This report notes the papers and performances on Malaysian, Thai, and Indonesian mak yong presented in the 2011 conference. It argues that historically Kelantan, Malaysia, and Pattani, Thailand, understandings of the form are shared. National borders inset in the colonial period and cultural politics of contemporary Southeast Asia have altered and divided the form.
Zulkifli Mohamad is a performer, choreographer, director, arts writer, and educator. He was trained in traditional performance. His gained his doctorate in cultural management and did postdoctoral work in cultural studies. His creative work and research has been supported by British Council, Australia High Commission, Goethe Institute. He has won an Asia Fellow Award (2002), Rockefeller Southeast Asian Islamic Scholar's Award (2003), and a Fulbright Grant (2010).
In the context of this report I will discuss the politics of mak yongs situation in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia since listening to the various papers presented at a conference brought these issues to the fore. Mak yong is the traditional Malay dance theatre from Kelantan in the north of peninsular Malaysia and Pattani (Malay: Patani) in the south of Thailand. I write from my own position as a descendant of an artistic family in Kelantan that includes mak yong performers, my understanding of local history, and as a dancer-choreographer-theatre director-researcher working from mak yong models in my contemporary work. My grandfather was the cousin of Abdullah Suppa, considered a grand master and the teacher and father-in-law of Khatijah Awang, the great artist of mak yong in the last generation (fourth National Artist, 1999). Also important to my understanding is my work as a dancer for Malaysian choreographer Azanin Ahmad (Suasana Dance Theatre) as she developed contemporary work inspired by mak yong in the mid 1980s. My personal knowledge of the culture that gave birth to mak yong framed my hearing of papers and watching of performances by Malaysian, Indonesian, and Thai researchers.
Mak yong is considered by some scholars to be the most authentic and unique traditional Malay performance (figure As a result, culture brokers and performers have collaborated to preserve it over the last fifty years. Mubin Sheppard, the first Malaysian National Museum director after independence, played an important role in documenting the art in his writing (1972: 58-68) and in trying to save mak yong from disappearing in the late 1960s. British colonial administrators and writers in Malaysia such as Sheppard and Richard Winstedt (1966), in writing of mak yong, noted that Peter Floris, a British adventurer, had witnessed a Malay performance of a dance theatre in the Patani (Thai, Pattani) palace during his visit there (1612-1618); Sheppard traced mak yong back to this seventeenth-century period (1972: 58). If these scholars are correct, some form of mak yong was active in the time of the four great queens of the Patani kingdom. (2)
By 1970 Sheppard was instrumental in installing Khadijah Awang (1941-2009), a member of UMNO (United Malays National Organization) culture group (Kelab Suara Muda [Voices of Youth]) and later known for asyik (female court dance), as the new prima donna of Mak Yong Seri Temenggung. This was the group formerly established in Kampung Temenggung in the earlier 1900s by a member of the Kelantan royalty, Tengku Temenggung Long Ghaffar, son of Sultan Muhamad II. Kampung Temenggung, the cultural academy, collapsed before World War II, and mak yong went back to its former folk form in remote villages in Kelantan. What was reestablished by Khadijah in 1970, however, was an altogether new kind of mak yong, perhaps a reconstructed form that, as described by scholar like Ghulam Sarwar Yousuf (1976, 2011), was glamorous and highly artificial. As a young scholar, I remember that the costumes of Mak Yong Seri Temenggung looked very different from what was presented in Mubin Sheppard's book. …