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5 Kelantanese Performing Arts You Never Knew Existed!

Kelantan, dubbed “the Cradle of Malay Culture”, is a trove of Malay heritage treasures. Get to know various offerings of the state with our list to get you started on your next Culture Vulture destination.

By: Ari Fajar

When asked the question on Malay performing arts, most would conjure images of zapin dances and gambus music, though both are undeniably very Arabic and Persian in character.  I couldn’t help but wonder what pre-Islamic Malay performing arts would look like.

     I started my search for answers in Kelantan, a state so rich of Malay history and arts that it is dubbed the Cradle of Malay Culture in Peninsular Malaysia. If there is one place to go to answer questions on the unique Malay arts and culture, this is the place to be.

     Here in this unique state, I found 5 wonderfully traditional Kelantanese performing arts that truly exemplify the Malay heritage at its purest. These should be in your must-watch list in town! 

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01. MAIN PUTERI

Main Puteri (translated Princess Play) is both a form of entertainment and healing ritual. The role of the medium in Main Puteri is to summon the spirit which caused illness and face it with songs, dances and musical scores. Sounds like the best exorcism method ever? You bet!

Culture Vulture Facts:

Each member of the Main Puteri Troupe has his own role. The following two are the most important ones.

1. Tok Puteri or Tok Teri is the man of the show. After he gets into a trance, he will deal with the spirit accordingly. If it’s a warrior spirit, Tok Teri will have a tomoi (local version of Muay Thai) match with him. If it’s the legendary spirit of Dewa Muda, Tok Teri will sing a score from Mak Yong to appease him. Simply fascinating!

2. Tok Mindung is responsible for the rebab (a bowed string instrument). He is the one Tok Teri converses with for the entire ritual and provides musical accompaniment from short, monotonous melodies to long, melodious tunes as Tok Teri switches between the colourful characters. 

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02. WAYANG KULIT 

The Malay version of wayang kulit (shadow puppet) is rooted from two traditions: Thai from the north and Javanese from the south. Due to Kelantan’s location at the border of Thailand and Malaysia, Kelantanese wayang kulit is largely filled with Thai influences with few Javanese elements in the background.

Culture Vulture Facts:

Kelantanese wayang kulit has often been confused with the Javanese versions.  It can be difficult for most people to differentiate between the two, so here are a couple of tips of telling them apart:

The physical features of the puppets differ. Most Thai-Kelantanese puppets have normal human proportions with heroes depicted of having strapping postures befitting their warrior statuses. Javanese puppets are highly stylized with only slight semblances to actual humans – pointy nose, curvy smile and elongated limbs. The heroes are slim-bodied with svelte hips that will make any Middle-Earth elf and modern-day hipster green with envy.

Try to move the arms. You can move both arms of the Javanese puppets but Thai-Kelantanese ones only have one moveable arm while the other one is in perpetual pose (usually holding various ornate weapons). 

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03.  MAK YONG 

Mak Yong is believed to be derived from ancient shamanistic rituals with artistic elements borrowed from Thailand and Indonesia (especially Nora Menora). After decades of courtly patronage, it became exceptionally refined and is considered to be the highest level of Malay performing art.  It has everything from elegant dance movements to sophisticated costumes, compelling stories and even a bit of comedy. It’s no wonder that the Malaysian Mak Yong has been awarded a UNESCO World Heritage status.

Culture Vulture Facts:

Most roles in a Mak Yong performance are held by females, including the vital roles of Mak Yong (the heroine and the narrator) and Pak Yong (the hero). The only role reserved for males is Peran who offers comic reliefs and regular breakings of the fourth wall. 

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The late Daud Bukit Abal, renowned as the Godfather of Dikir Barat. Photo courtesy of PUSAKA

04.  DIKIR BARAT 

Dikir Barat is usually performed between two opposing groups facing each other. Seated cross-legged, they sing in a call-and-respond pattern led by a lyricist. They embellish their singing with attractive movements and spirited clappings which give the performance a lively and cheerful atmosphere. Aside from Malaysia, Dikir Barat can also be found in Thailand.

Culture Vulture Facts:

Dikir Barat consists of two segments. When led by Tok Juara (the champion), the awok-awok (the chorus line) will present a proper and even complex musical arrangement. When led by Tukang Karut (the joker) however, they will perform humorous presentations which often include current social and political issues to appeal to the audience. 

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 05. MENORA

Although Manora (with an “a”) is a common dance repertoire in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Laos, Menora (with an “e”) in Kelantan is a special fusion of Thai and Malay traditions. Unlike Manora which is a dance form, Menora is a form of dance-drama, with the dance elements are significantly Thai while the drama side taking its cue from Malay milieu including Mak Yong.

Culture Vulture Facts:

The words Menora and Manora come from Manohara, a kinnari (half human-half bird) princess in Buddhist Jataka tales. She was caught by a hunter when she visited the human realm. The hunter later presented her to Prince Sudhana and the couple got married, but at one point the prince had to leave for battle and Manohara was framed by an evil official. She flew back to her home and the prince had to embark on a challenging adventure to get her back. Spoiler alert: It was a happy ending for the lovebirds.

WHERE TO WATCH

  • You can catch a Kelantanese Wayang Kulit performance at Kelantan’s Gelanggang Seni (Cultural Centre).
  • See how the tradition of Menora is being preserved at Bukit Yong Village, situated 50km south of Kota Bharu.
  • Dikir Barat competitions are regularly held, from inter-school competitions to nationwide ones. Keep a look out for the national-scaled Pertandingan Dikir Barat Kenegaraan.
  • Nowadays it is difficult to watch Main Puteri and Mak Yong within Kota Bharu itself, though there is a possibility to catch it outside the city. There are also efforts to revive the traditions outside of Kelantan. The National Arts Culture of Heritage Academy (ASWARA) in Kuala Lumpur has made Mak Yong compulsory for its student and they also hold regular public stagings.
  • If you happen to be in KL, you should check out PUSAKA’s monthly public performances. The series is called PUSAKA Evenings at Publika, which brings authentic traditional performances such as Dikir Barat, Mak Yong and Main Puteri from around Peninsular Malaysia to a KL audience. 

 

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YOUR DISCOVERY OF KELANTAN'S RICH CULTURAL SCENE BEGINS IN KOTA BHARU!