KUALA LUMPUR: If you had a chance to speak to a master of the traditional arts, what would you talk about?
Cultural identity? Nationhood? The meaning of life?
After all, these living legends carry with them the nation’s cultural legacy and they are rich with tales of ancestry and belief.
Some, like Pauline Fan, creative director of cultural organisation Pusaka, are of the opinion that these masters, and by extension the traditions they are guardians of, can act as a “doorway to discover ourselves.”
Speaking with FMT Lifestyle recently, Fan said that cultural identity was
“fed to us and constructed for us” and that traditional arts can help “deconstruct” this so people gain a deeper understanding of who they are.
With this aim in mind, Pusaka is in the midst of producing a limited-edition commemorative book titled “What is Remembered: Our Masters of Oral Tradition in Their Own Voice.”
Edited by Fan as well as Pusaka founder Eddin Khoo, the 200-page book, to be published early next year, presents a powerful and poignant portrait of Malaysia’s masters of traditional arts, told in their own voices.
It is a mosaic of oral histories, personal narratives, and excerpts of oral traditions, including song lyrics, narrated stories, incantations, and poems.
The book will feature puppeteers, healers, storytellers, temple drummers, and dancers, encompassing a vibrant tapestry of cultural forms and expressions.
“To listen to them brings us to a slightly deeper level of engagement and for them to have a book of their own is a wonderful way to enter the many layers of Malaysian traditional arts,” said Fan.
Putting a book like this together was a gargantuan task, Fan admitted. Pusaka’s archives, which includes interviews, written documentation, photographs and videos, span decades.
What became apparent was that written documentation by these traditional arts masters were lesser known to the public and needed the spotlight.
“Some of the voices that we engaged with and featured in the book are masters who’re no longer with us …You actually lose an entire world of experience, and that cannot be replaced,” Fan pointed out.
She mentioned Perlis’ awang batil musical storytelling tradition as an example. Pak Romli Mahmud is the last living awang batil performer in the country, with several apprentices under him.
And yet, said Fan: “They haven’t really taken on the form of the awang batil completely … as much as you train someone, they still can’t take on an entire tradition.”
The book is crucial to archive and document the nation’s oral traditions before they are lost for good.
And to those who believe traditional arts is dead, Fan had this to say: “Traditional arts, particularly in this country, because a lot of it is folk art and oral tradition, is always improvising, adapting and renewing itself. It’s always recreated and created in the moment of performance. So, it’s very much a living tradition.”
Moving forward, Pusaka will be undertaking another gargantuan task next year in the form of the Cultural Map of Malaysia.
Through this vast and multi-year programme, the Pusaka team hopes to create a comprehensive archive of traditional arts. They also hope to develop documentaries, exhibitions and books on the subject.
Additionally, the “Project Bina Bangsa” series of books, a collaboration between Pusaka and Allianz Malaysia Berhad, will continue with the publication of the remaining nine volumes. The first book, “Rukunegara: A Brief Introduction”, was published in September 2020.
As for “Remembered”, Fan said the book is a great entry point into the realm of Malaysian traditional art as it captured “not just the art form but what lies within and beneath it … like the philosophy, worldview, the spirit”.
“Allow yourself to be touched and to encounter and be moved by the words of these masters. This is something special, something we hope many Malaysians and others will embrace,” Fan concluded.
Read more about Pusaka here.