Melati Sarawak Debuts on Stage in Penang

By Rachel Yeoh

January 2023 FOR ART'S SAKE
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When Melati meets Harun for the first time.

IT IS SAID that the first modern novel written in Sarawak, and very likely the first in Malaysia, is Melati Sarawak. Written in Jawi and self-published by Muhammad Rakawi Yusuf in 1932, it was only Romanised and published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 1980.

Though known among literary groups in Sarawak, many are still not familiar with its tale, one riddled with local wisdom that subtly tells of the influence of Sarawak White Rajahs and their British culture on its people. It is an unfortunate love story between two individuals hindered by different ideologies.

Melati is a gendang player and singer who performs at celebrations and events. Harun, a learned man and devout Muslim, falls head over heels in love with her at one of the events she performs at – and thus, begins the tug-of-war between “right” and “wrong”. Under the heavy influence of his father, Pak Noraldin, Harun tells her that she has to give up her gendang playing and singing for them to be together because his father views her involvement as an abomination to Islam. Melati toys with the idea of giving it up for the love of her life but backs out because she believes practising her culture through music and singing is not a sin.

Pak Noraldin telling his family members to forbid Harun from seeing Melati.

When Taksu Zacharia, an avid player in the Sarawak performing arts scene, was introduced to Melati Sarawak in 2013, he was enamoured by it and set his mind to stage the story. “I felt it was such a good composition and in 2015, I managed to stage it during a competition; Festival Teater Malaysia in Kuching – I wasn’t looking to win, my focus was to put it on stage.”

Since then, he had in mind to bring Melati Sarawak to Penang. “I don’t know why, but there is a certain draw about Penang that made me desire so much to bring the team here to perform. I also believe that Penangites would not have seen anything like this, the Sarawakian Malay culture.”

He tried reaching out to the relevant festivals and organisations in Penang, but to no avail. During those years, he managed to stage Melati Sarawak in Johor in 2017 and Kuala Lumpur in 2018. All performances had to halt during the pandemic, but after the restrictions lifted, he continued to find ways to get the show staged in Penang. After getting turned down from staging his show at a festival this year, he optimistically flew the cast and crew to Penang anyway – Taksu felt he had a “puzzle” to complete.

“I originally had plans to stage it at an event space in Batu Uban, but someone recommended I check out 35@Jetty along Pengkalan Weld, a godown now turned into an event venue. When I entered the event hall, it was like magic – everything clicked, especially the ambience of the location, and I knew it was the place to stage the play.”

The performance date was set for 26 and 27 November, 2022.

On Premiere Day

The actresses, clad in their kebaya and selendang felt like they were already in character as they walked towards the venue from their hotel, backdropped by the pre-war buildings in heritage-rich George Town. The event space also did not betray the setting of the play. The hall was smaller than a standard classroom, with four rows of benches on the left and the right side. The four walls surrounding it were basking in its withering condition, bare brick walls peeking from yellowing peeling plaster.

The small crowd huddled to take their seats, curious about why the cast were also seated, like them, just at the far side of the hall. Out of nowhere, comes a crash of a cymbal, and an animated host and the rhythmic beat of the gendang set the scene going.

The audience were entertained by song, poetry exchange, gendang air and zapin dances and, of course, the drama that comes from conflict. At the end of the show, half of the audience was on the stage, trying their gendang air moves with the cast, coupled with hoots and shouts of joy and celebration.

Womenfolk play the gendang and sing during events to entertain crowds.

Taksu later said that all the poetry and conversations used in the play were taken directly from the book, and hence may contain words that were spoken only by the Sarawakian Malay a century ago. “Demam unggui, in the original text, would mean to fall head over heels and supan tuma is to be coy. People may not understand these expressions now, but these are the types of vocabulary used in the olden days.”

Taksu, along with the whole production team is excited to return to Penang to stage Melati Sarawak in a larger venue. They are currently in discussion with Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) regarding hosting the play along with a seminar in 2023.

“God willing, we will come!”

Rachel Yeoh

is a former journalist who traded her on-the-go job for a life behind the desk. For the sake of work-life balance, she participates in Penang's performing arts scene after hours.