Malaysia has a rich musical folklore heritage in which drama, folk dance, mime puppetry and narrative have been cultivated for centuries. A miscellany of Demi-gods, warriors, princes, princesses, heroes, heroines and mystical spirits interlace. Much of this influence arrived into the rural areas of Malaysia via the Royal Courts of Java, Indonesia, or through various other trade routes. Spread as an oral history passed down through generations, mythical legendary tales are rooted in the narrative Hindu epics of Java, the Petani culture of southern Thailand and the mystical and spiritual values of Sufism and are assimilated into local culture that connects land and community. The most well-known of these traditional arts are Wayang Kulit, Mak Yong and Menora practiced primarily in Kelantan, and the Kuda Kepang performed by Javanese communities who migrated in the early 19th century to Johor.
Sadly the rapid rise of western performance art and of course cinema saw the decline of the organic indigenous folk performance art of South East Asia and much is no longer practiced or thought relevant. However there are new awakenings. A kind of Cultural Revitalization has seen a more contemporary emphasis on stories that are relevant to current national and global issues and finding a renewed audience.
For our October Lecture series we were honored to have two esteemed guests to talk about their collaborative campaign to bring awareness to the cultural heritage and traditional performing arts of Malaysia, in particular the 'Kuda Kepang'.
Geographer Photographer, Cheryl Hoffmann, has been, for the past decade, inspired by the richness of cultural traditions throughout South East Asia. She has documented these arts through intimate images of these rituals which she exhibits in Malaysia and internationally, to much acclaim.
Pauline Fan is an accomplished writer, literary translator, poet and Creative Director of PUSAKA (which means heritage/inheritance).
PUSAKA is a cultural organisation which promotes, revitalizes, documents and archives (this is where Cheryl comes in) the traditional performing arts of Malaysia, which might otherwise have been lost. They engage, nurture and encourage local communities and the great masters and custodians of this unique organic culture, to pass on their knowledge, not only facilitating youth instruction programs to develop this valuable asset to a succeeding generation, but also to enable a platform to perform to a wider audience in Malaysia. Pauline's passion and exuberance of these art forms is evident and we all became transfixed as she brought the legends alive through her narration with the juxtaposition of Cheryl's images.
KUDA KEPANG (Malay : Woven Horse)
A graceful Javanese Horse Trance Dance
The tradition commemorates the 'Wali Songo', the nine Saints of Java, who played a vital role in spreading Islam throughout Southeast Asia. The dance intertwines the legends of brave warriors on horseback and local Javanese folklore. Pauline set the scene for us and along with Cheryl's atmospheric black and white images, we were transported.
As it was described to us, a heady scent of burning Kemenyan fills the air and a circle marks an invisible border to create a sacred space in which the riders and their woven stallions are safe. The intoxicating arousal of smell, color, movement and sounds of Gamelan Gongs and horse hooves, signifies that these noble horsemen have arrived into another realm, a celestial kingdom of other worldliness. Pauline explained that the horseman spurred on by raw energy, the hypnotic sounds of the constant beating drums and the punctuated sounds of cracking whips, are engaging with all their senses. Some may enter into a dream like trance called the state of 'Mabuk' (this ability often inherited through lineage) an entry to the unseen world in their bodies. In this elevated state, having summoned 'semangat' (the spirits) metaphorically, they transform into a diverse gathering of spirit animal or celestial beings, tiger, peacock, monkey, serpent and other characters. It allows for their personalities to shine and inhibitions to be cast aside. A truly beautiful sensuous athletic dance, these spirits interweave in perfect unison in a dream like manner, a deep spellbinding powerful performance with many layers. There is no script just improvisation, playfulness, free expression of the hidden self, spontaneity and being 'in the 'moment'.
Thank you to Pauline and Cheryl for sharing this intimate portrait of the Kuda Kepang performance and challenging our curiosity to discover more on the diversity and cultural confluence of performance art that has shaped communities in Malaysia.