“I had many teachers from Kelantan at my secondary school. I could not understand the dialect initially but got used to it after coming to Peninsular Malaysia to study,” he says. He perfected his accent from imitating native speakers. Learning Makyung (also Makyong) songs was the hardest for the aspiring actor but he was determined to do his best. “If you have the chance to learn Makyung, you should stay true to its original form,” he says. Abdul Hanif, a Theatre major, is among the 95 diploma students from National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (or Aswara) involved in the production of Makyung Sultan Permadi at the institution recently.
The Makyung performance — which centres on the topic of polygamy — is an assessment project for Makyung II, a subject compulsory for all diploma students at the academy. It is a continuation of Makyung I where students learn the basics of the art form such as its history, dance steps and songs. For Makyung II, students undergo 12 weeks of preparations to stage the production in their respective groups for their lecturers to evaluate. The best talents from the batch are then selected for a two-week intensive training for the public staging of Makyung Sultan Permadi. This is part of the institution’s strategy to ensure that such age-old art forms live on among the young.
Head of academic core learning division Reza Zainal Abidin says: “Our goal is to create public awareness of traditional art besides grooming talents who will carry on the tradition.” There is an urgent need to produce new champions of traditional art forms in Malaysia as the number of existing enthusiasts is dwindling fast. Many have either passed on or stopped performing because of old age. Finding their replacement is tough. “A hundred years ago, a Makyung prima donna might have 10 children with one or two of them keen to learn the art. These days, none of the children might want to learn at all,” adds Reza. “Art forms that rely on a master teacher will eventually die out if not inherited,” adds Reza.
Makyung is believed to originate from Pattani, Southern Thailand and to have spread to Kelantan and Terengganu some 400 years ago. Initially an entertainment that only royal families could enjoy, Makyung became a hit among the rakyat by the Twenties. However, it began losing its fame when new forms of entertainment emerged mid-20th century. Many Makyung proponents agree that preserving the four-century-old art form starts with reaching the younger audience.
It is against this dire backdrop that Aswara began introducing Makyung as a core subject in 1996, two years after its inception. Aside from Makyung, Aswara diploma students must also learn Wayang Kulit and Bangsawan.
Lecturer Rosman Ishak, a former Aswara student, says the method of teaching the subject has evolved over the years. “It is more systematic now. Back then the institution was still trying to figure out how best to teach it to the youth. It is understandable as no other institution had taught Makyung in a structured way or used it as a form of assessment before,”he says. Rosman, who is among the pioneer batch of students involved in the first student production Anak Raja Gondang in 1997, recalls being excited to learn all about Makyung. “I wanted to know the significance of every move in Makyung such as why the actors formed a circle in the middle of the stage,” he adds. Like Rosman, many students embrace the art form (see accompanying article). Yet with any obligatory subject, there is bound to be resistance, says Reza. “It all depends on the students. If they are ready to learn, they will pick it up and develop an appreciation for it,” he adds.
Staging Makyung performances adapted from popular tales is one way of keeping the art form relevant to students. “We make the stories relatable through comic roles. Ever since Makyung began, Peran (court jester) roles have had the creative licence to step out of their characters and comment on current issues,” he adds. For example, the Peran roles in Makyung Sultan Permadi cracked jokes about the 13th General Election. Despite the lack of interest among some students, Aswara has inspired a number of its graduates of all ethnicity to “inherit” the art. “We have two students who are being groomed as rebab players as they show potential in it,” says Reza.
Former student Duratul Ain Dorothy Jonathan Linggang, on the other hand, fell in love with Wayang Kulit and is now recognised as a dalang muda. The University of Malaya lecturer — an Iban — is pursuing her doctoral degree in the field. As educators, Reza and Rosman view themselves as coaches who help students figure out “what they are good at through the process of staging the show”. “Some may think that a Theatre student would be a natural pick for the lead role in Makyung, but it is not necessarily so. One of the Perans is pursuing Film and Television. Anith Aqilah Sulaiman Lim, who plays Bunga Tanjung, is a music student,” says Rosman.
Reza dreams of seeing more Malaysians experience Makyung. But he is realistic about the likelihood of students championing Mak yung or other traditional art forms in the future. He would be more than happy “if we have a non-Malay Aswara graduate discuss her experience performing Makyung with friends over coffee one day”.
A platform for all
FOURTEEN weeks of preparations for a Makyung (also Makyong) production gave diploma students at the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (or Aswara) more than hands-on experience of staging a traditional theatre show. It taught Theatre major Sharifah Nordiana Maihan Syed Shaikh an appreciation for ancient art forms. “I feel privileged to learn the finer points of Makyung from living prima donnas. It is not often that someone of my generation gets to experience personal coaching from them and wear actual Makyung costumes when performing,” says Sharifah Nordiana, who played the lead female role Permaisuri Bunga Kenanga in Makyung Sultan Permadi, a student production for Makyung II, a subject compulsory for all diploma students at Aswara.
She is one of 95 students involved in the staging of the Makyung show, which centres on the issue of polygamy, held at Aswara recently. The Kuantan lass says she understands Kelantanese folks better from the subject. “If you watch Bangsawan to understand the Malays, you will understand the Kelantanese better from watching Makyung as it reflects their culture and nature,” she adds. For Abdul Hanif Ag Abdul Latip, also a Theatre major, the subject has provided students of all ethnicity a platform for experiencing Makyung. “The subject has proven that it is possible for a non-Malay student to lead a Makyong performance. As long as they have the basics, they can speak the dialect and act, they will be considered for a role in the production.”
As production manager, Diploma in Music (Performance) student Lee Shi Min came away from the experience richer in knowledge of how to organise a theatre production. “What we go through is the same as what professionals go through. Problem-solving skill is important and we need to find solutions fast. Everyone must be clear about their roles and do them well,” she says.
Head of academic core learning division Reza Zainal Abidin believes both the public and students had lessons to learn from the staging of the Makyung show. The public paid a fee of RM5 (for students) and RM10 (for adults) to watch the public staging of Makyung Sultan Permadi to instil the importance of supporting local productions into them. “At the same time, we have to ensure that students put on quality shows. It is unfair to present a ‘learning’ product to a paying audience. This, in turn, teaches students to be accountable for their creative output,” he says.