Mak yong or mak yung (Jawi: مق يوڠ) is a traditional form of dance-drama from northern Malaysia, particularly the state of Kelantan. It was banned by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party in 1991 because of its animist and Hindu-Buddhist roots which pre-date Islam in the Asian region by far. In 2005 UNESCO declared mak yong a "Masterpiece Of The Oral And Intangible Heritage Of Humanity". The late Cik Ning was a leading mak yong performer in the 1980s.
Mak yong is considered the most authentic and representative of Malay performing arts because it is mostly untouched by external sources. Although most traditional Malay dances were influenced by India, Java and other parts of Southeast Asia, mak yong's singing and musical repertoire are unique. Of the major stories performed in mak yong, most are derived from Kelantan-Pattani mythology. Some of those obtained from outside the Malayan-Thai region have now died out elsewhere such as Anak Raja Gondang, a story originally from the Jataka tales but now almost unknown in India.
A performance begins by paying respect to the spirits (semah kumpung) with an offering. This is followed by dancing, acting and improvised dialogues. Stories were presented in a series of three hour performances over several nights. The lead dancer is called the pak yong and dresses as a king. The cast usually includes a queen in second lead, palace girls and jesters. Traditionally, all performers were female except for the clowns who are always male. A group called Jong Dongdang sings and dances in between chapters and at the story's closing. The mak yong orchestra is small with the main instruments played being the three-stringed spiked lute, drum (gendang) and a pair of gong. It may also include the flute (serunai), keduk drums and small cymbals (kesi).
Today there are less than ten veteran mak yong performers. Although there have been a few attempts to revive the art form, seasoned performers have noted a clear difference between the commercialised mak yong of urban dancers when compared with the movements of rural performers. Not many young people are willing to undergo the rigorous apprenticeship so the art is now on the decline.
Mak yong was founded in the Pattani kingdom which is now a province of Thailand. Because it was passed down orally among villagers, mak yong's exact age is uncertain. However, the fact that it is mostly free of outside influence would make it 800 years old at the very least and almost certainly much older. Legend generally credits the dance to a rice spirit called Mak Hiang but others believe it was created by a being called Semar. Historians are unsure whether mak yong evolved as a folk tradition or a palace theatre. Either way it was patronised by all layers of society to pay respect to the spirits, give thanks for the harvest or to cure a person's biorhythm.
According to the Hikayat Patani mak yong was brought to Kelantan more than 200 years ago. From there it spread to Kedah. Mak yong was mostly performed for royalty until then but by 1920 it was more often seen among common folk. Whereas the palace theatre mirrored the elegance of royalty, peasant performers enacted the life of workers in the rice fields. Nevertheless mak yong's delicate movements, polite mannerisms and refined speech endured. In 1923, the king's youngest son Long Abdul Ghaffar wanted mak yong to retain its courtly look. He built a cultural precinct called Kampung Temenggung on palace grounds to lend his support to the arts. During this time it became conventional to have a lead female. His death in 1935 was followed by World War II. Mak yong was once again a folk tradition but it now regained much of the sophistication it had as a court theatre, especially in the costumes, make-up and music.
The traditional mak yong had continued into the 1960s and 70s but was later impeded by the Islamic revival. When PAS took control of Kelantan in 1991, they banned mak yong in the state for its "un-Islamic elements" and clothing which leaves the head and arms uncovered. Although many old performers defied the ban, mak yong could no longer be shown in public. Some thought the tradition would die out until UNESCO declared it a masterpiece of mankind's heritage. There has since been some effort to preserve mak yong outside Kelantan but interest among the younger generation is lacking.
Nowadays mak yong is seldom performed at cultural shows because priority is given to modern Malay dances like Joget. It is sometimes still staged at weddings, to celebrate a state's independence or to pray for the king's long life. But these modern shortened performances are stripped of the old animist rituals and their music is simplified because the songs are played so infrequently. There are only a few troupes left who perform traditional mak yong in the villages of Kelantan and Terengganu.
As with many other ancient Malay forms of theatre, mak yong was once used for healing purposes. Healing mak yong is called mak puteri and involves trance dancing and spirit possession. It is closely connected to another traditional healing method called main puteri. These healing rituals are still practised in some more traditional cities but they are largely frowned upon today.
Ritual performances are more elaborate than those staged for entertainment, combining shamanism, feasting the spirits and dance theatre. It reflects the deep, mystical significance of mak yong's stories and dances and its original aim to serve as a conduit to the spirit world. Ritual performances are enacted for spiritual healing, to pay homage to a teacher and for the graduation of a performer.
- Prof. Dr Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof: "Mak Yong as ritual", Vol. 8: Performing Arts. The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, 2004.