Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook 6 December:
The golden monastery
and shadowplay under a full moon

Not even two full days in Kota Bharu - one full day and two halves. This being our full day it is packed tight. As we are walking along with Eddin and Pauline in the morning - walking from where, to where? - we happen to pass a batik shop and happen to walk in and, once there, happen to buy some more batik items (helps the local economy, why not, good gifts - insert own reasons for buying) and feel both indulgent and virtuous at once. We are the batik gods of South Norfolk dispensing our largesse.

Fortified for the rest of the day we drop things off then drive to Mummi's having promised to visit her. Pak Eh Chom's first wife lives next to Mummi (his second wife) on the outskirts of Kota Bharu. The daughter of the first wife - Mummi has four sons, two from a previous marriage, two from the great dancer, handsome strapping young men now out in Australia - is also a dancer as was her mother, the first wife. It seems a complex but harmonious arrangement. Mummi's house is tiled and filled with photographs of her family and images of the dancing days. An early large photograph of her shows her as a startlingly beautiful young woman in three-quarter view. Her late husband is as handsome and as charismatic looking as the publicity photos suggest. There is one of him in the latter stages of his illness, looking older but still with those refined, elegant, mystical features.

Mummi serves us sweet tea as we sit round a small table. The first wife, her daughter, and the daughter's husband come and join us and we are soon shown into the other house - the first house in fact - into an older more ramshackle serviceable room with a raised dancing rehearsal space. The daughter lifts some sheets to reveal masks and other apparatus once used by her father. When Pak Eh Chom grew rich through his dancing and shamanism he built a second house, made of brick, which is where Mummi and the first wife both now live their separate but neighbourly lives.


Now we are running late so there is no time to visit more than one Thai temple. We drive, with Mummi, down neat roads, past well-cared for houses and compounds set on earth not lawn. This must be a slightly more upmarket area. The roads grow narrower, and run past paddy fields with congregations of egrets then, suddenly, in Kampung Bukit Tanah, we arrive at the glittering monastery of Wat Maisuwankiri. We drive in and park in the shade of a tree. There before us stands the great Dragon Boat (see pictures in a later post) - immense, long, and brilliant in a gold that is almost dazzling in the unsparing sunshine. The dragon undulates like waves, the prow and the bow of the ship rising at either end along with the either end of the dragon. Single figures rise at either end of the boat, one bare-chested and male, the other fully dressed with a cap that I took to be a crown (I first took it to be female but am not so sure now), both very like Ana Maria Pacheco's figures in her The Longest Journey, their arms raised in benediction or worship. The dragon's two heads incline towards the dragon figure of the prow, looking up to it.

I could go on but pictures will follow and I don't know the proper terms for specific features. Besides, this is not a museum but a working monastery. There are thin dogs everywhere, some lazing, some loping or hobbling, some running about, a few setting up a loud barking and even a howl or two. We are the only visitors. We move from shade to shade among the several buildings, each more spectacular than the last. The temple with the golden buddha is open and Pauline burns incense in memory of her father. We burn incense too, our memories less focused, floating elsewhere. There is a tall, erect Buddha rising from a roof. There is a statue of Dharma. Profusion, profusion, profusion, both inside and out - and the dogs and a gardener or two brushing the path. The place seems to burn from the ground. I find it both comprehensible and incomprehensible: comprehensible in totality, incomprehensible in detail, or, if not incomprehensible, part of a cosmology that is located in another part of my personal psychic architecture. The totality lies in the idea of transcendence and being-in, both in the present and out-of-time. We are just a few miles from the Thai border. Almost out of the world.

We drive Mummi back to her house, take a few photos and return to lie down in our little oven / freezer room.


At six we set out again, this time for Kampung Kemunchup, Machang for the chief purpose of our visit to Kelantan, the Wayang Kulit. I have written about Wayang Kulit before and the link is a help but the pictures it shows are in an indoor performance space. Ours is to be outside in the front yard of a house, where it is normally performed.  It is not an entertainment as such but an ancient cultural practice based on an almost infinite hoard of stories adapted from the Ramayana, adumbrated, re-told, with variations and curious twists, complete with music and, on occasion - but not this time - trance and healing. It has been outlawed for years by Islamic law which tends to regard it as an enticement to Hinduism, though the whole is far from conventionally religious and certainly does not seek to convert.

It is quite a long journey by major and minor roads and down a track to an old rubber plantation. We are welcomed - particularly Pauline and Eddin whose Pusaka is the chief agent striving to keep the the custom going, partly through financial support and partly by exposing it to an international public that would protect it from fundamentalist religion. There have been international tours already, to Paris last ime, another coming up to Texas and other parts of the US. There will be one in the UK too.  The company has no trouble in exposure to the modern western urban life. The people, says Eddin, are very comfortable in their own skin.

They are certainly very hospitable. First we are offered a meal. We sit on the ground and eat with fingers - chicken, fish, rice, vegetables, always with sauces to dip into. I m dreadful at sitting cross-legged so have to kneel. There are little bowls and jugs of water with which we can wash our hands. Conversation flourishes, in Malay naturally. It is a privilege just to be part of this.

The stage is already set up and slowly the performance is prepared. We have drums and there is a serunai (akind of oboe, the only melodic instrument). There is a troupe manager, a head musician, a dalang (a master puppetteer), a geduk, a gendung, kesi cymbals, a gong, and more. The dalang is also the story teller. The geduk player is a thirteen year old genius in a pirated Chelsea shirt. These are not wealthy people. The puppets are ornate and traditionally made from buffalo skin. Their limbs and, in some cases, their lower jaws are articulable. The ones with moving mouths have grotesque features and are, generally, the comics.

There is a full clear moon and the illuminated screen against which the shadowplay takes place is right below it, making two rival sources of light. Little by little local people gather, some on foot, most on motorbikes. There is a musical overture, then the tree of life appears, and some of the characters: three wise comics, a princess, maybe two, a birth, a prince, some warriors, possibly Hanuman, Sita, or Rama, though what we are seeing is not the performance described here but some kind of apocryphal story. There are fights, there is comic and serious dialogue. Characters appear for a second then are whisked off, as if in the middle of battle, in another part of the wood.  Characters come in twos, threes, and fours. They engage, then vanish. The screen shimmers. All the voices are spoken by the dalang, whose timing is excellent: we don't know what the comedy is but it is clearly comic. Normally the shadow play lasts five or six hours but this is a two hour performance arranged especially for us. Clouds shift in front of the moon then expose it again. It continues to blaze down.

I go backstage to see the musicians at their concentrated work. Eddin joins them after a while. The audience come and go, their small motorbikes puttering down the rough path. Children sit at the front then are whisked off by their parents. It is a constantly shifting audience. There are few left by the end.

But there is time for some dancing. Clarissa and I join Pauline, our hostess Kak Adilah (the manager of the troupe, it is the women round here who do the managing and finance) and Eddin in the joget, the steps simple at this level, the arms in motion, enacting simple flirtation or just a kind of balance with your partner. It is our way of entering the spirit of things.

Then we sit down back in the covered part of the yard.  I have already smoked a couple of cigarettes rolled from local tobacco, slender sticks, quite long,  heavy and rich in flavour. I smoke a more commercial one I am offered. The dalang is a particularly sweet older man who explains the apocryphal story to Pauline and Eddin in Malay.

Eventually we drive back, not stopping anywhere this time. There has been neither thunder or rain. It is the first time in years this has happened apparently. And we had the full moon too. We have been lucky in weather throughout. We have never once got fully soaked, our travel arrangements were not disrupted, and our flights were relatively smooth.

This was our penultimate day in Malaysia. My intention is to write a summing up of both Singapore and Malaysia once the last half day is given its due. There is a great deal to digest and I can't pretend to have begun to digest it.

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