The Poetics and Politics of Main Puteri

By Izzuddin Ramli

November 2021 FEATURE
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Courtesy of PUSAKA, photo by Karl Rafiq Nadzarin.
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WITH TROUBLED THOUGHTS, Din Puteri leans against a corner post of the balai, next to a row of trays filled with offerings of eggs, yellow glutinous rice, bananas, roast chicken and an assortment of flowers. For the past two nights, the balai had been transformed into a magnificent palace for a Main Puteri performance at the Pulau Keseng village, Kelantan. Now, the awak-awak (musicians) are packing up their drums, canang, kesi and gong.

As Din Puteri blows the dust off the rebab (spike fiddle), his eyes settle on the smoking leaf cigarettes tok minduk, before the gold of the inang’s (handmaids) baju kurung catches his attention; the inang were enjoying laksam on the veranda of Kak Yah’s house, the host of the night’s event.

How, he wonders, have reigning state authorities forced Islam and its relation to older belief systems into binary blocs of black and white, right and wrong, halal and haram? Din is among the few who still honours the dignity of their roots and their ancestors, and continues the practice of Main Puteri.

Cultural Purification and Political Posturing

As a child, Din became enchanted by the subliminal power of the ritual-performance when he first watched the Tok Minduk and Tok Puteri presiding over the psychological healing of his sister’s unconscious form.

Over the years and as the state-wide social and cultural purification project of the PAS state government gained traction, Din would travel from one balai to another, to learn the layered language of Main Puteri.

I met Din, or Ahmad Shaifuldin Jusoh, in February 2020, at a Semah Angin Mak Yong ceremony organised by the cultural organisation PUSAKA, in Kuala Besut, Terengganu. Just a few weeks before, guidelines had been introduced by the state government for entertainment, cultural performances, tourism and sporting activities, to ensure the implementation of Syariah laws in all aspects of life for Terengganu folk. Violation of these laws are punishable by the state.

The rebab surrounded by offerings. Courtesy of PUSAKA, photo by Cheryl Hoffmann.

What took place in Terengganu mirrors the cultural proscription Kelantan continues to suffer through, under PAS whose many members are graduates of universities and madrasah in the Middle East. Everyday language, public administration, state-sponsored events and government buildings have been given an “Islamic” facelift; the wearing of tudung (headscarf) has become compulsory for Malay women; and the traditional Kelantanese performing arts and healing rituals have been prohibited.

Today, cultural practitioners are subject to a lengthy checklist of restrictions and rigid guidelines. Women are no longer allowed to be on stage at official events, undermining the spirit of Che Siti Wan Kembang and the traditional power of Kelantanese women. Din laments, “Unlike today, the state leadership of the past understood the deep significance of Main Puteri to the Kelantanese.”

Another significant casualty in this war on culture is language. Leaders no longer understand the language of their people. The evocative use of metaphor and symbolism in Main Puteri has been reduced to elements of “worship”, khurafat and syirik, while bureaucrats plot to reconfigure – and disfigure – traditions that have been passed down for centuries. One of the state leaders proclaimed, “… all the dialogues (in arts performances) will be modified by adding lines and excerpts from the Quran and hadith.” Din can only smile cynically at that.

The Language of Symbolism and Metaphor

Din is a shaman who speaks in poetry. Like the dalang in wayang kulit, or musicians and filmmakers, the role of a Tok Puteri is to transport us to the deepest, quietest and most personal parts of ourselves. Earthly love, madness and lust carry us away from the jiwa (soul), but it is melancholy and yearning that urge a return to the Self.

Main Puteri serves to unite the realms of the soul and the body, by strengthening the semangat (life force) that connects these two entities. The healing ritual combines elements of music and dance, with the Tok Puteri shaman cajoling the angin (inner wind) of the patient, inviting them to express their innermost self.

It begins with bertabuh, played by a musical ensemble of rebab, gendang, canang, kesi, and gong, before the bertabib follows. Here, the Tok Minduk “informs” the audience of the ceremony’s purpose and initiates gerak angin (stirring of the inner winds), cradled by the cry of the rebab and the intermingling energies of the performers and audience, while the Tok Puteri scatters flowers and turmeric rice around the balai.

The Tok Puteri acts as a medium between the patient and their semangat, allowing various “spirits” to enter his body. The Tok Minduk, on the other hand, assumes the role of the “spirit interrogator”, diagnosing the patient’s illness through a series of conversations with the Tok Puteri, but this is only done after the latter enters the trance-like state, lupa.

Courtesy of PUSAKA, photo by Karl Rafiq Nadzarin.

Din believes that cara percakapan (tone of communication) is a doorway to the soul. “We tend to limit our communication to the spoken word, and hardly speak with gerak angin or body language. But the ecstatic trance, dance, incantations and offerings in Main Puteri offer us a return to the place we long for most.”

Under the lelangit (cloth suspended from the roof) of the balai, Din berbari (narrates) and meniup (blows) to revitalise the semangat of villagers who seek him out for healing. He now understands that the dance movements and poetic utterances he witnessed as a child are metaphors of another dimension. Like poetry, Main Puteri is a human struggle with language to express the inexpressible. But more surprising to Din is the slow death he has watched for the past three decades of his native Kelantanese Malay, once fluid and amorphous in nature.

To understand these symbolisms and to break the confusion, one needs “to understand within context, the cara percakapan and laras bahasa (tone and tenor) of the Kelantanese, and the way people in the past embraced Main Puteri and its elements,” he says. This would open up new understanding of what the ritual is about; Main Puteri is an affirmation of one’s respect for the origins of all things.

Din says he was born to be a Tok Puteri. The offerings, the striking of gong and gendang, the hypnotic poetry that he recites in the balai, his conversations with alam nyata and alam tak nyata (the seen and unseen realms), and the commemoration of teachers and ancestors, are all an act of returning to oneself. “Whatever the term is, be it Main Puteri, Main Teri or Pateri, the tradition is an expression of how human beings try to make sense of the complexity of life.”

Izzuddin Ramli

is a Kelantanese-born analyst at Penang Institute. He is a writer who seeks refuge in Penang, and agrees with Rumi that the Earth is not our home, we are just passing through.