[By Nafisa Shamim]
As a Mass Communication student, I have run into the term “culture” more than a few times- whether it refers to communicating across cultures, to the transmission of culture through media, to the role of culture in communication, or what have you.
But aside from the classroom and the scribbled notes that are quickly forgotten after exams, what exactly is culture? What is its actual shape, form or purpose, behind those carefully crafted and technical definitions printed in textbooks?
Nowadays, culture appears to be either an accessory for the bourgeois to show off their refined tastes, or a spectacle that is staged for people intrigued by the novelty of it.
And it is difficult to know which of these is more aggravating. According to Eddin Khoo, political journalist and founder of Pusaka- “a non-governmental organisation dedicated to supporting the viability of traditional Malaysian art forms”- culture is the “lifeblood and pulse of society”. It is a mirror of a country’s experiences, their origins and their history, their unique perception of who they are and where they come from- an expression of individualism, of identity.
And yet, after living in five countries over the past nine years, I can only recall a handful of events where I experienced what I would call a nation’s culture. And while these were a novelty to me, as a stranger to these traditions, the real tragedy is in the fact that it was a novelty to my colleagues as well- an occasion to wear traditional garb and eat traditional food and witness traditional practices, only to revert back to the homogenous status quo that appears to apply globally.
But can they really be blamed? During Khoo’s talk at Publika’s Black Box on Saturday, May 11th, titled “The Permissible, the Non-Permissible and What Lies in Between” he asserted that “Our system is dedicated to stupefying students”. And he used “stupefying” not in its dictionary-sense of the word, but as a term coined to explain how it is making students “stupid”.
Controversial though this statement may sound, I’d have to say that to some extent I agree with him. There is widespread unawareness, for lack of a better word, about culture, and most people’s perceptions are shaped by what they are told to perceive. Education these days does not help, whether they pertain to the local curriculum or international ones. Textbooks might be rife with facts and dates of wars, independence, discoveries and inventions- but my concern is that the focus is too much on what happened rather than who we became in the process.
One case in point would be the 1991 ban on traditional art forms in Kelantan under the Islamic regime in power, due to their “heretical” and “illegitimate” nature. As someone with 23 years of experience under his belt investigating these claims though, Khoo was quick to contradict the criteria that were used to prohibit these art forms. Wayang Kulit, or shadow puppetry, for instance, was forbidden due to the elements of fantasy it consisted of, and its supposedly Hindu origins. And yet, according to Khoo, the epics depicted in these performances, playing out tales such as the Ramayana, may be of Indian origin but are not actually Hindu.
In fact, he went on to explain just why these plays centred around the recurring themes of jealousy, anger, hatred and hardship. Through the mediums of light and dark, puppeteers expose to their audience the kinds of conflict we face every day. And through the themes of perseverance, of good overcoming evil, of bravery and honour, they equip their spectators with the imagination needed to overcome these same problems in their own lives.
But how many people know that? From the relative obscurity of the art, among many others including Main Puteri and Mak Yong, all originating from Kelantan, I would have to say not many. And it is tragic to think that the Kelantanese have not only been deprived of their vocations, skills and craft that have been passed down through generations, based on reasons fraught with discrepancy, but also their right to express their individualism and their self-worth. To Khoo, the people of Kelatan are much more open-minded and open-spirited than any of us, partly because of the importance they place on individualism. What he calls their “anatomy of being” revolves around expressing the different layers of their personality through their tradition and their culture- one of the concepts behind the Thai-Javanese practice of Main Puteri, banned because of the role of trance in its performance.
So, in effect, the 1991 ban basically deprived the people of Kelantan of their right to self-expression.
Which brings me back to my original question- what is culture? What is the role it plays in our lives and in who we are?
After listening to Eddin Khoo deconstructing the Malaysian art scene’s present and grim-looking future, I’d have to say culture is what sets us apart. It is what defines who we are and how we think and what we believe better than the details listed in our ICs or passports can. Culture is a medium through which people can express themselves and their self-worth, it is what makes them unique. That would be the case not only for Kelatan but for the world of art and culture in general, whether that refers to theatre, to literature, to poetry, to aesthetics, to any form of literary expression out there. Deprived of this medium, we risk very much becoming one of the billions of specks dotting the world- just another face in the crowd trying hard to fit into somebody else’s expectations of what culture and art should be.
I can only hope that Pusaka’s attempts to breathe new life into the art scene, negotiating its way round bureaucratic obstacles and general oblivion, will show fruition soon. The idea that Malaysians may never get to experience the practices that set them apart as Malaysians is dreary to think of indeed.