Mak Yong – A Rich Regional Tradition under Threat

Mak Yong performances of the old usually last for a week or more.

The ancient, ritualistic folk theatre Mak Yong was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by Unesco in 2005 – a proud first for “any Malaysian item of cultural heritage”.1

But though it is an art form steep in tradition and heritage, Mak Yong surprisingly has no “real” history. Theories have been advanced to explain its origins, but none can be confirmed, says Prof. Datuk Dr Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof, who was tasked to prepare the Unesco Candidature File and author of the newly released Mak Yong: World Heritage Theatre.

“It is not even clear if it first came into being anywhere in the Malay territories. In my own opinion, it started as some kind of pre-Islamic healing ritual strongly based on animism – that would take it back to before the fifteenth century,” says Ghulam.

The earliest historical records trace the existence of Mak Yong to the nineteenth century, where it was active in Kelantan and Pattani with a couple of troupes moving south and setting up base in Terengganu. “It was also once active in Kedah, but that soon died out. A single troupe was taken to Riau in the nineteenth or early twentieth century; and today, four groups are active there in a style that is very different from that in Kelantan-Pattani.”

In 1970s Malaysia, deliberate efforts were undertaken to rejuvenate the dance theatre, to change its character in hopes of making Mak Yong supposedly classical and urban, Ghulam explains. But despite such initiatives, “the old style performances went on in Kelantan and Terengganu.”

Traditional Mak Yong Performances

Mak Yong performances of old – complete with dance and comic sequence – usually lasted for a week or more, depending on the play performed. “Tradition maintains that the longest of the plays could take a month or more to complete. Mak Yong is said to have 12 ‘authentic’ stories, but many more titles have been collected from various groups.

“The most important, and also most popular, are Dewa Muda and Anak Raja Gondang. Each group generally performs only two or three plays and often, the choice depended on the individual group; and so, most of the plays remained unperformed.

The PAS-led Kelantan state government objected to the fact that women played the role of Pak Yong.

“But ritual performances, which did not give so much emphasis to the ‘theatrical’ aspects, usually lasted three nights, going on into the morning of the fourth day. This has been the case even in recent times,” says Ghulam.

Principal roles in a Mak Yong performance comprise of Pak Yong, or male lead; Mak Yong, the female lead; a pair of clowns (peran); the female attendants (inang) and supplementary roles, including tok wak, who plays characters such as the gods (dewa, dewi); fortune tellers (wak nujum); and specialists craftsmen (wak tukang). Female artists also act as chorus members (jung dondang) when not playing particular characters.

The Ban on Mak Yong

An official ban on traditional cultural performances was announced by the Kelantan state government via the Entertainment and Places of Entertainment Enactment in 1998 “on grounds that they contain elements that run contrary to Islam and only allow such shows to be performed in closed venues”.2

Mak Yong naturally suffered that fate. “The PAS-led Kelantan state government objected to the fact that women played the role of Pak Yong, that some of the rituals connected with it such as the buka panggung were contrary to Islamic teachings and practices since they contained animistic and Hindu elements, including mythology and invocation texts (mantera).

“Mak Yong stories were also unsuitable since their principal characters were mostly gods. They were fantasies that could cause problems (mengkhayalkan) to Malay-Muslim artists and audiences. Yet, somehow, and strangely, Kelantanese authorities did not mind when Mak Yong was staged for foreigners. This is still the case,” Ghulam points out.

Prof. Datuk Dr Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof.

Outside of Kelantan and even at the federal level, there is no clear stand on the issues involved and that are seen as so pressingly pertinent in Kelantan. “It appears that everyone is playing safe in the new ‘Islamic’ environment, claiming that the Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA), an institute of higher learning for Malaysia’s performing arts, is doing enough to preserve Mak Yong through instant student productions every now and then.

“These essentially brief productions of a ‘modernised’ Mak Yong are state-sanctioned. They use the same traditional stories and musical instruments, but are presented on the proscenium stage, with all the technical innovations, especially in Istana Budaya. In every way, they become grand-scale Hollywood or Bollywood kinds of musicals, no longer maintaining their original ‘folk’ character.

“Overall, there is no real concern in the country for continuity or the handing down of the tradition as envisaged in the Unesco Candidature File. With such a situation prevailing, I believe that Mak Yong, an invaluable item of the country’s and the world’s cultural heritage, is well on the road to extinction,” he laments.

It Takes a Village

Coaxing older cultural traditions to adapt to the times is often viewed through a bourgeois lens, Eddin Khoo of the KL-based cultural organisation PUSAKA, observes.

“I find the concept quite tenuous – ‘adapting to the times’ for whom and for what? These are issues that remain unexplored and unanswered by those who raise these very questions. And they remain so as a result of the near total ignorance of a deep experience of traditions such as the Mak Yong in the first place.”

Mak Yong, Khoo maintains, is not a tradition rooted in the classical, but one that thrives in ritual and community. “It is inspired by the life of a community in which it has evolved, and while there are aspects of strict structure associated with its practice, it is also a form defined by its adaptability and fluidity. This has always been true of ‘people’ traditions.”

PUSAKA has worked with the same community of performers – the Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari led by the actress Che Siti binti Dollah – for close to three decades now. “There are many different kinds of Mak Yong which exist today, and always have – performances done within the ritual setting, performances for entertainment, performances for ‘art.’ These vary in length and adapt to the space, audience and purpose for which it is performed.

“The question that should be raised in relation to matters of ‘time’ and ‘staging’ is ‘who is to decide?’ The answer is clearly the performers themselves, those who comprehend and work within the particular settings of a tradition. This matter of having to ‘adapt to the times’ – cleaving clear spaces for the contemporary as opposed to the traditional – also appears to be a particular obsession for the ‘contemporary’. The traditional never sees itself as ‘not contemporary’.”

In essence, PUSAKA’s role is to intellectualise our ritual traditions to be conducted on a sustained basis, weaving together a broader narrative of history, culture, belief systems, worldviews and even politics.

Eddin Khoo.

Its forthcoming initiative is a repertory theatre which will possibly see its curtains open by 2020. “The point of creating a repertory theatre relates directly to the question of ‘adaptability’. The burden of ‘adaptability’ rests on contemporary artists, not traditional ones. Inspired by contemporary theatre in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and India, I have come to discover – through my years as a theatre critic, in particular – that our contemporary artists are hardly rooted in any sense of tradition. Even when there is an appearance of tradition in their work, it is there in appearance and form, but not in spirit and substance.”

A core focus area for PUSAKA is to engage the young within the community; and by organising regular performances, conducting documentation work, bringing in deep interest within the local setting, Khoo says it has inspired the curiosity, and consequent involvement, of the young.

“There is deep soul searching among the young who feel a sense of alienation from their roots, of great distance from their past and lineage, and feel a great deal of undesirable pressure coming from identity politics. We acknowledge that there are many social afflictions among the young, especially in less urban areas. There is hardly any creative life left in many places.

“For me, the most important education takes place at the community level, and that is the principal reason why PUSAKA has always refrained from institutional engagement, and sought to engage with tradition at the community level, where it matters most.

“In the PUSAKA experience, the young who devote themselves to the practice of such traditions as the Mak Yong are set apart from their contemporaries – they are dedicated, serious and develop admirable personalities and a formidable disposition. This is something tradition bequeaths, and always has.”

Up Close and Personal

Meet Rosnan Rahman, Malaysia’s only active male Pak Yong dancer. A USM architecture graduate, Rosnan was introduced to the world of Mak Yong by Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin, and took to it like a duck to water. “I fell in love with it – the authenticity and the uniqueness of music, costume, dance and history of Mak Yong is very different from other art forms within the performing arts sphere.”

Rosnan Rahman in performance.

As with most performing arts, the trifecta of dancing, singing and acting is a prerequisite in a Mak Yong performance. “If you observe closely the dances of Mak Yong, you’ll see that the movements are similar to tai chi – it’s soft, very graceful and is a great way to exercise multiple muscles. For me, Mak Yong is a therapy, a therapeutic dance of feelings and emotions,” he says, adding that improvisation is also a necessity. “The performers are given a rough idea of the story line, and we just take it from there, experimenting with the dialogue as the scenes progress.”

There was, admittedly, the initial awkwardness that Rosnan had to overcome early in his career. He explains, “History would suggest a Pak Yong must be played by a woman, but you’d be surprised to know that there were quite a few male Pak Yong as well during the nineteenth century. In Besut, Kelantan, we have Pak Su Kadir of the Kumpulan Mak Yong Cahaya Matahari; I had the opportunity to collaborate with him once for a performance organised by PUSAKA in Kelantan back in 2014.” There is also the need, during performances, to speak fluent Kelantanese – a tall order for the born-and-bred Kedahan, but a challenge Rosnan readily embraced as part of the learning curve.

Rosnan is now a cultural officer for the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, and oversees the documentation of Mak Yong stories “to ensure our future generations know of them. We have a Mak Yong group under the auspices of the Ministry under the Istana Budaya. We also have another group under the National Department for Culture and Arts. But the main issue we’re dealing with is, how do we convince our youths to come and watch and get acquainted with Mak Yong? It’s very hard to get audiences to pay for tickets if there are no popular performers involved in the production. We’ve had to fall back on marketing strategies to promote Mak Yong through social media.”

In its authentic set-up, Mak Yong uses minimal props, appealing instead to the powers of the imagination. The Mak Yong at Istana Budaya, however, is performed differently: the performance has been commercialised – through the creation of a suggestive set – to attract a younger crowd.

“I’m sure my interpretation of Mak Yong will not sit well with the experts who have devoted their lives to studying the dancetheatre. But if Mak Yong is to be performed in its most authentic form, audiences will just up and leave – trust me on this, I speak from experience.

“For urban audiences, especially those from KL, who have never watched a Mak Yong performance before, they’ll most definitely be bored to tears. The opening itself can very easily take up up 30 minutes, and the show has barely begun yet. Do you think first-timers would want to stay to the end? We’re trying to do things a little differently by injecting some “Wow” factor into the Mak Yong performances.”


1Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof. 2019. Mak Yong: World Heritage Theatre. Penang: Areca Books.

2https://www.star2.com/culture/2019/03/13/mak-yong-wayang-kulitunited-nations-culture-tradition/.



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