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The (Re)Discovery of Malaysia’s Layered Cultural Self – PUSAKA Evenings at Publika

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Now in its third year, the popular PUSAKA Evenings at Publika gives urban audiences a rare gift – to learn about and observe living cultural traditions from around their country, to “connect with art forms that have been practiced for centuries, hearing from true masters of the craft.” This weekend, PUSAKA presents Klang Valley audiences with the chance to see a group that has only once before performed outside their native Kelantan. Evening speaker, PUSAKA’s Creative Director, Pauline Fan, speaks more about the programme.

What is the PUSAKA Evenings at Publika all about?

PUSAKA Evenings at Publika is a partnership between PUSAKA and Publika that brings living cultural traditions from communities all over Malaysia to an urban audience. A typical PUSAKA Evening begins with a talk or conversation on the tradition we are presenting, followed by an hour-long performance at night. As far as possible, we try to engage the performers themselves in the conversation, because they are true masters from whom we have much to learn. For PUSAKA, this conversation is as important as the performance itself, because it contextualises these deep and complex traditions for an audience who may not be familiar with them. We are now in our third year of partnership with Publika, and we hope that this partnership will continue.

What do you hope to achieve with this programme?

With PUSAKA Evenings at Publika, we open up a space and time for an encounter with, and (re)discovery of, Malaysia’s layered cultural Self. Many Malaysians are somewhat alienated from our own cultural traditions; we sometimes tend to think of culture in terms of the stereotypical ostentatious ‘song and dance’ sequences we see on TV for National Day parades. In actual fact, the cultural traditions we find across Malaysia are living, ever-evolving practices rooted in deep oral traditions that are repositories for the worldviews, belief systems, stories and histories of our people. We hope that audiences who attend PUSAKA Evenings at Publika will immerse themselves in the wonder of the experience, and delight in the depth and beauty of these traditions.

When did this programme start?

For our first PUSAKA Evening in 2014, where we featured our beloved Kuda Kepang troupe from Parit Raja, Batu Pahat, Johor. They are incredibly charismatic performers and have grown artistically with PUSAKA. We have featured them twice so far at PUSAKA Evenings, and they always draw a huge crowd. We brought them to perform at the George Town Festival and Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival several years ago too; they always leave audiences spellbound.

PUSAKA Evenings at Publika - Kuda Kepang. October 2015. Photo by PUSAKA partner-photographer Cheryl Hoffman

PUSAKA Evenings at Publika – Kuda Kepang. October 2015. Photo by PUSAKA partner-photographer Cheryl Hoffman

The Wayang Purwo talk and performance last month, filled beyond capacity – with audience members standing against the walls and sitting on the floor. It included people of all ages – students, older folk, young families with their little children. What do you think draws them in?

Most of our PUSAKA Evenings have drawn large audiences, often beyond capacity, and always diverse in terms of background and age. Some traditions, however, have particularly piqued the interest of the public – our presentation of Wayang Kulit Purwo last month was one, the Teochew Puppetry from Penang that we presented earlier this year was another. I think it has something to do with the fact that these traditions are rarely seen in KL. But also, the magic of puppetry never fails to draw crowds from near and far.

PUSAKA Evenings at Publika - Teochew Puppetry from Penang, included a talk and demonstration from master puppeteer and opera actress Miss Ling Goh. February 2016. Photo by Ahmad Fikry Mohd Anwar for PUSAKA

PUSAKA Evenings at Publika – Teochew Puppetry from Penang, included a talk and demonstration from master puppeteer and opera actress Miss Ling Goh. February 2016. Photo by Ahmad Fikry Mohd Anwar for PUSAKA

The upcoming PUSAKA Evening features a talk and performance of the Manora of Kelantan. Tell us about the group – Kumpulan Cik Manis Bukit Yong.

Kumpulan Cik Manis Bukit Yong was founded in in 2007 by Khun Eh Tik, after the passing of one of his Manora masters. It is comprised of 16 members, including dancers and musicians. Khun Eh Tik come from a line of Manora performers, both his father and grandfather performed Manora and encouraged him to learn the art since he was a boy. The ladies of this Manora troupe, who perform the roles of the ‘dayang’, are also direct descendants of a well-known Manora master.

This weekend's PUSAKA Evenings at Publika - Manora of Kelantan. November 2016. Photo by Mohd Faiz Abd Halim

This weekend’s PUSAKA Evenings at Publika – Manora of Kelantan. November 2016. Photo by Mohd Faiz Abd Halim

How often do they perform outside of Kelantan?

This Manora group very rarely performs outside Kelantan. In fact, their first time performing outside Kelantan was when we presented them at the Butterworth Fringe Festival in August. So, this is truly an opportunity not to be missed.

You will be giving the talk on Manora before the performance. What about Manora speaks to you personally?

The talk will offer a brief introduction to the Manora tradition, followed by a conversation between me and Khun Eh Tik, the lead performer of the Manora group. Manora is one of my favourite cultural traditions – the ritual invocation, the graceful movements, the charisma of the dancer, and the stirring music all combine to carry you away into a mesmerised state of being. It is difficult to describe… one must witness it for oneself.

Admission to the Pusaka Evenings is free. How are these evenings funded? Why should we not bypass the collection box at the entrance?

Publika covers the cost of performance fees and travel for the performers, in addition to providing the venue. Whatever is collected from the box we place at the entrance goes directly to PUSAKA’s ongoing programme of enhancing the sustainability of cultural traditions at the community level throughout the country. This includes fieldwork, research, documentation, and organising community performances.

Setting up for PUSAKA Evenings at Publika- Wayang Purwo from Johor, featuring Badan Kebudayan dan Kesenian Setia Budi from Batu Pahat. The free event would be packed wall-to-wall with audiences of all ages. October 2016.

Setting up for PUSAKA Evenings at Publika- Wayang Purwo from Johor, featuring Badan Kebudayan dan Kesenian Setia Budi from Batu Pahat. The free talk and performance would be packed wall-to-wall with audiences of all ages. October 2016.

Finally, what (else) do you think audience members will get from this evening?

Besides a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Manora tradition itself, I hope people will come away with a sense that this country and its people can be beautiful and meaningful, despite the cultural politics and racialism that pervades our public life and national psyche.

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Amy De Kanter
Amy De Kanter

Former Chief Editor, frequent contributor and enthusiastic audience member, Amy is thrilled to have a job that lets her do three of the things she loves most.