Saturday, December 22, 2007

Reclaiming Mariamman as Durga in Malaysia

Samayapuram Mariamman as Durga

The image of Durga as s'akti with multiple hands adorned with arms is an awe-inspiring metaphor of all times and climes. Malaysia home to this s'akti culture is no exception. The event scheduled with classical dance forms should rekindle that spirit of heritage and provide a renewed metaphor for the curren-day politicos in Malaysia: cherish all that is noble in the heritage. Release Hindraf detenus and call them for a dialogue. Build a new Mariamman, Durga temple in Malaysia grander than the one desecrated and destroyed. That will make every Malay feel proud that his or her identity cannot be separated from this heritage, virasat.


Sunday December 23, 2007
Reclaiming the past

A multicultural production featuring classical dance styles was an attempt to arrest misconceptions.

Asyik ... The Beauty of Classical Dance
Dec 14-16
Aswara Experimental Theatre, KL

ASYIK means to be mesmerised or transfixed in Bahasa Malaysia. It is also a type of Malay royal court dance with mesmerising and hypnotic qualities, which has its roots in palace and temple traditions.

It was an apt title for Asyik ... The Beauty of Classical Dance, a recent production by the Dance Department of the National Academy of Culture, Arts and Heritage (Aswara), which showcased a repertoire of classical styles from the Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures through a simple dance drama.

The Asyik is a graceful court dance.

“Reclaiming our past has to begin by first learning about and loving its constituents! Our cultural heritage is resplendent in its grandeur and diversity,” says Joseph Gonzales, who has been the head of department since 1999.

“My dream is to take this production on tour one day. The level of appreciation for classical dance versus pop culture leaves much to be desired. Foreign perception of our dances is still very commercial. I want the world to see the real thing.
“I also want to take this production to other states in Malaysia because I find that each state has very little idea about classical dances other than its own.”

Gonzalez, the artistic director of Asyik, stresses that, “One must eliminate the misconception and fear that culture is about religion. A Chinese dance is not about being Buddhist; a Malay dance is not about being Muslim; nor an Indian dance, about being Hindu. The performers are simply Malaysians, and they are good at dances that are not from their own race!”

Come into my arms: The 1,000 Hands dance was a spectacle to behold. – AZHAR MAHFOF / The Star

In 2000, Asyik was performed by eight students (two borrowed from Aswara’s Theatre Department) and only 17 people turned up for the show. There were so few dancers that only a limited repertoire could be presented – joget, zapin, endang and mengadap rebab (the opening dance of the traditional theatre performance, Mak Yong).

The academy has come a long way since then. This year’s production had 80 dancers, 25 musicians and an audience of 350. The repertoire included Gurindam, Silat Gayong Ota-Ota, Joget Gamelan Topeng, the Chinese court banquet dances Ruanwu (sleeves dance) and Jian Wu (warrior dance), Bharatanatyam, Warrior Silat Dance, Asyik and Terinai.

Gonzales’ idea for the production was borrowed from a bangsawan (Malay opera) tale, which somehow fitted in nicely with this genre and prevented it from looking like a commercial variety show.

The story is about a young prince who hears a melodious voice and is drawn to the magic of the lyrics and the hypnotic quality of the voice. The king summons his soldiers and orders them to find this person for his love-stuck son. The soldiers bring guests from near and far who present themselves to the king and prince with a showcase of their culture and precious gifts. The prince finds his love when a princess sings and dances the Asyik accompanied by maidens from the royal Kelantanese entourage.

For this performance, the talent of choreographers such as Wong Kit Yaw, Umesh Shetty, Vatsala Sivadas, Hajijah Yaacob, Shafirul Azmi Suhaimi, Firdaus Mustapha Kamal and Sharip Zainal Sagkif Shekwere sought to find exciting and fresh ways to present the dances.

Of all the performances, 1,000 Hands drew the most applause. The dancers, decked in resplendent white costumes, emulated the goddess of compassion (with 1,000 hands) in graceful synchronicity and with great aplomb.

Warriors show off their prowess in the Jian Wu.
In the Asyik, dancers, seated most of the time, swayed their upper bodies hypnotically like human pendulums and gazed fixedly at the slight but fluid and continuous movements of their own hands, each dancer very much absorbed in her own world. The bonang (bronze kettle drum) lead stood out as it lent a unique flavour to the music that accompanied the dance.
Overall, the performances served their purpose of educating and entertaining, although with practice, they could be perfected. But if the production manages “to fan the fire of patriotism and pride in being Malaysian” in even a small portion of the population, as is Aswara’s hope, then it would be deemed a success.

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