupun cara kita melayari dunia media sosial. Dalam kurungan, kesunyian yang dicari — seperti yang sudah ditemui oleh Kafka atau Sapardi — adalah kesunyian yang lebih rela dan bermakna. Pada waktu ini, kita merenung bahawa teknologi tidak semestinya mampu untuk menggantikan keajaiban hubungan-hubungan manusia di luar alam maya yang lebih bersifat peribadi. Dalam kesunyian, kita memikirkan tentang bagaimana pertemuan-pertemuan empat mata telah terabai ketika pandangan sudah terlekat di layar telefon. Sudah pasti kita bukan menolak teknologi, atau dalam hal ini media sosial. Pengasingan ke dalam diri sebaliknya lebih memperluaskan dunia. Malah, dalam keheningan ini, kita menumpukan segenap perhatian terhadap deria-deria — baik sentuh, hidu, atau tatapan mata — yang hilang dalam dunia yang diperantarakan oleh teknologi secara berlebihan. Teknologi pasti boleh mempercepatkan kemajuan dan mempermudahkan manusia dalam banyak hal. Akan tetapi ianya tidak mungkin atau tidak seharusnya menghapuskan kemanusiaan.

  • Writing, Language, and Solitude

    A reflection on the value of words and communicating through writing whether in rural Kelantan or in the present quarantine era. I leaned my back against the wall in the living room, confronting my father who was sitting on the broken rattan chair with half a Salem menthol burning between his fingers. My mom sat near me, cross-legged and motionless. Her face was pale, not uttering a word to me nor to my father. Her knee almost touched me, as if ready to shield me from the thin bamboo cane that my father was holding in his right hand. My eyes were red-rimmed, fighting the tears stirred up by the fury of that afternoon. I could not process a single word that came out of my father’s mouth. I kept silent and refused to explain myself. At such times, arguments were pointless. Mom was there to protect me, even though I didn’t want a shield. As my father drew the last puff of his cigarette, I stood up and punched the wooden wall behind me with my right fist. The pain from my fractured fingers didn’t last long. A split-second later, I felt the sting of bamboo that lashed my shoulder. Without saying a word, I ran outside. I hurried into the thick jungle that lay in wait beyond my house, carrying with me the wounds underneath my skin. As dusk fell and darkness consumed my surroundings, I lingered alone under a big tree, far away from the drone of words and human speech. The jungle – in all her savage wilderness – had always been my place of safe escape. That night, I heard voices calling me from a distance. I could make out the familiar voices of my brothers. I was tempted to answer the call, as I felt that it was the only moment in my life anyone really wanted to speak to me. But I sewed my mouth shut in defiance. Throughout my childhood, I came to know the limits of language: I was trying to speak, but no one seemed to be listening. *** As a child, my language mirrored my world. The Kelantanese-Malay vocabulary that I spoke was entirely that of the jungle, rivers, and paddy fields of Kampung Labok and Kampung Kuchelong where I grew up. Nature was abundant and gave more than what it took from me. I remember vividly: one day I was making a clay bowl at the Kemubu waterway that flows in front of my grandmother’s house; Pak Su Harun, the village leader, came and jokingly told me to keep making kraftangan (handicraft) instead of kerat tangan (amputating the hand). It was sweet advice. I learned from this natural brilliance that could make me burst out in laughter with just a simple play of words. At times, I escaped through books into the world of my imagination. The smell of musty books gave me a sense of security: I was safe to explore realms beyond what my eyes could perceive and where my body could bring me. Deep in the subterranean stacks of my school library, I delved into the works of renowned Malaysian writers and poets such as Usman Awang, Shahnon Ahmad, and Muhammad Haji Salleh. My childhood was a time for me to discover the magic of life, explore what is allowed and forbidden, but I could not yet express myself well in words. After years of wrestling with invisibility and voicelessness, I found other ways to communicate. I began writing quite late in life, when I was about 20, soon after I packed my bag and left my hometown. The reason was rather pragmatic. I was doing my undergraduate studies in political science. Writing was the only tool available for me to make sense of all the books and the lectures I had read and attended. In my cozy student room on campus, with all the resources I had access to, I began typing my first essay, a form of writing to which I remain faithful to this day. Like a good lover, writing sometimes disappoints, but it always helps me know myself and speak my mind. Perhaps, a sense of powerlessness – the inability to find one’s voice, the absence of words and space – chases us away from ourselves. The unlucky ones mutate into monsters, invisible creatures raging within silent screams. The small distance between the kampung and the city allowed me to understand my home and childhood more clearly. I reflected on myself through the twenty-six Latin alphabets that I arranged and rearranged into words and metaphors. When the first word and sentence appeared on the blank page of my computer screen, I realised that I had longed for a doorway to my mind, to my own voice, and to inexpressible language, the language that was never to be found as a child. *** Today, sitting at my desk, singing to the rhythm of a land concealed by plague, I find myself pondering what it means to write. How can language and writing make sense of this moment? The pandemic has upended lives across the planet, confined us to our homes, and taken millions of lives in less than a year. Even our future now seems ambiguous. But there is an irony of life amid the isolation of social distancing and quarantine. As towns and cities fall silent, face-to-face interactions are outlawed. We try to emerge from our seclusion, yet we are damned by the superfluity of communication, the incessant masturbation of our fingers on our mobile devices. We now speak more and louder than ever before. In our pursuit to feed our narcissistic pleasure, grasping for attention in the midst of our ever-shortening reading span, we witness words and language blaze into ashes in the confinement of 280 Twitter characters. Now that everyone can write, “authority is dead in social media”, says Nirwan Dewanto, an Indonesian poet and essayist. In today’s boisterous online world, some of us turn away and begin our journey inward towards the Self, to reflect our light outward. The act of writing requires solitude. Many writers plunge themselves into the depths of internal exile and silence, struggling with language in order to create. Solitude and seclusion are prevalent themes in the writing of literature. We find the word sunyi (lonely) over and over again in the works of prominent Malay and Indonesian writers and poets such as Amir Hamzah, Chairil Anwar, and Sapardi Djoko Damono. In kesepian or solitude, writers discover new metaphors to express themselves. As much as writing was an exit door for the inexpressible memories of my childhood bewilderment, language at times remains elusive and estranged. To keep language close, I perform a ritual of seduction – a dance of entwinement, entrapment, and escape. When the rhythm hurls me to the limits of language, a breath of prose or poetry breaks through what cannot be said. To me, writing is not a distraction, but a quest for survival. *This essay first appeared in The Vibes, 24 January 2021.

  • Mak Yong and Cultural Cleansing in Kelantan (Part 2)

    How the ban on traditional arts in Kelantan discourages old masters from teaching the young. Since PAS took over Kelantan in 1990, journalists, cultural activists and academics have lamented the fate of Kelantan’s centuries-old cultural traditions such as Mak Yong, Menora, Main Puteri, Wayang Kulit, and Dikir Barat. “We need to purify our local theatre from those alien elements. Fantasy and dance gestures not akin to Islam will not be accepted,” the then Kelantan Chief Minister cum PAS spiritual leader, Tuan Guru Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, announced to local reporters after officiating the state cultural awards night at Hotel Perdana in Kota Bharu in 2006. The ulama came to every kampung donning sarong paired with shabby baju Melayu and skullcaps, greeting villagers with a soft assalamualaikum, giving speeches and sermons about the need for Malay-Muslims to sit under the umbrella of Muslim ummah in the local mosques. Among them were foreign-educated Muslim clerics, popularly known as the “Young Turks”, such as Tuan Guru Yusof Rawa, Datuk Fadzil Noor, Tuan Guru Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat and Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang. Under the ulama leadership, PAS became hostile towards the Kelantanese traditional arts that they deemed shirk and un-Islamic. Influenced in part by the need to create a distinct Islamic image from its Umno counterpart, in 1992, two years after the Islamic party took over the Kelantan government, they started to restructure arts, culture and entertainment activities. Kelantanese traditional art and culture, particularly Mak Yong, faced a terrible public humiliation at the hands of politicians who preached ‘peace’ and ‘tolerance’. PAS meddled in a faith-controlling business, moving from serving the public interests to dictating the private lives of the people, viewing human affairs solely through the lens of halal and haram. Casting aside economic wellbeing, the ulama leadership chose to prepare the people for the hereafter instead, while intimidating art practitioners such as Mek Ti and her troupe. Deliberately confusing culture and religion, PAS also banned Wayang Kulit, the age-old shadow puppet play rooted in the Indian epic of the Ramayana. The ban on traditional arts was codified in 1998 with the Entertainment and Places of Entertainment Control Enactment, which also prohibited other local traditional performances such as Mak Yong, Menora and Main Puteri. The State Culture Committee chairman, Datuk Anuar Tan Abdullah said the dance could only be performed in private and it is only for “foreign tourists and researchers, not for local residents or local Muslims”. This forced Mak Yong troupes, including Cahaya Matahari, to practice their art discreetly and discouraged the old masters from teaching the young generation. Today, with the new generation of ulama leadership coming from the same school of thought, the PAS-led state government has initiated Islamic-leaning programmes and began to gradually transform the outlook of the state. On a Saturday in October 2005, I remember myself stuck for one hour in heavy traffic near the Sultan Mohammed IV Stadium in Kota Bharu as thousands of people stormed the stadium to witness Sultan Ismail Petra proclaiming Kota Bharu as an “Islamic City”. For some, it was just a normal evening, a time usually spent with family or friends enjoying food from the stalls along the street. But for many others, the night was a catharsis. Driving through the small towns and villages of Kelantan, one notices that people are embracing a new identity, recognising themselves as Muslims more than Malays, and that Islamic shariah law, hudud, is being touted as an ultimate collective goal. Many young men in Kelantan are starting to wear turbans and grow beards while the women wear jubbah. Even though many still prefer the local "aku" and "mung" as first and second person pronouns, for those who come from an Islamic education background or strong supporters of PAS, the Arabic "ana" and "anta" have become normalised in everyday conversation. Outside PAS’s power sphere, with fear and anxiety, people were witnessing the party’s implementation of a strict interpretation of Islamic law on Kelantan. In towns made up of a mixture of old and new double-story shops, schools, markets, and hospitals, the government began its cultural purification programmes, constructing an impression of an Islamic city. Although many old buildings still maintain their Kelantan Malay architectural identity, new buildings began to adopt Middle Eastern architectural elements such as the cylindrical minarets, pointed arches, and domes, as well as Arabic geometric patterns. The Tok Guru Bazaar itself, located at the Kota Bharu city centre, mirrors the Nabawi Mosque in Madinah, a city in Saudi Arabia. Businesses run as normal, but with a pronounced Islamic sensibility: men and women in advertisements must now be modestly attired with hair covered, even in advertisements promoting underwear. On the other hand, social purification started with the government limiting entertainment centres, segregating men and women at social events, and wearing the tudung (headscarf) was made compulsory for women in public. Non-compliance entails a maximum RM500 fine. Cultural performances were also affected. Although the popular Dikir Barat is still permitted, performers, especially women, still face intimidation if they break the rules and regulations. In 2005, Rosalinda, a female Dikir Barat singer was found guilty by the syariah court for “dressing inappropriately” during a performance at a funfair in Gua Musang. She received a RM1,000 fine. Kajol, a local transgender Bollywood-styled Dikir Barat singer, too, faced the same treatment from the authorities in 2011 after appearing as a woman when she performed in an event in Tanah Merah. Outside Kelantan, cultural groups and universities are making efforts to keep Mak Yong alive, mainly through organising cultural events for urban audiences and incorporating it into the university’s performing arts repertoire. The independent cultural organisation Pusaka has been working closely with Mak Yong performers and other traditional arts communities in Kelantan since the time of the ban, organising community performances and conducting extensive documentation. By contrast, Mak Yong staged in Kuala Lumpur by national institutions presents only the theatrical elements of what is essentially a ritual tradition. This obsession of turning Kelantan into another version of the Middle East and confusing it with Islamisation has forced cultural practitioners to scatter to other parts of the country. Those who chose to stay must live with the lack of freedom to practice their art. Many have found refuge in the culturally mixed Thai-border districts in Tumpat, Pasir Mas and Rantau Panjang, as well as Kuala Besut, a district culturally that of Kelantan but politically under Terengganu. Betrayal by their leaders In September 2019, the Kelantan state government announced that it was lifting its ban on Mak Yong. It is unlikely that this would have happened if not for decades of consistent grassroots work by cultural organisations, especially Pusaka, and pressure from the United Nations. However, this "lifting" of the ban came with a hefty price tag. The PAS state government of Kelantan insists that Mak Yong performances must adhere to "shariah-compliant requirements" and guidelines, such as gender segregation and making it compulsory for all cultural performers to cover-up body parts that are considered aurah in Islam. At the national level, PAS is adapting Umno’s culture against Pakatan Harapan, who took over the federal government in 2018 and are moving towards reconciling with the wider Malay society. For PAS, the Kelantanese traditional arts and cultural heritage are no more than ‘immoral’ entertainment. For journalists and pundits, PAS’ hostility towards the traditional arts is a mark of Arabisation and radicalisation of Islam in Kelantan. But for cultural communities and the Kelantanese themselves, it is a betrayal by their leaders. Today, uncertain about how the future might unfold, they are witnessing an erosion of their deep cultural heritage and the worldviews that nurture it. For practitioners like Mek Ti and her troupe, they hope that future generations will get the chance to know Mak Yong as a living tradition, not as a stillborn memory. *This essay first appeared in The Vibes, 08 November 2020.

  • Mak Yong and Cultural Cleansing in Kelantan (Part 1)

    The purest Malay art form is part psychotherapy and part dance-drama. IT was 6 o’clock. As the sun descended, it stained the sky with deep shades of orange and yellow. Only a few rays of light cut through the dark forest, reaching the backyard of the Kelantan-styled wooden house located at the edge of Kampung Gong Lapang, in Kuala Besut. Che Siti Dollah, affectionately known as Mek Ti, was sitting crossed-legged at the front veranda, overseeing the final preparations at the open-air panggung — a makeshift theatre-in-the-round. Only two men remained. All that was left to be done now was to mark the border by tying two lines of raffia rope horizontally, connecting the four pillars. Lastly, they decorated the borders with flowers and coconut palm fronds. The panggung was now ready for the Mak Yong ritual performance that was about to take place. Mek Ti was silent and calm, trusting the two men experienced in their craft. Behind her, a group of women dancers in black kebaya gathered in the cramped living room to do their makeup. Mek Ti is one of the few remaining veteran Mak Yong actresses in Kelantan and its border areas. Now in her 80s, with deteriorating vision and fragile knees, she is only able to sit in the panggung and do what she describes as menjawab nyanyian (answering the song). Mek Ti is the main custodian of Mak Yong in her community. She leads the Cahaya Matahari troupe, a Mak Yong group founded by the late Che Ning, a legendary Mak Yong prima donna in Kelantan. Ensuring the continuity of the Mak Yong tradition is Mek Ti’s niece and Che Ning’s granddaughter, Rohana Abdul Kadir, who plays the principal role, alongside her sisters, her father Pak Su Kadir and other seasoned Mak Yong performers. For Mek Ti, making conversation with the guests and exchanging banter with the musicians was not only to break the silence. It distracted her from thinking about the unanticipated news she had received a week earlier. Her original plan to hold the event at her own place near Kuala Besut had been rejected by the village headman, forcing the troupe to find refuge in another village. This time, the ritual performance had to be done discreetly at her relative’s house, far below the radar of the authorities. The village headman’s refusal to allow a Mak Yong performance came in the wake of the Terengganu state government’s announcement of new guidelines on culture and entertainment, guidelines that include strict prohibitions on women performers and gender segregation even for the audience. Having witnessed nearly three decades of censorship of the traditional arts in Kelantan, just over the state border, the news felt like a ticking time bomb to Mek Ti and the whole Mak Yong community. 'Easier to practice Mak Yong under Umno' In February 2020, I joined Pusaka, a cultural organisation led by journalist and culturalist, Eddin Khoo, to Kuala Besut to experience a Mak Yong ritual performance in its community setting and to grapple with the cultural politics that surrounds it. Pusaka had organised a three-day Mak Yong cultural immersion for selected writers, researchers, filmmakers, and theatre practitioners, with the support of Malaysian Reform Initiative (Mari), the US Embassy, and USAID. Like other border districts of Kelantan, Kuala Besut is regarded as part of the cradle of Kelantanese Malay heritage. Although it falls under the administration of Terengganu, Kuala Besut shares many commonalities with Kelantan culturally, in particular the food, dialect, and artistic traditions. Being politically under Terengganu — a stronghold state of the dominant Malay political party, United Malays National Organisation (Umno) — had been an advantage to traditional performers like Mek Ti. Kuala Besut sat somewhat removed from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) power centre in Kelantan, and people enjoyed freedoms deemed incongruent with PAS’s Islamic way of life. This relative liberty ended in May 2018, when Terengganu fell under PAS’ control in Malaysia’s historic 14th General Election. PAS’ Islamic ideological impositions and cultural restrictions in Kelantan have now spilled beyond Kelantan’s political border. “It was easier to practice Mak Yong under Umno," Mek Ti told me. I sat with Mek Ti in the panggung while we waited for Pak Su Agel, a master gendang player and one of the most accomplished musicians in Kelantan, to set up his ensemble. “They appreciated Mak Yong and didn’t restrict us here. But now… things have changed," she conveyed. Today, Mek Ti and the Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari group must deal with an ever-growing Islamic influence from both Kelantan and Terengganu. Mak Yong is a traditional Malay dance-drama and healing ritual primarily found in Kelantan as well as the Pattani region of southern Thailand. Mak Yong is believed to have existed as a ritual art for centuries and, for a period until the 1920s, enjoyed the royal patronage of the Kelantan Sultanate. After Independence, into the 1970s and 80s, itinerant Mak Yong troupes came to prominence, led by ‘prima donnas’ like Che Ning. However, the changing political winds set their ideological weapons against traditional culture. Soon after their rise to political power in Kelantan in 1990, PAS proscribed Mak Yong and several other traditional art forms, citing ‘animist and Hindu-Buddhist roots which pre-date Islam’ and painting them as ‘immoral’ activities that contain elements of shirk (polytheism) and khurafat (superstition). Despite the damaging proscription by PAS, Mak Yong was recognised by Unesco in 2005 as a ‘Masterpiece of Intangible and Oral Heritage of Humanity’. A masterpiece banned in its place of origins. A Mak Yong performance usually begins by paying respect to the "original teacher" (guru asal) with an offering. This ceremony is known as the buka panggung (consecration of the stage). This is followed by a delicate opening dance performed by a group of eight to 10 women called menghadap rebab (salutations to the rebab). The performance continues with the enactment of stories derived mainly from Kelantan-Pattani mythology, with refined and stylised dialogue. Another important element in Mak Yong is the music ensemble, featuring instruments such as rebab (three-stringed spiked fiddle), gendang (double-headed drum), a pair of gongs, serunai (Malay oboe), geduk drums and kesi (small cymbals). More than just a dance-drama, Mak Yong as practiced by Mek Ti is a form of psychotherapy — a healing ritual that involves communication with spirits, ancestors and the "original teacher" but most of all the release of suppressed angin (inner winds) of the individual psyche. “People easily condemn Mak Yong as sinful when they don’t understand its essence and origin,” said Mek Ti. She holds that there is no contradiction between being a devout Muslim and practising Mak Yong. Mak Yong is a marker of the community’s roots and history, reminding them of their deep heritage and identity. Mek Ti sees the women centred Mak Yong tradition as a legacy left by Che Siti Wan Kembang, the legendary queen of Kelantan who reigned in the 16th century, and an emblem of the powerful position of women in Kelantan. Mak Yong immortalises traces of love and desire, war and truce, the alliances and enmity of kings, the lives of archetypal characters of past kingdoms. It also serves as a moral compass and provides a sense of self for Kelantanese like Mek Ti. Cultural and religious politics in Kelantan is never as serene as the everyday life in the village. It turns some of us into fanatics, dividing people into friends and enemies or believers and kafir (infidels). As in other Malay states, politics in Kelantan is shaped by contestations between local lords, conflicts over power and influence disguised by religious and ethnic rhetoric. To gain support that would later translate into votes, PAS positioned itself at the opposite extreme from the moderate Umno, taking on a more conservative, puritan self-image while claiming to propagate the truest version of Islam. I spent three days in the village, immersing myself in the festivity and intensity of the mak yong performance, experiencing the wonder of the Kelantanese-Malay heritage. Yet, between the silences of the last notes of the ensemble, lies the bewildering struggle of Kelantanese cultural practitioners to keep their traditions alive amid the growing Islamic puritanism. For Mek Ti, it is better to practice the Mak Yong tradition ‘underground’ rather than let it deteriorate under PAS leadership. How does Mak Yong fare underground? Look out for Part 2 here. *This essay first appeared in The Vibes, 07 November 2020.

  • Mencari Salasilah

    Kita mengenal Sejarah sebagai sebatang tubuh yang direbut-rebut dan sering dipindah milik. Ada satu pertanyaan yang sedari kecil belum saya temukan jawapan, atau paling tidak, cebisan-cebisan petanda: siapa leluhur saya? Kenapa pertanyaan ini selalu hadir, saya kurang pasti. Sekilas, ianya tidak lebih daripada sekadar rasa ingin tahu. Benar, sekadar ingin tahu. Mungkin kerana itu saya hanya mengenal, paling jauh, arwah datuk daripada kedua-dua belah ayah dan ibu. Seorangnya bengis dan suka merantau, dan seorang lagi guru silat yang pendiam dan tidak bekerja tetap. Kerja menjejak asal-usul diri sendiri selalunya sulit. Kerana itu saya tidak kerap menoleh ke belakang dan mencari. Ayah sendiri jarang bercerita. Ibu pula sebaliknya suka bertitih, namun malang, kurang petah dalam mengungkap. Sesekali, ketika di kampung, saya beralih ke gambar untuk memerhatikan denai-denai yang pernah dilalui oleh keluarga. Tapi, gambar juga segan bercerita. Di situ, gerbang salasilah hanya menguak di ambang pertemuan ayah dan ibu. Kepingan gambar ayah yang masih berseragam hijau di Sarawak, dan gambar ibu dengan skirt putih jururawat yang sedang mengelamun di pintu sebuah klinik di Kota Bharu, berselang-seli antara satu sama lain. Selebihnya, gambar-gambar orang berkenduri-kendara, dan gambar diri sendiri ketika kecil yang tekun meniru gerak-geri orang lain. Barangkali tidak ada yang boleh dijual daripada kisah Deris dan Hassan — tok ayah dan tok ki yang tidak selalu saya santuni itu. Pada waktu muda, Deris sibuk membeli tanah di mana sahaja punggungnya berlabuh. Hassan pula asyik mengukir hulu dan sarung golok di bangsal belakang rumah. Tidak ada pentingnya juga dengan apa yang sedang dibicarakan oleh ayah dan ibu dalam gambar mereka sebingkai buat pertama kali. Mungkin sekolah yang mendorong saya melihat begitu. Sejarah, kenangan, ingatan, dan kejadian masa lalu yang saya kutip di bilik darjah adalah deretan cerita yang menguatkan kesetiaan saya kepada negara. Yang terjadi di Stadium Merdeka pada tanggal 31 Ogos 1957 adalah Tunku Abdul Rahman melaungkan di hadapan ribuan rakyat bahawa negara sudah bebas. Di helaian buku teks, para perwira masa lalu yang diajar untuk dikenang adalah mereka yang sudah menumpahkan bakti kepada negara. Negara perlahan-lahan menculik masa lalu saya. Ingatan dan kenangan yang dihidangkan dalam mata pelajaran sejarah adalah segala yang telah membentuk saya sebagai sebuah masyarakat; suatu yang diingati secara bersama. Di sini, sejarah adalah suatu cerita panjang tentang sosok dan peristiwa yang sudah dipilih negara. Deris dan Hassan, jelas, tiada dalam garis panjang ini. Dalam buku teks, sejarah menjadi rasmi, dan saya semakin jauh dari sejarah sendiri. Saya tahu, sewaktu membesar di kampung, saudara-mara sering berdatangan ke rumah, dan mereka fasih berbahasa Siam. Namun, tidak ada cerita tentang bagaimana saya boleh bertaut dengan orang-orang yang bertebaran di kawasan Sungai Golok dan Patani itu. Cerita Deris mungkin tenggelam dalam kisah kerumunan manusia yang dari generasi ke generasi menyeberangi sungai yang membelah dua negara. Hujungnya, cerita dan peristiwa masa lalu yang tidak tertulis merapat ke pinggir, atau sekadar menjadi pilihan-pilihan yang masih diragui. Di sini, kita mengenal Sejarah sebagai sebatang tubuh yang direbut-rebut dan sering dipindah milik. Sudah tentu ada bau kuasa dalam pandangan terhadap sejarah yang sedemikian. Maka, tidak hairan kalau banyak negara bangsa terus-menerus melawat sejarah, membawa masuk dan mencungkil keluar cerita dan peristiwa masa lalu semahunya. Sejarah, di mata penguasa, berubah menjadi alat untuk membelenggu. Namun, masa lalu bukan barang lepas yang sekadar ditinggalkan. Dengan terang atau samar, sejarah dan cebis-cebis kenangan sentiasa tercangkuk dan mengekori hari ini. Malah, kita menanggapi sejarah bak mendakap halaman sendiri: walau sejauh mana kita terdampar, kita kembali ke ribanya setelah dipaksa tubuh. Barangkali itu yang terjadi. Rasa ingin tahu saya adalah salah satu pendorong. Ada panggilan bawah sedar yang turut minta dijawab. Hidup jauh dari tempat saya bermula, kerja mencari salasilah sendiri menjadi semakin payah. Malah, hari ini di kota, orang mungkin tidak lagi bertitih dan menelusuri susur-galur sesering yang dilakukan orang waktu dahulu di kampung. Kita dituntut untuk terus bergerak ke depan, dan jarang berhenti untuk menoleh ke belakang. Namun, ada ironinya juga hidup di kota yang tidak pernah tidur. Kita tetap sahaja terasing dan bersendiri. Di persimpangan antara kemajuan dan keterasingan ini pertanyaan dari mana datangnya diri sendiri selalu hadir. Seperti sirih pulang ke gagang, menjejak salasilah adalah kepulangan ke salur di dalam tubuh tempat darah dan semangat mengalir. Kita menemui suatu bentuk sejarah yang bergerak melampaui kategori-kategori identiti kumpulan dan politik. Biarpun tidak tertulis dan tanpa kuasa politik, ia hadir walaupun tidak disedari. Menelusuri salasilah dan mengangkat sejarah-sejarah ‘pinggiran’ tidak semestinya bermakna melawan sejarah dominan yang mapan, tetapi menawarkan sisi-sisi lain sejarah. Kita juga tahu bahawa sejarah di sini tidak selama-lamanya bermatlamat menguasai. Dalam perjalanan pulang ke masa lalu dan mengenal asal-usul, kita kemudian yakin bahawa sejarah juga menghidupi. Memang tidak ada yang boleh dijual daripada tok ayah dan tok ki atau daripada kepingan gambar yang terselit di balik buku album di kampung. Mereka adalah pintu masuk ke sebuah tanah yang jarang diziarahi. Deris meninggal di halaman sendiri setelah penat merantau. Hassan sempat meninggalkan sebilah dua keris dan golok buat panduan. Namun, segala kisah dan denai yang pernah mereka lalui membentuk dan merintis laluan buat saya hari ini.

  • How Different the Kelantan of My Youth Was

    People would assume that we are all puritans, preferring Islamic teachings over tradition and cultural heritage, when in fact, these can easily go hand in hand. Our lives revolve around locating ourselves within the unfamiliar, and coming to terms with all the differences that we chance upon in our surroundings. There are seemingly only two options for us to choose from: to throw ourselves into the herd and become one with the others; or to step out, acknowledge and embrace the dissimilarities. As a young boy living in 1990s Labok, a small Malay village – said to be named after an Orang Asli’s Tok Batin – just outside of Machang, Kelantan, my life had always been a steady push and pull between the two. The game was either to conform to the state-defined standard – to be a devout, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS)-supporting Kelantanese, or to deviate from it. Defiance usually comes with a hefty price tag. Growing up in the Malay-majority state, ruled by a conservative Islamic political party for more than 20 years, one does not expect much change to happen. Thus, many young Kelantanese travel, looking for liberty, opportunities and promise. Some would later wish to go home, while the rest choose to continue building their lives elsewhere. But I lived with my parents, and was stuck in a place that I struggled to call home. Despite having lived in Labok for more than two decades, it remained just another temporary place for my parents, who served the government. Home, for a young boy like me, was a place where I could find some sort of neutrality, and where I could embrace the kampung spirit in me. Labok, unfortunately, was not that kind of place. For that matter, I would say Kuchelong, a farmer-majority village where my grandmother lived, was the home and place that shaped me into who I am today. My companions were the typical elements of kampung life: muddy rivers, colourful fighting fish, the jungle, the birds that served as an alarm clock, and certainly the paddy fields. There, during the harvesting season, I would join the village folk in flying kites. But these are not the stories we usually hear about Kelantan. The mass media are particularly more interested in feeding audiences stories of the ruling government and the political parties. Many social-scientific writing, on the other hand, describe Kelantan and its people as peasants, planting paddy, vegetables and occasionally tobacco for trade or daily consumption. In the nineteenth century, Kelantan attracted students from other places in the archipelago to study religion in its many religious schools, or sekolah pondok; hence, like Aceh, Kelantan was also called Serambi Makkah, or Annex of Mecca. However, Munshi Abdullah, a nineteenth-century Malay writer, in his Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah ke Kelantan (An Account of His Trip for the Government to Kelantan), criticised the backwardness of the Malays and their negative attitude in rejecting progress – an observation that some Kelantanese would refute. And for that, I have to carry the baggage of the Kelantanese stereotype. People would assume that we are all puritans, preferring Islamic teachings over tradition and cultural heritage, when in fact, these can easily go hand in hand. The Consequence of Politics My excess energy as a child was often spent practicing with a dikir barat troupe; the stories and melody of the dikir barat became my lullabies at night. When I was lucky enough, I would get to watch wayang kulit during the election period – a method championed by Umno to attract the Malay crowd. These joys, however, were often clouded by recurring questions I asked myself: Was I looking for happiness in the wrong places?. Kelantan in the 1990s underwent a period of intense Arabisation, replete with the wearing of the robes and fishnet-patterned keffiyeh or skullcap, and code-mixing the local language with Arabic. While the batik lepas was popular among folks, some donned the white Arabic jubbah – a statement to differentiate themselves from others. Naturally, the state government supported these segments of the population as it was seeking to emphasise its credential of being an Islamic party. The contest was heated up at the national level between the two versions of Islam – the one propagated by Umno, and the one propagated by PAS. Soon after winning the 1990 state election, PAS decreed a dress code for Muslims and non-Muslims, while traditional games and cultural performances deemed indecent from the Islamic point of view were banned. Religion ties people together, but it can also divide. The PAS-Umno political rivalry was so intense that people held prayers in different mosques separated according to the parties. It even changed the look of agriculture in Kelantan. Tobacco used to be one of the state’s main economic contributors until former chief minister and respected ulama, the late Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, declared tobacco consumption to be un-Islamic; he then called all tobacco growers to shift to planting kenaf, which is cultivated for its fibre. Culture Shift Growing up with a strong sense of cultural heritage, at the same time witnessing its demise, affected me as a child. Dikir barat, main puteri, mak yong and wayang kulit were part of the village folks’ everyday lives; but new rules and restrictions pushed many cultural performances to border towns such as Tumpat and Pasir Mas. Some Kelantanese chose Besut in Terengganu to seek shelter under BN, which offerred more freedom, while the younger generation moved to big cities like KL and Johor, and tried to preserve their cultural heritage there. Many cultural performances have erased the influence of Hinduism, making them more tourists-friendly without the jampi. But the Islam that I grew up with was nothing like that. The Islam that I grew up to believe in was a syncretic one, combining elements of different beliefs while blending the practices of various schools of thoughts. It complements rather than replaces local traditions. This was the belief that helped me to make sense of life, and was not merely a tool of control. It taught me not to judge, but to understand. And for that, I wish the narrative would revert to that found in the good old kampung days, when children got excited over the sounds of the lagu bertabuh – and played in the river, no matter how muddy it got. *This article was first published in Penang Monthly, October 2019.

  • Kelantan Terpencar: Budayanya Hanya di Serambi

    Keluh-kesah dan penentangan oleh ramai penggiat seni dan budaya di Kelantan bertitik tolak dari salah faham parti Islam itu dalam mentafsirkan Mak Yong. Saya berkesempatan untuk berembun selama dua malam di kampung Gong Lapang yang letaknya di Kuala Besut, Terengganu pada hujung Februari 2020 lalu. Berembun demi menonton Mek Ti, Rohana, Pak Su Kadir, Pak Su Agel, dan belasan pemuda dan pemudi dari kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari. Kumpulan yang ditubuhkan oleh primadona Che Ning ini tidak lekang daripada bergendang dan meliuk tubuh ikut irama. Biarpun panggung tempat mereka beraksi tidak sebesar Istana Budaya, namun, bunyi gesekan rebab, tiupan serunai, dan ketukan gendang ibu dan anak mampu menjadikan angin, awan, dan dedahan pokok hutan di sekeliling tidak senang duduk. Di kepala panggung yang sekadar berpagarkan anyaman daun kelapa, terhidang sepinggan pulut kuning, telur, dan ayam panggang. Kata mereka, hidangan yang sudah tentunya menggiurkan ini adalah untuk santapan nenek moyang. Tidak ada anak yang dibenarkan mencicip, apatah lagi melahapnya. Hanya dibenarkan menelan air liur sahaja. Di hujung kampung jauh dari pekan kecil Kuala Besut, di hadapan lebih dua puluh tetamu dari Kuala Lumpur yang dibawa oleh pertubuhan kebudayaan PUSAKA, terdapat persembahan Mak Yong. Pada hening malam itu, ada jiwa yang sakit perlu diubati, ada semangat yang lemah minta untuk disembuhkan. Malam dibelah dengan persembahan tersebut. Namun, panggung kecil di tepi sawah padi dan di celah-celah pokok getah di ceruk kampung Gong Lapang bukanlah panggung yang sudah lama terbina. Ini hanya panggung sementara tatkala permohonan mereka untuk mementaskan Mak Yong di tempat biasa buat pertama kalinya telah ditolak oleh Tok Penghulu. Semenjak Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) mengambil alih pentadbiran Terengganu pada tahun 2018, maka negeri itu mula mengikuti jejak langkah Kelantan dengan memperkenalkan garis panduan hiburan, kebudayaan dan pelancongan. Kini, segala kegiatan nyaring nyanyi dan liuk tari di negeri itu mestilah berlandaskan syariah. Manakala Kuala Besut pula merupakan salah satu tempat berlindungnya pelbagai kebudayaan tradisional Melayu sesudah terkena rembesan Islamisasi PAS di Kelantan. Kuala Besut, ibaratnya sebuah ranah budaya pelarian. Buat kesekian kalinya Mek Ti dan kumpulan Mak Yong yang diwarisinya, dihambat di atas tanah sendiri. Siapa Lebih Islam? Peristiwa yang berlaku kepada Mekti dan kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari ini bukan hal yang baru. Untuk memahaminya, kita perlu menelusuri denai-denai sejarah politik Kelantan, setidak-tidaknya bermula dari tahun 1990, ketika PAS kembali merampas negeri itu dari UMNO. Sudah nasib, Mek Ti dan kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari adalah pelanduk yang tersepit di antara dua gajah politik yang berebut untuk membuktikan siapa yang lebih Islam di Kelantan. Hakikatnya, titik mula pertempuran kuasa antara dua gajah politik di Kelantan boleh dikatakan bermula sejak tahun 1955 lagi. Dalam pilihanraya pertama yang dilangsungkan pada tahun tersebut, UMNO meraih kemenangan besar dengan menguasai seluruh kerusi di Kelantan. Di bawah pentadbiran UMNO, Kelantan dibawa mengikuti garis ideologi kebangsaan parti itu. UMNO bersumpah untuk meletakkan kepentingan Melayu sebagai matlamat utama perjuangannya dan Islam hanya sekadar berada di kerusi belakang. Perkembangan ini sudah tentunya tidak disenangi oleh PAS. Namun, kedudukan UMNO di Kelantan pada waktu itu tidaklah begitu selesa. Negeri yang majoriti penduduknya adalah Melayu beragama Islam ini turut mengintai PAS sebagai parti politik alternatif kepada UMNO. Malah, ketika Burhanuddin Al-Helmy mengambil alih kerusi presiden PAS dan memandu parti itu ke arah jalan sosialis kebangsaan dengan secubit perisa Islam, sokongan terhadap PAS semakin meningkat. Pada pilihanraya umum tahun 1959, parti Islam itu buat pertama kalinya berjaya merampas Kelantan dan Terengganu. Walau bagaimanapun, kesan konflik kepimpinan tertinggi PAS di Kelantan yang berlaku di antara Asri Muda yang merupakan penyandang kerusi presiden dan Muhammad Nasir berlarutan sehingga tujuh belas tahun membawa arus baharu. Pada tahun 1977, PAS kemudiannya tewas di Kelantan. Politik gohek-gostan (tolak-tarik) Kelantan antara penjuru Islam dan penjuru Melayu ini tiba ke puncaknya apabila PAS mula diresapi oleh golongan ulama bermula pada tahun 1982. Perjuangannya adalah untuk menegakkan sebuah negara Islam. Dengan pengaruh kuat Revolusi Iran pada ketika itu, kelompok ini secara terang-terangan menolak nasionalisme gaya UMNO yang kononnya bertentangan dengan semangat ummah dalam Islam. Lantas, perbezaan UMNO dan PAS kini menjadi semakin ketara sehingga perpecahan dalam kalangan masyarakat Melayu khususnya di negeri Kelantan tidak dapat dielakkan. Kekuatan wajah Islam ini juga telah berjaya mengembalikan Kelantan ke tangan PAS. Bagi menegaskan lagi perbezaan dengan lawan politiknya, dua tahun selepas berjaya merampas kembali Kelantan pada tahun 1990, PAS seraya memulakan gerak kerja penyucian negeri itu dengan lebih giat. Tindakan paling mudah bagi parti itu untuk menyerlahkan lagi wajah Islamnya adalah dengan mencampuri hal ehwal kehidupan harian rakyat yang diperintahnya. Pada tahun 1992, kerajaan negeri Kelantan pimpinan Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat melakukan penstrukturan semula kegiatan kesenian, kebudayaan dan hiburan di negeri itu. Mak Yong, seperti dijangka, akhirnya menerima tempias daripada penstrukturan tersebut. Pemadaman Susur Galur dan Lari Dari Kelantan Sebenarnya, keluh-kesah dan penentangan oleh ramai penggiat seni dan budaya di Kelantan bertitik tolak dari salah faham parti Islam itu dalam mentafsirkan Mak Yong. Bahkan, ditambah lagi dengan anggapan bahawa pelbagai kesenian lain adalah tidak lebih daripada sekadar hiburan semata-mata. Pandangan sempit sebegini yang akhirnya menyebabkan persembahan tradisional lain seperti wayang kulit (yang dianggap memiliki pengaruh agama Hindu) diharamkan di Kelantan. Pada tahun 1998, kerajaan Kelantan meluluskan Enakmen Kawalan Hiburan dan Tempat-Tempat Hiburan yang sekali gus mengharamkan kegiatan persembahan kesenian lain seperti mak yong, menora, dan main Puteri. Walaupun larangan ini telah ditarik balik pada bulan September 2019, rundingan itu tentunya memiliki harga tersendiri. Seniman Mak Yong kini perlu mematuhi garis panduan seperti pengasingan antara lelaki dan perempuan serta mewajibkan para penari Mak Yong untuk menutup bahagian tubuh yang dianggap sebagai aurat. Garis panduan yang diperkenalkan ini juga turut menghalang penglibatan perempuan dalam apa sahaja bentuk persembahan. Dengan hanya menggunakan kod agung halal dan haram, PAS melakukan penyucian secara menyeluruh ke atas segala hal yang dirasakannya sebagai tidak Islamik. Kesannya adalah berlakunya pemadaman terhadap pelbagai bentuk kebudayaan Melayu Kelantan pra-Islam yang sebelumnya sudah lama tersulam dalam masyarakat negeri itu. Tidak hanya memadamkan segala susur-galur masyarakat, sekatan terhadap kegiatan kebudayaan ini juga dikatakan menjadi alasan perpindahan ramai penduduk Kelantan ke bandar-bandar besar seperti Kuala Lumpur. Ibukota merupakan satu lagi Kuala Besut untuk mereka membentuk komuniti baharu seterusnya mengekalkan identiti akibat segala kekayaan seni dan budaya yang terhalang di Kelantan. Di Kuala Lumpur, anak-anak muda misalnya menubuhkan kumpulan-kumpulan dikir barat sendiri sebagai usaha untuk mengekalkan identiti dan memperkukuhkan rasa hidup bermasyarakat. Begitu juga dengan persembahan Mak Yong. Namun, sudah tentunya berlaku keciciran dalam proses perpindahan kegiatan dan pemindahan budaya ini sehingga bentuk kesenian Mak Yong di luar Kelantan tidak lagi dikatakan sebagai asli. Di ibukota, Mak Yong hanya menjadi sekadar seni persembahan untuk tujuan komersial dan dipersembahkan di universiti dan acara-acara kesenian dan kebudayaan. Ia juga tidak lagi menjadi sebuah kesenian bawahan yang dianjurkan oleh masyarakat sendiri. Bagi para penggiat seni dan kebudayaan tradisional Kelantan, tidak ada cara lain untuk mengekalkan keaslian segala bentuk persembahan turun-temurun ini selain daripada terus kekal di tanah asalnya dan berhadapan dengan tekanan pemerintah. Untuk kekal seasli mungkin, sesuatu budaya perlu kembali ke rahimnya, dan tidak lagi terpencar-pencar. Namun, apabila mereka sendiri perlu meratapi kehilangan seorang demi seorang penggiat tanpa ada pengganti, ini pastinya hal yang tidak mudah. Namun, hal yang tidak mudah seringkali juga menjadikan hal tersebut lebih bermakna. Tidak ada yang lebih berharga, selain makna yang terkandung dalam sesuatu kebudayaan tersebut. Tanpa makna, budaya tiada. *Esei ini pertama kali diterbitkan di Naratif Malaysia, Ogos 2020.

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