Malay fest focuses on customs

Visitors to the Malay CultureFest can enjoy a Wayang Kulit Siam performance.

SINGAPORE - On a lush grass lawn at the Malay Heritage Centre, dozens of green-clad teenage scouts are hard at work, putting up a wooden stage from scratch under the supervision of several veteran artisans from Kelantan, Malaysia.

They are constructing a panggung, a traditional performing stage for art forms such as mak yong (a traditional Malay dance-drama) or wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) for the centre's second Malay CultureFest, which will run till Sept 22.

Visitors are welcome to witness the construction of the stage, which is scheduled to be completed on Friday.

This year's festival will focus on adat, or Malay customary practices, of which the panggung is one.

Girl scout Nurfarahin Mohamed, 15, from Swiss Cottage Secondary School, has watched wayang kulit before, but never experienced the art in such a hands-on way. She says: "I'd never thought that I would ever experience learning how to build a panggung. But now that I've learnt something new, we'll definitely try it out for future projects."

Audience members will also get a chance to see a mak yong performance on this stage by respected artists from Malaysia, including Awang Mat Ali, 64, Wan Midin Wan Majid, 67, and his wife Nisah Mamat, 53, all of whom have been practising the art form for decades.

Mak yong was banned in Kelantan by the Islamic Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) in 1991 for a variety of reasons, including supposedly un-Islamic elements.

All the same, in 2005, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) declared mak yong a "masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity".

Singapore-based American researcher Dr Patricia Hardwick, 36, who has doctorates in folklore and anthropology from Indiana University, has been working with these artists for the past nine years. They are from the Kelantan mak yong group Kumpulan Sri Gabus.

Dr Hardwick says of the dying art form: "Now, there are so few people left in Kelantan who are able to play wayang kulit, mak yong or main 'teri, that instead of having one group like in the past, practitioners from all over Kelantan have to gather together in order to get enough people for a performance."

She will also be conducting a lecture on main 'teri, a healing performance that can include elements from traditional Kelantanese performing arts, including wayang kulit, mak yong, silat and joget.

The group will then perform an episode from the mak yong epic of Dewa Muda, about a prince who falls in love with a heavenly princess when she comes to earth as a golden deer. This is the key story used in the ritual healing performances in rural Kelantan.

These traditional performances are not the only highlights of the Malay CultureFest, which drew about 61,000 visitors to the Malay Heritage Centre in its inaugural edition last year.

This edition boasts more than 20 traditional and contemporary programmes, including film screenings, music performances, silat demonstrations, and traditional Malay games.

Musician Fadhli Ramlee, 29, will be performing in an ensemble as part of the centre's Galleries Alive!: Music In The Galleries programme, which allows visitors to find out more about traditional Malay music forms.

Fadhli, who plays the oud (a stringed instrument that resembles a lute), hopes that younger Singaporeans will develop a greater interest in such traditional Malay art forms.

He says: "It's our responsibility. When our seniors go - and most of our legends have already gone - who else will carry on this tradition? Why are we doing so much for Western music when our own culture is dying?"

Fellow musician Arman Abdul Rahman, 35, who plays the accordion, says: "It has sentimental value. When I started playing traditional Malay music, I felt like it really touched the soul."

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.