by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 30 January 2014

Many Malay myths and legends have fallen into desuetude.  The same is true with traditional games (we have Dato’ Lat to thank for illustrating many of them), and none of my young relatives recognise tunes like Ikan Kekek, Lenggang Kangkung or Trek Tek Tek that were widely known in my parents’ generation.

This cultural amnesia is brought about not just by modernisation, urbanisation and what today’s conservatives might call an assault from the West (and East, with Bollywood being accused of encouraging religious pluralism and K-Pop of liberalism and Christianisation).  The effect of religious puritanism also plays a part, which is why today some Malays get married sans bersanding – no pelamin, no merinjis, no henna, not even a tengkolok (or even if there is one, possibly with an incorrect Dendam Tak Sudah fold).  Even explicit religious events like the Malam Cinta Rasul that I participated in last week, with its congregational qasidah including the famous Ya Hanana are denounced by other Muslims.

Political interests are of course at play as well.  Many myths and legends and the customs they describe refer to pre-Islamic Malay practices, do not hinge on ethnically-defined concerns, and are specific to particular states or even narrate inter-state conflict, which contradicts present day notions of a strongly centralised federation and the “unity of the Malays”.  Instead, the pre-Merdeka history which is emphasised is that which helps to legitimise the present day political paradigm: the downfall of the Sultanate of Malacca is deliberately racialised in order to play the cards of victimhood and revenge today.  The rich histories of other states (not least Sabah and Sarawak) and communities are relegated: they are “lain-lain” and so are their histories – thus, current efforts to expand categories or abolish ethnic identification on forms are important for nation-building. 

 Thankfully traditional institutions provide bulwarks: later this year spotlights will be on the old customs of Perak and Johor as their Rulers are installed and crowned respectively.  In Negeri Sembilan the Yamtuan and the Ruling Chiefs protect the unique adat, while in Kelantan the palace has historically endowed various art forms with patronage.

 It is to seventeenth century Kelantan that I was transported at the KLPAC last weekend in an opera based on the story of Puteri Saadong, who reigned firstly as Raja of Jembal and subsequently as Raja of Kelantan from 1667-1671.  She was supposedly the adopted daughter of Che Siti Wan Kembang, who herself reigned in the sixteenth century, but unless she lived over a century, must have communicated with Puteri Saadong by reappearing from the mystical world where she allegedly resided.

 The main story is straightforward: the princess marries Raja Abdullah of Kelantan-Selatan who gives her an elaborate hair ornament, but the Siamese King Narai desires her and wages war, capturing her for a time but releasing her when he can’t get what he wants.  Upon her return home she finds her husband with another lady and kills him with the hair ornament.  The historical context of the opera is immense, and the programme book could have done more to explain the polity of Kelantan-Selatan, the power of Siam at the time or the princess’ title of Vijaya Mala.

Opera Puteri Saadong is led and composed by Dr Tazul Tajuddin, a multiple prize-winning composer of international repute, soon to be a visiting scholar at Harvard University, who should be better known in his own country.   He is definitely not a populist composer, and audiences should be prepared for plenty of atonality.  You will not find songs as in Puteri Gunung Ledang: The MusicalOpera Puteri Saadong’s score is firmly in the realms of contemporary classical music, though the orchestra is joined by gamelan and a mak yong troupe.  At times the spiritual meanderings of the rebab are incised by a pianissimo discord from the first violins, at others the oboe is employed to imitate a serunai.  It works.

 The UiTM orchestra was as tunefully enthusiastic as I saw them at two recent concerts – academic freedom in our public universities can flourish when political interests don’t feel threatened.  The brilliant choir channelled Verdi at times, while the Wagnerian librettos were delivered superbly by the soloists, Syafinaz Selamat and Mohd Hafiz Askiak especially. 

 The staging would have been improved by grander, more spacious sets rather than relying on a slide projection that also provided the bilingual subtitles – but it is not fault of the composer that there is no purpose-built venue for opera (or ballet) anywhere in the country. 

 Opera is an intense and demanding art form, but we owe it to these hardworking visionaries to see how an old tale can be so innovatively resurrected. 

 Opera Puteri Saadong will be at the Performing Arts Centre of Penang 7-8 February 2015

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