Last Sunday I listened to Eddin Khoo, Jo Kukathas and Aidil Johan talk about the importance of performing arts to the soul of the nation in a public forum organized by Imagined Malaysia. This forum is one in a series of forums Imagined Malaysia is organizing in the entire month of September in conjunction with the Jalan Merdeka campaign.
While the focus of the forum is a narrative familiar and explored to performing arts practitioners in the country, doing it as part of Jalan Merdeka in the current socio-political climate gives it a sense of deep-rooted relevance that the general public – it’s intended audience – have overlooked and should most definitely welcome.
Titled ‘Air, Angin & Rumah Kebudayaan: Aesthetics of Southeast Asia’, the forum features the panelists tackling some profound questions – how to create an awareness and understanding of the aesthetics of traditional and modern performing arts being framed with a sense of spirituality? Why is this abstract notion significant? What are the politics that emerge from this meaning-making process of our culture?
Spirituality in Performing Arts
The origins of Southeast Asian performing arts in general are ritualistic. Eddin Khoo asserts this clearly at the beginning of his session. The performative is mere form; the performing is more important – it is an act of release. It is communal. It heals. There is no division between tradition, well-being and spirituality in the performance. It is always about the ‘semangat’ – spirit.
The introduction was a great way to begin the forum. It made complete sense to talk about the spirituality when discussing the soul of a nation; and establishing the ritualistic origins of our performing arts is grounding for the ensuing discussion. Eddin was articulate in sharing his knowledge and experience. I particularly appreciated how he contextualizes his points and responses throughout his session; it is a long-missing cog in the advocacy of arts and culture in this country.
Through Eddin I learned that the ritualistic and artistic performances is the bedrock of our Malaysian (and Southeast Asian culture); it is where and how our sensibilities as the man, the citizen and the human are formed. It is believed that we are born with a certain character and temperament (angin), and integrating ourselves with society and the world as part of life, we make compromises to ourselves that needs to be healed and rehabilitated. This healing and rehabilitation was originally facilitated with rituals. These rituals took on a form in everyday life, becoming a performative before developing into culture and customs. As the influence of Hinduism spread across the region (and later the arrival of Islam), these performative either evolve or reform to suit the time, the occasion and most importantly its people.
This is integral to understanding Malay culture and history. There is so much debate on Malay (Southeast Asian) values versus Asian values, the latter losing out on the individual for the society while the former focuses on the self (diri). Malay (or Malaysian) performing arts is basically us (the self; diri) playing – releasing our stresses and depressions (accumulated from life) in order to regenerate and rehabilitate.
Politics in Culture
The issues facing the performing arts industry in Malaysia is largely state-based. Institutions, and institutionalization – even when their heart is at the right place – have arguably had a detrimental effect on the preservation and appreciation of the performing arts. Their approach – a conflicting rojak of bureaucracy, corporatization and academia – has secularized the performing arts, detaching it from its intimate, spiritual origins.
There is a long history of institutionalization in Malaysia. Semangat 46 and Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah attempted to revolutionize the Kelantanese culture back in the day. They wanted to transform the (Kelantan) Malay Muslim mindset and in doing so got rid of all the junk – culture and performing arts. Kuda Kepang is another example – a highly sufistic tradition gleaned from Wali Songo’o was deemed heretical in Malaysia, while back in its spiritual home of Jawa it has become a victim of commercialization and branded as ‘persembahan mistik‘.
There is also the notion of that many of these performing art traditions are Hindu in origin, and along with it loaded descriptions such as syirik, khurafat and polytheistic have been branded. These terms have very strict textual basis, and dismissing (and detaching) the spiritual etymology of these traditions when applying them negates its very existance, and our very essence. The Ramayana story performed in wayang kulit for example, is an Indian tradition, and not a Hindu epic. The god Rama in the Hindu religion is quite separate from the Rama of in Ramayana, who displays mortal characteristics and behaviour. The Malay Ramayana is even more radical – it had been secularized into Hikayat Raja Ramana, a very human character.
These are mere examples, which require more reading and research – something that has been sorely lacking since the days of Dasar Kebudayaan Kebangsaan. During the days of Kompleks Budaya Negara in the 1970s, there was a lot more give and take. The 1990s, however, saw more state influence – performing arts practitioners, especially those freelancing with the state, were told what to perform. The AIDS and dengue dikir barat on RTM in the late 80s/early 90s are a fine example of such changes.
Towards the end of the forum, Jo Kukathas eloquently summarized everything. Malaysia is a multicultural Southeast Asian nation-state, but we don’t know how to be multicultural and talk about multiculturalism. As a result, exchanges on it devolves into a debate, us contending what it should or shouldn’t be. Using Hayao Miyazaki‘s ‘Spirited Away’ and the kabuki, Jo elaborates that it is important that we understand the origins of of performing art traditions. Once you lose sight of the origins (why they were created) and focus only on the form, you will lose the ability to subvert; to release and heal.
Art is about the human spirit, and that is why it has to have a spiritual aesthetic – its purpose is to make visible what is invisible. As Aidil Johan pointed out – P.Ramlee’s famous Madu Tiga theme (and film) made us laugh at our follies of misplaced religious pandering via polygamy. We all laughed at it not because it was funny; it was funny it was real and true.
We laughed because we could finally look at ourselves.