In 2010, I met a Kelantenese colleague who enchanted me with tales of traditional Malay performing art forms: wayang kulit, Menora, Mak Yong, main wau, dikir barat and so on. So alluring were his stories and renditions that I had actually planned to visit Kelantan to experience the real deal.
Alas, when my colleague asked the people of his hometown, he discovered that the performances, rare as they already wore, had now dwindled due to pressure from State authorities to cease them.
Yesterday, watching Usikan Rebab at klpac’s Pentas 2, I managed to glimpse through a window, not so much into Mak Yong, but a very personal and human story of a Mak Yong dancer.
Usikan Rebab is the story of Kak Nab, a retired Mak Yong performer who in its heydays was considered its reigning prima donna, and her three daughters Ani, Idah and Yam.
All four characters are played by Zamzuriah Zahati, who also wrote the piece. Karamul Baisah Hussin plays the supporting role of Kak Nab’s husband, Dolat Sulaiman as well as musician of the gong, gendang (traditional drum) and rebab, the ornate traditional fiddle which gives the play its name and forms a central role in its story.
Set designer Hamzah Mohamed Tahir and lighting designer Mohammad Fairuz (Boy) put Pentas 2’s black box to good use by leaving it bare save for a small platform for the instruments, and various spot-lit dulang (trays) hung with strings from the ceiling, filed with props used throughout the performance.
And what a performance it was. While at first I was skeptical how well one actor could play four roles, I was convinced by the end of the show that I had watched a performance with depth and meaning surpassing many other plays I’ve watched this year.
Zamzuriah, an accomplished dancer and choreographer, effortlessly switched at the blink of an eye between the roles of Kak Nab and her daughters, each with their own vocabulary, personalities, body language, facial expressions and dialects. Throughout the play, Kamarul used the various instruments to add a musical touch to each role.
Kak Nab, a woman who is at turns fragile and strong is now a widow and estranged from her daughters. Ani is a dangdut dancer and product promoter in KL, no longer speaking to her mother after leaving Kelantan. Idah is a strict ustazah (religious teacher) who insists rejection of all things secular and ‘unIslamic’, including her mother’s performance of Mak Yong as it incorporates elements of animism. Yam is now a dance instructor who only practices modern, contemporary Western dance, seeing her mother’s dance as pointless and backward.
As she reminisces the glory days of Mak Yong, Kak Nab also reflects on its loss and disappearance which parallels the loss and disappearance of her family—the death of her husband and her daughters who have all but abandoned her and denounced the art form she practiced.
From their stories, director Norzizi Zulkifli presents a multi-layered, moving and unexpectedly universal tale of love and loss (of people, of family, of art). While it centers on Mak Yong, Kak Nab’s story of her children who have rejected their legacy and the waning of traditional art forms transcends the play’s original reference point.
I couldn’t help but see Kak Nab as representative of our country’s disappearing cultural art forms and its attendant values, and her daughters as archetypes of contemporary Malaysians: Ani who lives hedonistically, Idah who is a religious fundamentalist and Yam, who rejects her past for modernity and all things Western.
In her lone moments, Kak Nab pines for her late husband and screams for the presence of her daughters, even as she is haunted by the sounds of the rebab her husband used to play, moved to dance and sing even against her own wishes. She cannot help but be a dancer, being called to Mak Yong spiritually.
That calling has not been passed on to her offspring and has practically disappeared in our modern, globalised country where traditional art forms struggle to find relevancy amongst audiences who are too eager to forget the past and would rather watch a Hollywood blockbuster.
Yet, just as Kak Nab’s daughters cannot escape their past or their mother’s legacy, we too are linked to our ancestry and cultural heritage (and baggage) on some level or another.
Usikan Rebab has left a lingering whisper in my ear to watch authentic Mak Yong in Kelantan and perhaps one day, I shall be given a chance to answer the call.
Usikan Rebab is 90 minutes long, performed in Kelantanese and Bahasa Malaysia with English synopses.
When: Wednesday to Saturday (8.30pm) and Sunday (3pm)
Where: Pentas 2, KLPaC
Tickets: RM33 and RM23 (students, elderly, tas card members)
Call The Actors Studio @ Lot 10 at 03-4047 9000 or 03-2142 2009
Student group booking: Buy 10, free one ticket.