Mak Yong was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2005.
The recognition followed the submission of a paper on the traditional Malay theatre form to Unesco by the Malaysian government.
Attached was an action plan on what the government would do to enable Mak Yong to flourish within five years of getting the award.
The principal items in the proposal were: research and documentation at the national level; an inventory of Malaysian intangible heritage and research; documentation centres for audio and video recordings; and development of publications, websites, and exhibitions.
Other major items included training of researchers in institutions of higher learning; training of artistes at national and several regional centres; performing arts training in communities, schools and universities, and the development of national and regional troupes.
On top of all that, the development of facilities, performance spaces and specially designed Mak Yong theatres in Kelantan, Kedah, Terengganu and Kuala Lumpur; organisation of local and international seminars, exhibitions and festivals and creating interest in Mak Yong in the tourism sector or cultural tourism were also part of the proposal.
Almost none of the items in the action plan have been implemented, says Prof Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof.
He should know because he prepared the Mak Yong action plan and the nomination paper that was submitted to Unesco by the culture and arts ministry.
“The little that has been done to preserve the Mak Yong has been done mostly through individual efforts, such as exhibitions and so on. No one has been trained up to any serious or worthwhile level,” laments the expert in both Malay and Southeast Asian traditional theatre.
Ghulam-Sarwar says if the detailed proposals in the action plan had been implemented, Mak Yong would have been thriving locally and would have achieved international acclaim, like the Cambodian Royal Ballet or the Indonesian Wayang Kulit Purwa.
Both of these important art forms also received Unesco recognition.
According to him the Akademi Seni, Budaya dan Warisan or National Arts, Culture and Heritage Academy, established by the culture and arts ministry and which is better known by its acronym Aswara, does some training but this is low-key and part of a larger arts curriculum.
Ghulam-Sarwar, whose 1976 PhD thesis was on “The Kelantan Mak Yong Dance theatre: A Study of Performance Structure”, recently released a book titled “Mak Yong World Heritage Theatre” published by Areca Books Penang.
Mak Yong, he says, incorporates elements of ritual, stylised dance and action, vocal and instrumental music, story, song and formal as well as improvised spoken text.
In the early days, itinerant theatre troupes would perform the dance-drama in northern Malaya, southern Thailand and Indonesia. It is believed to have been taken to Indonesia from Malaysia or Pattani, southern Thailand.
Interestingly, at the time in 2005 when Unesco recognised the richness of Mak Yong, the dance-drama was banned in its home state.
In fact, the PAS government in Kelantan banned several traditional Malay art forms, including Mak Yong and wayang kulit, in 1998, citing reasons such as links to non-Islamic practices and stories, the prominent role of women performers, and males and females performing on the same stage.
But even before the official ban, these performances were discouraged and branded un-Islamic.
In Kelantan today, art forms continue to hit against the wall of PAS’ Islamic rightness.
Ghulam-Sarwar, who refuses to compromise on the authenticity of the Mak Yong, has had a few run-ins with the Kelantan authorities.
In 2006, for instance, he held a workshop in Kota Bharu for students of Sunway University College (now a full university).
The Kota Bharu municipal council refused to grant permission to hold a performance even though it was just for the students.
To circumvent this, the performances were held outside the jurisdiction of the council, prompting newspapers to report that Mak Yong was being performed in “secret locations” for select audiences.
“The Kelantan government said the Mak Yong could only be performed for tourists, not locals, and that too indoors,” the professor recalls.
But there was pressure in the opposite direction too, with traditional art activists urging the Kelantan government to drop its stance.
In 2017, after meeting 62 government organisations, cultural groups and performers in various traditional arts in Malaysia, Karima Bennoune, the UN special rapporteur on cultural rights, called for the lifting of the ban on art forms in Kelantan.
“The bans on Mak Yong, Wayang Kulit, Main Putri and Dikir Barat, and the restrictions on women performing for mixed audiences in Kelantan must be lifted without delay,” Bennoune said.
The Kelantan government shot back that it would not budge from its stand. However, in September 2019, it did lift the ban but placed a host of restrictions on the performance of these art forms.
Among these were that performers could not show their “aurat”, there must be a separation between men and women on stage and in the audience, no rituals or worship should take place, and women should not participate in Mak Yong performances.
But it’s not as if only the Kelantan government is to be blamed for the current state of Mak Yong. Ghulam-Sarwar notes: “Mak Yong was almost dead by the time of the 1969 Southeast Asian music and theatre festival in Kuala Lumpur.”
The Mak Yong of Kelantan attracted the national gaze when it was performed by a motley group of people at the 1969 festival held at the University of Malaya.
The renowned historian Mubin Sheppard had helped ethnomusicologist William P Malm of the US with his research into Mak Yong in 1968 and the duo cobbled together a group of performers to put up a show at the festival.
Impressed, some of those present decided that Mak Yong deserved to be preserved.
According to Ghulam-Sarwar, they helped set up the Kumpulan Seri Temenggong in 1971 led by Khatijah Awang who was then teaching Malay dances.
Soon, Mak Yong captured the imagination of many traditional theatre and arts lovers and it became widely known outside Kelantan.
It was adopted in a simplified form by Aswara, giving it a boost as younger people began receiving some training in the art form.
The first person to teach Mak Yong at Aswara was the legendary Khatijah, who died in 2000. Khatijah played a key role in the revival of the Mak Yong.
Another was Pak Saari Abdullah who died in 2006.
There are no permanent Mak Yong groups performing the unadulterated folk version today.
If a performance is to be held, one performer goes around contacting others who are willing to join in and a show is held under the name of the leader who brought them together.
Most practitioners are rural folk who mind their agricultural plots or are employed somewhere and who come together when the occasion demands.
One of the main reasons for the decline in interest in the Mak Yong is the push to make everything conform to Islam.
Other reasons include modernisation, lack of sponsorship leading to a lack of public shows and older artistes having died or being too old to perform.
Also, there is hardly any commercial value in learning the Mak Yong and similar art forms, and young people these days don’t find traditional performances “cool”.
Ghulam-Sarwar hasn’t seen a full Mak Yong story performed in more than 10 years.
Most of the performances today last about 30 minutes and are geared for the tourist.
It remains to be seen if the newer versions, such as the shariah-compliant all-male Mak Yong performance recently introduced in PAS-governed Kelantan, will be accepted and thrive.
One thing is clear, the Mak Yong that Ghulam-Sarwar first researched in Kelantan in the mid-1970s and the shariah-compliant Mak Yong being performed for tourists in hotels in that state today are worlds apart.
Ghulam-Sarwar, the man who started the first performing arts programme in the country at Universiti Sains Malaysia, asks a pertinent question: “If everything is changed, will it still be Mak Yong?”
I ask Ghulam-Sarwar whether traditional theatre forms such as the Wayang Kulit and Mak Yong can survive under the onslaught of western popular culture and political Islam that wants to delete any tradition or influence that is not shariah-compliant.
He says: “It is difficult to say for certain. Wayang Kulit may last a decade or so in its modernised versions, but Mak Yong may not. Mak Yong is much more complicated and there are just a handful of artistes around who can perform the older, folk version.”
Saying there are good examples in Asia of how the traditional heritage of performing arts has been preserved, with or without Unesco support, he adds: “But we Malaysians are different. We want the name and the prestige, but when it comes to action we turn into stone. The only thing left for Mak Yong, it appears, is to die out.”