Selasa, 30 Disember 2014

Alkesah Yang Empunya Cherita

Faizal Sidik
Translated by: Surinam

"Penglipurlara: Alkesah Yang Empunya Cherita"
24 Jun – 1 Sep 2013
 National Visual Art Gallery (NVAG) Malaysia
Curated by: Faizal Sidik

A museum is a place that conserves memories. Works of art, artifacts or materials on display in a museum are the memories of a people which are preserved and showcased as they serve to tell us about the people’s lives and their creative endeavors. This exhibition looks at the enchanting world of the penglipurlara (storyteller) of Malay world. Who is he the penglipurlara? For the curator, in today’s context, the museum would be a good place to explore this question further.

We may have heard or frequently encounter edit, but for those who are not familiar with the term, it does sound rather antiquated.  The term“penglipurlara”means a person who soothes woes by telling funny folk tales infused with poetry, rhymes, lyrics and songs. Before the emergence of the written text, the penglipurlara embodied the oral literature of the Malays. During his time, the penglipurlara was considered a star whose role was to bring news, entertainment and education to the people.

In today’s contemporary life,however, with the presence of the electronic and print media such as newspapers, television, radio and the social media such as Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and blogs, anyone can be a penglipurlara or a storyteller. Andy Warhol once said that “in the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes”.The advances made in the field of communication have changed the way people socialise. From the verbal tradition, word of mouth handed down by generation after generation of storytellers to the writing down of words. From the written text to motion pictures such as video and film, we ​​are,in effect, truly surrounded by storytellers. Now anyone can declare herself or himself as a storyteller with the help of any of the mediums mentioned above. They can a play role in building and creating messages that relate to spirituality, justice, human rights and history. 
The exhibition “Penglipur Lara: Alkesah Yang Empunya Cheritais presented from the historical perspective. You may have read works of classical Malay literature that begin  with old words which are spelled in the old way such as “Alkesah”, “Shahdan”, “Hatta” or “Sebermula diceterakan”, which all indicates the opening of  a story or a scene in a story. The title of the exhibition is especially chosen to open a narrative about the penglipurlara so that you’re seeing this show like you’re “reading”a traditional Malay literary work which begins with “Alkesah yang empunya cherita”.

Curatorial Strategy
The curatorial approach employed hereis to show how the works in the NVAG collection can engage with the chosen themes. Rarely do we see an exhibition where works on the same topic or narrative are displayed together in one room.  At the same time, the curator also wanted to see how the collected works “interact” with the latest works and loaned works such as films from Finas and Aswara, which then gives new impetus to the works and themes used.

Curating is an activity which links objects, images, processes, people, locations, histories and discourses in real space. The idea of  having ​​this exhibition was inspired from a discussion between Khairuddin Hori, who at time of this writing, is a senior curator at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and this curator himself who was invited as a co-curator at the Singapore Biennale 2013 Curatorial Workshop. The topic of the “storyteller”in the Malay world captured our interest, especially the shift of the story telling tradition from the oral to the textual and visual in contemporary forms such as produced by artists and performers through media channels like music, movies and the internet. This exhibition has been curated in such a way so as to illustrate and provide the experience of this shift to the audience.

Hikayat Sang Kancil
The exhibition begins with folk stories, myths and legends. Hikayat Pelanduk Jenaka,which tells the tale of wisdom of the mousedeer in escaping from danger, is part of the old Malay literature that existed circa 1650. A copy of the manuscript is kept in the Department of Manuscripts of the National Library of France in Paris. This hikayat is also known by another popular name, i.e. the Sang Kancil Stories. The title has 82 pages and 6,702 words, as recorded in the Werndly register written in 1746.

Among the stories found in the old Malay manuscript of the 17th century was the introductory story of how the sang kancil takes the title of “Sheikh of the Jungle”to hold sway over all of the animals in the wild. The next story tells of how the sang kancil pretends to have magical powers and manages to calm down the goat and the tiger who agree to abide by his authority. The next story tells of how animals in the wild are threatened by a vicious creature and come to be under his protection. Pages 31 to 55 tell of the stubborn monkey who looks to the lion for support, but the sang kancil beats the lion by using a hornet's nest. The final part relates the story of the monkey who seeks the support of an elephant, nevertheless the sang kancil still beats the elephant in the sepak keting (kick the shanks) competition.

The effort to turn the story from the original manuscript Hikayat Pelanduk Jenaka into an animated film began in 1961 by the National Film Malaysia, formerly known as the Malayan Film Unit established during British colonial rule in 1946, which aimed to produce a documentary film and public information announcement.It was Anandam Xavier who worked as a set designer, however, who managed to produce Hikayat Pelanduk Jenaka with the title “Hikayat Sang Kancil” in 1978, the country’s first animated feature and this short movie was released for public viewing in the early 1980s.

The short animated movies by Filem Negara are purposefully slotted in. The penglipurlara  could be traced by the voice-over narration of the story. The films which are on loan from the National Film Collection include “Hikayat Sang Kancil”which premiered in 1983, and other stories from Hikayat Pelanduk Jenaka written and directed by Hassan Al-Muttalib such as “Sang Kancil and the Monkey”, “Sang Kancil and the Crocodile” which were shown around 1984 and 1987.  Other Filem Negara movies  that are shown in the exhibition include “The Wise Crow”, “The Arrogant Rabbit”,“Budi Baik di Balas Baik”,“The Greedy Lion” and “Telur Sebiji Riuh Sekampung which are shown repeatedly in every 30 minutes.

Hikayat Seri Rama
Wayang kulit, said to be the earliest animation in Southeast Asia, is played by moving the puppets to a source of light to project shadows on the screen. The penglipurlara folklore that still remains and played to this day is the wayang kulit Kelantan which is based on Hikayat Seri Rama. According to Ali Haji Ahmad,the coordinator of Hikayat Inderapura, the origins of Hindu influence in Malay literature can be traced to the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Research shows that the penglipurlara version of Hikayat Seri Rama was the oral tradition brought in by Hindu immigrants and conquerors that conquered parts of the land once upon a time. An art form apart from poetry that introduced Hindu literature to the region was the wayang kulit. It is very popular on the East Coast and still performed to this day. In this exhibition, the dalang (puppet master) who performs the wayang kulit is the entertainer who combines the verbal, visual and musical arts in his show.

The Story of Dewek included in the exhibition tells of Dewekwho was commanded by King Seri Rama to seek knowledge and given a magic staff. “WayangKulit Kelantan”(1959) the work by Nik Zainal Abidin is displayed alongside to show the characters in the performance. The use of modern technology can make penglipurlara  storytelling look likea movie showand it can run not just for two or three nights. The use of audio-visual equipment means the storytelling can be recorded and played over and over again.In fact the communication revolution has enabled the wayang kulit or any show to be uploaded and downloaded by anyone on the You Tube channel on the internet

The video footage shown is from of the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage or Aswara playing the Dewek Story from Hikayat Seri Rama. The dalang is Che Mohd Nasir Yusof, who is assisted by two assistants and musicians from the academy. We normally see a wayang kulit performance from the front of the screen without seeing what happening is behind it. In this video, however, the viewer has the opportunity to see what is happening on both sides of the wayang kulit screen on the split tv screen.

The dalang tells the Story of Dewek in three successive nights as recorded this video. We ought to appreciate the fact that there are still dalangs around to tell a story and serve as penglipurlara.

Hikayat Gunung Daik

The works of  Tengku Sabri Ibrahim “Pandir Daik”and “Pawang Gunung Daik” are displayed side by side and face to face to initiate a“dialogue” between the two. Using the traditional material, wood, the works make use of a popular Malay pantun called “Gunung Daik” (Mount Daik) which goes as follows:
Pandan Island is far out in the waves
There’s a mount called Daik which is three-crested
While a dead man’s body decomposes in the grave
His good deeds remain to be remembered

Gunung Daik is not a figment of people’s imagination, it does exist and is located in the island of Lingga in Riau Islands province, Indonesia. The uniqueness of this mountain is that it has three branches, not to mention the mysteries surrounding it as told in the folklore. In this exhibition, an excerpt is taken from the Gunung Daik Story in a book written by Tengku Sabri entitled “Tanpa Tajuk - Cerita-Cerita Seni Rupa”published in 2009.

Gunung Daik

Pandan Island is far out in the waves
There’s a mount called Daik which is three-crested
While a dead man’s body decomposes in the grave
His good deeds remain to be remembered

Strong and imposing was Mount Daik on the Pandan Island far out in the sea.  Once upon a time, out of nowhere a disaster struck. The entire citizenry - from the king to the people and the servants - was turned upside-down, their bodies contracting all kinds of diseases. All things and all matters had to be abandoned.  People were nowhere to be seen, as if non-existent. Where was help? Where was relief? Where was protection?

The people were all in pain. Cries and tears mingled. They thought things would return to normal as before. They had hoped that this would not have happened.

But the scourge only got worse. Their hair began to drop and their eyeballs began to pop out and their flesh began to fall off…

Without a Title - Stories of SeniRupa
Tengku Sabri Ibrahim, 2009
Gunung Daik’, p 158

In the Gunung Daik story, Tengku Sabri looks at the dark side of the people who once lived around the mountain when all were hit by a huge catastrophe. This mysterious calamity is portrayed by these sculptures, strange-looking figures resembling plagued skeletons, skulls and bones.

Hikayat Inderaputera

Another side explored in this exhibition is how three works with their own narratives are displayed alongside. The major work by Anuar Rashid “The Birth of Inderaputera” (1978)  based onHikayat Inderaputera is brought together with Flight No. 2 Rajawali” by Mad Anuar and “Riang-Riang Rimba” (1995) by Ismail Latiff.  This “3 in 1” formula tries to activate the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional sense of space. The garuda, rajawali or giant peacock is important in the story told.

Hikayat Inderaputera tells of how a young Inderapura was taken and flown off by a golden peacock and then dropped in the garden of a nenek kebayan as in the following text:

The Golden Peacock
The story has it that Inderaputera was taken by the Golden Peacock and flown away, that he was raised as a grandson by a nenekkebayan and was later adopted by the Prime Minister and favoured by Minister Raja Shahian.
           One a day, King Bikrama Buspa gave audience to princes, chief ministers, noblemen as well as the common people.  He had Inderaputera on his lap. Then appeared the one who presented tribute from a country and along with him two representatives and a gold craftsman and a wood craftsman.
             So both the craftsmen came forward with deference; the wood craftsman created a perfect fish that resembled a live one. Then he offered it to the king who put the fish in a pot and water was poured into it.  The fish then laughed and sang and spoke poetically.  The king was surprised to see a fish laughing, singing and waxing poetic.
             Then his highness said to the gold craftsman. "O ye goldsmith, make me a craft of yours that I may see it."
          The goldsmith moved forward with deference and made a picture of a peacock of gold.  It was exceedingly lovely.  He presented it to the king who beheld before him a golden peacock of the finest appearance. He laid it on a platter of gold and silver. The peacock quivered while singing the most beautiful songs and waxing poetic.
          King BikramaPuspa then told the representatives who brought in the craftsmen, "You two, today I shall not take tribute from your lands."
         So the representatives fell prostrate in joy before the king.  Meanwhile, Inderaputera arose from his father’s lap to go look at the beautiful golden peacock on the platter strutting his feathers.  Suddenly the bird grabbed the boy and flew away with him.  They soon  disappeared from view and King Bikrama Puspa saw his son gone from sight.  He was stunned momentarily. When he came to he started to cry, and all the palace burst into an uproar as the people started crying, and soon entire the land was overcome with grief on the loss of Inderaputera.  King Bikrama Puspa became very despondent.
          The golden peacock flew off with Inderaputera and dropped him in the garden of a nenek kebayan (old woman). He walked slowly and stopped by a pomegranate tree. Then he ate the fruit thereof.
         When he had finished eating, the nenek kebayan arrived home from selling flowers.  She kept her basket inside and came out to the garden. When Inderaputera saw the old woman coming, he was reminded of his predicament and longed for his parents. He thought to himself, "Alas, this is my fate."
         Then the nenek kebayan came to the gate of her garden. She saw that it was tied and she also saw in the garden a child sitting under her pomegranate tree.  Extremely fine-looking and well-attired he was.
        The nenek kebayan said, "Whose child could this be and whence did he come? Plus, the garden gate is tied and bound and my village is very far from other villages where most people live."    
Then she asked him, "My child, who might you be and whence did you come?"
        So said Inderaputera, "I am the son of King Bikrama Buspa and my name is Inderaputera.  The reason why I am here is because I was flown in by a golden peacock." And he told the nenek kebayan all that had happened.

Hikayat Inderaputera

Most of the gods or heroes in the folklore would give help when it was needed.  Most of the popular superhero characters like Superman, Batman, Spiderman are all Western heroes  except for Ultraman who is Japanese.The thing that distinguishes these heroes from those found in the penglipurlara stories is that they wear a disguise.  You’d wonder if Western artists also read our penglipurlara stories? What is certain is that each nation or race have ancient stories and heroes of  their own and Hollywood director do use old tales in their storytelling and entertainment production.

Hikayat Sulalat al-Salatin

The mountain as a subject is rather so familiar in the Malay cosmology.  It is regarded as a canopy or a protective shelter.  Therefore, it is just as well that in Malay architecture the roof that protects the home from rain and heat takes the form of triangular mountain. Then there are others who are of the opinion that the peak formation is a symbol of the apex of power and strength.

In this exhibition, the works with Gunung Ledang theme namely Semangat Ledang” by Syed Ahmad Jamal and “Alam Ledang” by Ramlan Abdullah are paired. Syed Ahmad had devoted himself to this theme since the early 1990s. Impressed by the story of power-hungry leaders as told in Sulalatus Salatin or The Malay Annals as rewritten by Tun Seri Lanang in 1612, it inspired him to render it in his own inimitable style.

The story is about Sultan Mansur Shah’s desire to marry the Princess Gunung Ledang, who  ordered Tun Mamad to go and ask for her hand in marriage. The princess made a number of seemingly impossible requests, but there was one that could not be fulfilled by the Sultan as he had to sacrifice his own son in order to fulfil it. The story below inspired his work:

Asking for Princess GunungLedang’s Hand in Marriage

One day, all the nobles, mentris and hulubalangs, assembled and Sultan Mansyur Shah said to them, “We are grateful to Allah Subhanahuwa Ta’ala, that we have a great kingdom that God has bestowed upon us. But there is another thing that we wish Allah would grant us.  We wish to have a wife who shall surpass the wife of any prince in the world.”
           The chiefs said, “Is there such that you desire, sire, as you have married a princess of Java and a princess of China. What can surpass that, as only Alexander the Great in the olden days had a Chinese princess for a wife?
           Then said Sultan Mansur Syah, “For one prince to marry a daughter of another prince, even other rajas do that.  But what I desire is a bride that no other raja possesses, that is the girl that we wish to marry.”
         The chiefs said, “What is your wish that it be carried out?”
        Said Sultan Mansur Syah, “We desire to ask for the hand of the Princess Gunung Ledang and we will send the Laksamana and Sang Setia.”
Hang Tuah and Sang Setia replied, “Yes, sire.”
         Tun Mamad first set out with the men of Inderagiri to clear the way to Mount Ledang, for he was the head man or penghulu of Inderagiri.  Then the Laksamana and Sang Setia went with TunMamat.
         After a few days of journeying, they reached the foot of the Mount Ledang and began to ascend it. Halfway through, they were struck by a strong wind, and could proceed no further. The path was excessively difficult.  Tun Mamad said to the Laksamana and TunSetia, “Stop you here, gentles, let me ascend.” 
         The Laksamana said, “Very well.” Then Tun Mamad with two or three hearty men ascended further as well as they could till they come to the bamboos which produced a melodious sound, all that ascended felt like birds flying in the furious gusts of wind.  It felt like the clouds closed round so near that one might touch them, while the birds lingered to hear the bamboos’ melodious music and equally enthralled were other creatures of the forest. Then Tun Mamad came to a garden and in he went; there he met with four women, one of them an old woman of elegant appearance with a plaid thrown across her shoulder.
          She asked Tun Mamad, “Whence do you come and whither are you going?” Tun Mamad said, “I am a Melaka man named Tun Mamad. I am sent by the Sultan of Melaka to ask in marriage the lady, Princess Gunung Ledang.  Do tell me your name?” 
          The woman said, “My name is Dang Raya Rani and I am the head person here of the Princess Gunung Ledang. Whatever you want, stay here and I will go represent it to the princess.” On this, Dang Raya Rani and the young women instantly vanished.
Then came to him an old woman, hunch-backed and bent threefold, who said to him, “Dang Raya Rani has delivered your message to the Princess Gunung Ledang, who desires me to say that ‘if the Raja of Melaka wishes for me, he must first make a bridge of gold, and another of silver, from Melaka to Gunung Ledang and in asking me, he must present seven platters of mosquitoes’ hearts, seven platters of mites’ hearts, a vat of the juice of the young betel nut, a vat of virgin maidens’ tears, a bowl of the raja’s blood and a bowl of the raja’s son’s blood. If the raja performs this, the Princess Gunung Ledang will assent to his desire.’”
          As soon as she had spoken this, she vanished. According to some accounts, however, the elderly lady who spoke with Tun Mamad was the Princess Gunung Ledang herself who had assummed the appearance of an old woman.
         Then Tun Mamad descended and returned to the Laksamana. He informed the Laksamana and Sang Setia of what had transpired.  Then the laksamana and the men descended and returned to Melaka. The laksamana, Sang Setia and Tun Mamad related what had been heard from the Princess Gunung Ledang to the raja.
         Sultan Mansur Syah said, “All these requests may be complied with, but the taking of blood from our son is utterly unpleasant, we don’t have the heart for it.”

Sulalat al-Salatin
Tun Seri Lanang, 1612

In the exhibition,“Alam Ledang” is placed at the same level as the mountain in the painting “Semangat Ledang”. When one directly faces both the works,a triangle like a resin cone will appear in the front view with the paintings serving as the background. This kind of presentation is not new in gallery exhibitions, nevertheless whenever it is done,it yields a new interpretation to the pieces.

The Online Story
The penglipurlara tradition in Malay society began to disappear little by little with the emergence of radio and television. Pacak cinema that moved from one village to another began to attract more audience with interesting stories or movies shown. In the past, people only received one-way communication, whether hearing or seeing the news from the radio and television. Nowadays with the advancement of alternative online media communications (www or the World Wide Web) such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, you or I or anybody else can tell our stories to the whole wide world.

A blog (short for web log) is a website with entries written in chronological order and displayed in reverse order with the most recent entries appearing first. Online blogs gives bloggers the opportunity  to post stories in  the form of text, photo, video, music or audio. This curator has a special blog which brings together modern penglipurlara stories from multiple genres such as modern art, literature, film and music. Bloggers listed in this blog link are those that are actively involved and write in their areas of expertise such as Hasnul J Saidun, Baha Zain, Ben Filem as well as other penglipurlara who tell their stories combining both text and image. A blog link such as “contemporary hikayat” allows a two-way interaction so that readers can comment on a story that is posted.

The presence of blogs as social media has rivalled the mainstream media owned by partisan bodies, certain agencies and influential individuals in supplying the news.The media these days is nolonger  entirely in the hands of these parties to mould and channel, it has now penetrated into every home that has internet connection. Now anyone can hum or sing his story through blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the like.  The choice is ours.

End of Story
While the exhibition“Penglipur Lara: Alkesah Yang Empunya Cherita”may be seen as a lyrical, visual narrative,  it actually reveals the quality of Malay thought, providing insights and greater understanding of  the wisdom and intellectual prowess of thinkers of the Malay world. The works and materials gathered and exhibited here are meant to inspire further thought and appreciation, so that we may all continue to ponder and wonder, embrace and own more of our empowering heritage.

Exhibition Link:


Ali Ahmad, 2002. Hikayat Inderaputera. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

Terry Smith, 2012. Thinking Contemporary Curating.  New York: Independent Curators 

Tengku Sabri Ibrahim, 2010. Tanpa Tajuk – Cerita-Cerita Seni Rupa. Kuala Lumpur:
Tinta Publishers.

Tun Seri Lanang, 2009. Sulalat al-Salatin ya’ni Perteturun Segala Raja-Raja (Sejarah Melayu)
Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

Faizal Sidik, Co-curator, ‘Penglipurlara: Alkesah Yang Empunya Cherita’, Balai Seni Visual Negara, Kuala Lumpur.
  • Siti Sabariah A.Hamid, “Pameran Himpunan Naratif”
    Harian Metro, Rabu 2 Ogos 2013, Nuansa V2.

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