Sunday 25 August 2013

Malaysia 4:
An inaugural lecture at the library

A brief 6 minutes extrat of Wayang Kulit. Full hour long vids are available on YouTube

Another hazy day in KL, the light a little more forthright than yesterday but still hesitant and uncertain.

Yesterday afternoon (24th) was the inaugural PUSAKA lecture and the presentation of the Abdullah Ibrahim Memorial Award for Cultural Preservation. (For a little more information see here) We are driven in by Ken, a friend of P and E, who works with orang-utans and many other species in a protected environment at Sabah in the north-east of Malaysia.

The library is in Merdeka Square that Clarissa recognizes from her childhood, and it is a grand occasion. The Regent Raja Nazrin Shah is present complete with family and entourage.

First there is a brief musical performance by a group of traditional musicians, mostly drummers, from Kelantan, associated with the Wayang Kulit (Shadow Play) tradition, about which much more later. Enough for now to know that Wayang Kulit lies at the heart of PUSAKA's interests since it is an ancient and threatened cultural form whose meaning extends beyond western notions of theatre. The music begins as a chant by the healer then a storm of drums, maybe a dozen or so. It is over all too quickly.

E then makes a speech, quite astounding in that it is perfectly organised and weighted and delivered without a glance at the notes. He talks about the wildness and beauty of the tradition, about the passions associated with it, its importance, his personal involvement, and gives an account of the twenty years of the organisation. Though I know only the little I have read about it in a hurry before we came the speech engages and enthuses me. I think I understand the importance of the form a little better. In political terms it prevents the domination of one culture over another: it asserts the power of the human imagination over the temporal and formally religious powers that seek to define and control it. We are going to see a performance in Kelantan in the next few days and now there is even more reason to look forward to it.

After a brief official speech by the Director General of the responsible ministry, we get the prize giving to Abdul Rahman Dollah, a master musician of the Wayang Kulit tradition.

The inaugural lecture is given by the major Indonesian poet, editor and writer of scripts for Wayang, Goenawan Mohamad (see also here). Beginning with Cartesian notions of the distinction between mind and body he moves on to an exposition of the Other, the way we create distinctions, and how the important thing is not the distinction but the understanding of the creative process that gives work its life. The traditional, he argues, is not a finished historicised object of the past (an Other) but part of the developing creartive process whereby significance is retained and reformulated. I am familiar with the broad lines of the argument but it is presented with grace and power and is a corrective to state enforced notions of identity, privilege and belonging, albeit in a subtle fashion.

(My own thought is that the Other is unavoidable and fully internalised as a distinction between our consciousness and the world, beween individuals and indeed within ourselves, so we may be and are Other to ourselves, but that the idea of art as an enacted process rather than a series of externally viewed objects is right. That is how I myself feel it. I also think the historicised reading of cultural works which are also products of specific circumstances, in other words, history - a Sheridan play for example, or Donne's sermons - is not wrong headed at all in one sense, unless one makes that the exclusive and, eventually, dogmatically determined approach. We live in tensions and move between correctives. )

But this is something we can talk about later with Goenawan himself.  He seems such a good man and afterwards, over food and drink, we talk a little about - well, again - the politics of our respective regions and lives. Before that we nibble some food in the library and meet the singer / dancer / healer who talks - as interpreted by Ken and Pauline - about the nature of the healing, about interpreting sickness, about finding the appropriate words, music and gestures to expel the 'wind' of it, to entice it from the sufferer into the healer. Also at the table an Egyptian writer to whom, naturally, we address a few tentative questions about the situation in Egypt. He is pleased Morsi has gone and says Morsi was trying to turn Egypt into Iran and that he was moving very fast in that direction. The implication is that he had to be stopped.

I should add that the idea of these blogs is not to recount personal conversations in detail. I am not entitled to do that, but the broad swing of talk seems fair enough. It may also be that my impressions are not always right.

Meanwhile the hot KL night sees us drift from bar to restaurant to bar where we - that is to say Pauline, Eddin, Goenawan, Iqe and Karl are joined by Alvin and other writer friends.

KL so far seems to be mainly cars, dual carriageways, flyovers, one-way systems. But there are pockets of pedestrianisation, small squares with bars and big open restaurants with revolving electric fans. But I can't piece the bones of the city together at all, am constantly disorientated by the carriageways. I have some idea of the points of the compass and what lies broadly where, but where we are at any given moment, I cannot tell. That may chiefly be because we are driven from place to place.

Today is the launch of the magazine Obscura where Alvin, Goenawan and I will read, not only from our work but from Eliot and Byron.

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