Faisal Asyraf

Dancing a fine line to keep Mak Yong alive
Dancing a fine line to keep Mak Yong alive

MALAYSIANSKINI | In championing a once-banned traditional dance form in the conservative state of Kelantan, prominent Mak Yong dancer Rosnan Abdul Rahman has had to tread carefully as he ends up facing criticism from both sides even while battling to keep the art alive.

He was instrumental in getting Mak Yong unbanned in 2019. However, there was a compromise - changes were made to the content and state regulations specified how Mak Yong could be performed.

Among the regulations was the removal of some elements in the dance which was said to be against Islamic teachings and only allowing an ensemble of the same gender to be on stage.

According to Rosnan, 49, some in traditional dance circles are unhappy with the changes as they think that allowing Mak Yong to be unbanned by sacrificing its original form is a sin to the art itself.

"The original version of Mak Yong will not go extinct. Some art practitioners in Kelantan and Kuala Lumpur have played the polemic that the original Mak Yong is dead.

"They are not happy with the syariah-compliant version, they want the original version and I was accused of ruining Mak Yong.

"[..] they have to understand that I have to adhere to the Kelantan state's entertainment enactment. To me, when the state government allowed Mak Yong to be performed in public again, that was a huge victory for Mak Yong," he said.

Sidelined ever since PAS recaptured Kelantan in 1990 under menteri besar Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the ban on Mak Yong was made official in 1998 through the Entertainment and Places of Entertainment Control Enactment passed by the Kelantan state assembly.

It also impacted other local traditional performances such as Menora, Wayang Kulit and Main Puteri which were deemed “un-Islamic” as there were cultural references to the Malayan peninsula’s pre-Islamic past.

Passionate believer in dance

Rosnan is a big name in the Mak Yong world. Having been involved in the dance for 25 years, he has taken Mak Yong all over the world. His portrait is also on a stamp produced by Pos Malaysia in 2014.

In 2019, Rosnan returned to Kelantan to revive Mak Yong's popularity in the state after it was unbanned. He was appointed director of the state's National Department for Culture and Art (JKKN).

For the record, Rosnan is not from Kelantan originally. Hailing from Kedah, Rosnan said he inherited his talent from his late grandmother who came from Pattani in southern Thailand.

"My grandmother was a Mak Yong dance practitioner too. So I inherited her talent. Mak Yong is believed to have been around since 400 years ago, much longer than Broadway. In China, they have Chinese opera. Likewise, in Korea, it has Kabuki. Here, we have Mak Yong,” he said.

The dance form's origin dates back to the ancient kingdom of Pattani during the reign of the Queen of Pattani in the 16th century.

Mak Yong also exists in Sumatera and the Riau islands. In Malaysia, the dialogue used in the show is the Kelantan dialect from Pattani. The traditional instruments used are the rehabgendang ibu, gendang anak, tetawak, serunai, and canang.

There are 12 main stories told from generation to generation and which are used in Mak Yong performances. The stories revolve around royal intrigues and stories of the people, said Roslan.

“From my experience, when outsiders see a Mak Yong performance, they will be amazed although they don't understand what we are saying.

Overwhelming response to revived art

Because of its long period being sidelined, Kelantanese who are 35 years old and below had never seen a live Mak Yong performance.

“When we embarked on a road tour in districts such as Tanah Merah, Jeli, Pasir Mas and Kota Bharu, the reception was overwhelming.

“Our shows were a full house each time. So we had to put the live performance on Facebook too to allow those who couldn't get in to watch.

“The young people welcomed the syariah-compliant Mak Yong dance because to them it's better than nothing,” he said.

So what's the difference in terms of syariah-compliant and non-syariah compliant Mak Yong?

“The performance is rich with cultural philosophy and metaphors but those who do not understand the dance are quick to say that the performance involves idolatry,” lamented Rosnan.

“Now, the dancers are all men and our shows have no ritual and mystical elements. If the audience is all-female, then the dance ensemble would have to be all female too.

“Truth be told, before Mak Yong was banned, there was no element of rituals in it too. There may have been some misunderstanding,” he added.

The still-banned Main Puteri is said to be part of Mak Yong and has elements of Mak Yong in its dance. Main Puteri is a traditional healing and therapy practice involving the summoning of spirits to enter the patient's body.

Mak Yong will never die

Rosnan believes the original version of Mak Yong will not go extinct even though some art practitioners in Kelantan and Kuala Lumpur have posited that the original Mak Yong form is dead.

“Perhaps, in a year or two, we will see both male and female dancers on stage. We can't rush this,” he explained.

“Certain quarters opined that if the original Mak Yong form was forbidden, then let it stay that way. This, to me, is unwise. When the state government allowed Mak Yong to be performed again in public, it was already a huge victory for Mak Yong.

“Let’s take one step at a time,” he advised.

Performing career coming to a close

“I would be lying if I said I never thought of giving up but I was given the task of coordinating the Mak Yong ensemble in Kelantan and it's a huge responsibility.

“I have given myself the deadline to stop performing when I reach 50 but I will remain active behind the scenes. I have been criticised throughout my career but if I were to focus on criticisms, I would get nowhere.

Rosnan said he was in the midst of documenting the original Mak Yong form's practitioners and songs to keep the tradition alive.

“Mak Yong features many epic tales. In the original story-telling, we have a lot of mystical characters such as dragons and monsters. So these are interesting stories.

“My ensemble and I still perform Mak Yong in its original version outside of Kelantan. So we will keep on doing that.

Rosnan said that even in Kelantan, there are not more than 20 Mak Yong performers left.

“The problem is, their children do not want to become their students. Even the children of the late Khatijah Awang, who was a Mak Yong prima donna, don't fully master Mak Yong.

“JKKN gave birth to many Mak Yong performers but if their children are not interested in the dance later, please don't blame us.

He added that many who are still in their early 20s are good dancers but need to sharpen their communication skills.

“I think many of them are too shy to speak in public. This is actually the problem among traditional dance practitioners in general.

“And I don't see social media platforms as my competition. I believe we must ride along with the trend. I actively promote Mak Yong on TikTok too.

"They are amused to see me in Mak Yong costume dancing amid modern songs. It piqued their curiosity,” Rosnan said with a laugh.

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