Temperament and Desire in Kelantan

This essay explores the concept of ‘angin’ in the ritual theatre of Kelantan, the northeastern state of Peninsular Malaysia. Reflecting on my years of working with traditional performers in Kelantan, I will examine the concept of ‘angin’ as it is understood in its local cultural context, particularly as it relates to the Mak Yong and Main Puteri, both of which are healing traditions. In doing so, I will draw from the work of Carol Laderman, particularly her interpretation of the Kelantanese concept of ‘angin’ as the Inner Winds. Desire emerges as a fundamental element in the notion of ‘angin’ in the Kelantanese psyche, often determining the well- or ill-being of an individual, while the collective yearnings of their community are characterised by a kind of melancholy that seeks resolution in memory. In considering the ways in which ‘angin’ operates on metaphorical and psychological levels in the context of ritual theatre in Kelantan, I will also explore the various types of trance that take place at such occasions, through a personal account of a healing Mak Yong performance in its community setting.

 

 

Keywords: angin—Kelantan—mak yong—main puteri—healing tradition—desire—melancholy—memory

The sky over Kelantan is never still. A wide-open day can turn stormy without warning. I have witnessed dark clouds swell suddenly out of radiant afternoons, closing in around the limestone hills that dot the landscape near the jungles of Gua Musang. One is sharply aware of the elements here; they seem imbued with an intensity that is almost palpable. Nothing is half-hearted. The rains are torrential, the sun scorching, the wind capricious and playful.

The contours of the land are wild, unpredictable—walls of tangled leaf and vine spilling into paddy fields; the tributaries of the Kelantan River snaking northeast; twin rocks rising from the soil like the engorged breasts of a reclining woman. Everything here suggests fecundity, decay, rejuvenation. Despite centuries of agricultural cultivation and decades of urban development, Kelantan’s spirit remains untameable.

Here, the familiar is thrown into stark relief by the strange. The ethereal is a shadow stalking earthly reality at every turn. A kind of obscenity pervades nature here, tempered by the intricate character of the Kelantanese people. They are a proud people with a resilient sense of self and independent spirit, often misread by other Malaysians as displaying a kind of regional clannishness not unlike tribalism.

My own experience of the Kelantanese—from working closely with masters of performance traditions in villages throughout the state—has always been one of mutual embrace. Their warmth towards others is expressed not in the usual manner of being a hospitable host, but rather through their complete acceptance of one’s otherness as part of their world. On my first journey as an adult to Kelantan, while wandering through the aisles of fresh produce at the Siti Khadijah Market in Kota Bharu, my eye was caught by clusters of an unfamiliar jungle fruit—pebble-like berries with smooth black skin peeled open to reveal velvety amber flesh. The old mek watching over the stall was amused by my curiosity, the clear mark of a city girl unaccustomed to Kelantan’s wild harvests. I asked the old lady what kind of fruit this was; she smiled playfully and replied to me in pantun: ‘Buah keranji dalam perahu …’ (‘In a wooden boat, the keranji fruit …’).

This unexpected banter in verse has come to encapsulate for me the spontaneity, receptiveness to others, and imaginative freedom of the Kelantanese people. I sense that their appreciation for the uniqueness of others has been shaped by their openness to the infinite possibilities of the individual personality as well as a sureness of who they are as a community. It is perhaps this space between openness and rootedness that offers a way of understanding the idea of angin, the inner winds, which emerges as a central concept in the ritual theatre of Kelantan.

The Inner Winds
The Malay word angin (literal translation: wind) carries various meanings and connotations. It is the element of wind that moves in nature, as well as one of the principal elements in the physical composition of the human being. Traditional Malay understandings of health are based on ancient Greek-Arab ideas of humourism, where the balance of four bodily fluids (humours) and their associated elements within the body—blood (air), yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), and phlegm (water)—were believed to affect a person’s mood, personality traits and behavior. The four humours were thought to correspond to the ‘four temperaments’—sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic (McCartney 1918). According to Hippocratic medical theories, the balance of elements (and temperaments) was constantly changing, and could be influenced by diet, physical activity and body temperature. These beliefs were similar to Ayurvedic, Chinese as well as indigenous systems of health, and were thus easily incorporated and adapted into the Malay worldview when they reached the Malay Archipelago along with Islam (Laderman 1991).

In traditional Malay healing, illness is sometimes ascribed to an imbalance of angin (the cold element of air or wind) in the body. There are numerous traditional Malay medical practices, such as massage and herbal remedies, that are aimed at restoring the balance of humoural elements in the physical body. Angin can also refer to a person’s temper—when someone’s mood is described as naik angin (rising wind) it means that anger is afoot. In the traditional Kelantanese understanding, angin is all this and more; it is the particular temperament of an individual’s innate character. In her groundbreaking study on the Main Puteri tradition of Kelantan, Taming the Wind of Desire: Psychology, Medicine and Aesthetics in Malay Shamanistic Performance, the late anthropologist Carol Laderman describes in detail the concept of angin, which she calls the ‘Inner Winds’:

The Inner Winds, as understood by east coast Malays, are close to Western concepts of temperament, both in the medieval sense of the four temperaments and as artistic temperament. Everyone is born with angin, the traits, talents, and desires representing our ancestors’ heritage, but some have more, or stronger, angin than the common run. If they are able to express their angin, they can lead untroubled and productive lives and, in fact, will usually be respected for their strong, gifted characters. If they cannot, their angin is trapped inside them, where it accumulates and produces sakit berangin, or sickness due to blockage of the Inner Winds. (Laderman 1991: 68)

In the context of Kelantanese ritual theatre such as the Main Puteri healing tradition and the Mak Yong dance drama, angin thus encompasses the need of the Self to express itself through a particular art form, as well as an individual’s affinity to archetypal figures of the Kelantanese imagination.

My own real understanding of angin in the ritual theatre of Kelantan was set in motion at a Mak Yong performance in a small village near the Terengganu-Kelantan border, more than ten years ago. I had recently started working with PUSAKA—a cultural organisation set up by the writer Eddin Khoo to support the viability of performance traditions at the community level in Kelantan, in the face of a ban by the Pan-Islamic Party (PAS) state government that has been in effect since 1991. A journalist with a leading English-language daily at the time of the ban, Eddin had travelled up frequently to Kelantan to extensively write about the repercussions of the ban and, over several years, established deep bonds with the old masters of Wayang Kulit, Mak Yong, Main Puteri, Manora and Dikir Barat traditions. PUSAKA (the name of the organisation is the Malay word for heritage) had been set up at the behest of these masters.

Having had studied classical Burmese dance with the master U Win Maung for several years, and having had read numerous anthropological texts on myth, ritual and performance, I believed I possessed a solid enough foundation for understanding the Mak Yong. Yet my first encounter with a ritual Mak Yong performance in its local community setting was as disorienting as it was breathtaking. Whatever preconceived notions I may have held were soon torn away: not only of the Mak Yong tradition but of the Malay psyche; of social relations in the kampong; of the living fabric of the country I call my own.  

Mek Ti, a veteran Mak Yong actress and head of the troupe we work with, greeted us at the dirt road that led to her village. She was dressed in a faded floral sarong and a red button-down shirt. As we walked across the open ground towards the Mek Ti’s house, I caught the keen gaze of a young woman standing outside a simple wooden and concrete structure. I soon learnt that the structure was the keropok (fish cracker) factory where many of the villagers earned their livelihood. Mek Ti treated Eddin like a son, as did her brother, the late Pak Su Mat. With his fair complexion, high cheekbones and doe-eyed expression, Pak Su Mat was beautiful to behold; yet I was especially struck by the gracefulness of his gestures and the soft lilting tone of his voice. After coffee and a lively conversation on the porch of Mek Ti’s house, I took the opportunity to wander around the village. My curiosity drew me back to the keropok factory.

Around a dozen women were there, engaged in the various stages of producing keropok lekor (a sausage-like fish cracker popular in Terengganu). Some emptied bags of fish into grinding machines, some stood by large wooden tables and rolled the minced fish meat with sago flour and salt, while others dipped keropok dough into boilers. The young woman whose gaze I had met earlier was bent over her work, her slender arms powdered with flour from hours of rolling dough. She looked up and acknowledged my presence with a slight nod and smile. I sensed she was about my age. Something about her marked her out distinctly from the others—a kind of inner intensity one rarely encounters in young urban Malaysian women. Mek Ti later told me that the young woman was Esa, the eldest granddaughter of the great Mak Yong actress, Che Ning—Pak Su Mat’s late wife.

There are several kinds of ritual performance in the Mak Yong tradition; that night’s performance was a healing ritual known as a semah angin (blandishment of inner winds). As dusk fell, Mek Ti and Pak Su Mat went into the house to change into their elaborate Mak Yong garments and to apply makeup, while the musicians took their places in the panggung—a makeshift open-walled theatre made from bamboo, wood and atap. Ritual offerings including pulut kuning (yellow glutinous rice), a whole roast chicken, and a bamboo model palace called a balai, had been prepared and were placed at one end of the panggung. The rebab (spiked fiddle) player led the other musicians in a prelude for the purpose of gerak angin (stirring the inner winds)—to find an intuitive flow among themselves, within the space of the panggung, and with the audience of villagers seated around it.

In the opening sequence of menghadap rebab (salutations to the rebab), the main Mak Yong actress—a captivating old lady from Narathiwat—and a group of dayang (maidens) paid respects to the spiked fiddle. The rebab is related to the origins of the Mak Yong tradition and thus possesses sacred significance. Among the dayang were Esa and her two sisters. The crying tone of the rebab, the soulful song that rose from the lips of the actress and dayang, their slow turning and fluttering hand gestures cast a spell on the entire village. Some performers have explained the principal hand gesture of the Mak Yong—known as empat (four) because of the four upward pointing fingers—as symbolising the four humoural elements as well as the four corners of the panggung (Hardwick 2013: 83-85).

The performance of the cerita (story), led by the main actress, Mek Ti and Pak Su Mat, was deeply evocative with a ceaseless ebb and flow of tragedy and comedy. Romance and satire were present to somewhat lesser degrees. The unfolding of the story—Dewa Muda that night—was propelled by an element of surprise. Dramatic scenes would give way to comic relief with peran (clown) characters and female impersonators, only to surge moments later into an outpouring of lament.

The sense of the tragic in the Mak Yong—and this can be said of all Kelantanese ritual theatre—is marked not so much by catastrophe or hamartian fatal flaw but by a profound sense of loss and longing. In some ways, the Mak Yong seems to exemplify the kind of ‘tragedy’ Friedrich Nietzsche speaks of in The Birth of Tragedy (1993), where wild Dionysian spirit forges a fragile balance with structured Apollonian form to create the great art of Athenian tragedy. Indeed, it could even be viewed as a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), merging diverse forms of art and visual spectacle into a complete and powerful experience of art. The Mak Yong derives its aesthetic and healing power from its mythological stories as told through music, dance, drama, songs and poetry—all framed by ritual. It is through giving expression to deep yearnings that the Mak Yong seems to offer a kind of collective catharsis, not only affecting the performers and their kin, but the audience and inhabitants of the village as well.

The stories of the Mak Yong are rooted in the mythology of the old Kelantan and Pattani Sultanates, and trace influences back to the Srivijaya Empire (7th–13th centuries). Most of the stories are based on the adventures and destinies of mythical royal-celestial figures, while a few are derived from old Buddhist Jataka tales. Others claim that the Mak Yong tradition originated from Che Siti Wan Kembang, the legendary Queen of Kelantan who is said to have reigned during the 14th century (Rahimidin 2011: 4-9). The Mak Yong narratives often abound with pathos, allowing the audience to identify strongly with the protagonist. In Mak Yong berubat (healing) performances, a sakit berangin (illness of inner winds) patient who identifies strongly with a particular story is said to have the angin of the protagonist—for example, angin Dewa Muda or angin Dewa Pechil. The patient is encouraged to dress up in the resplendent Mak Yong songket, beaded lattice necklace and tanjak (headdress), and ‘play out’ the complexities of the character in order to flatter, tease and give expression to their trapped angin. A shaman, known as a Tok Puteri, guides the patient through the healing process and presides over the ritual aspects of the performance. This is what took place at the semah angin that night. 

It is an intricate form of psychotherapy. While the ailments may at times be physical or result in physical symptoms, most illnesses treated by Kelantanese healing performances are psychological in nature (Wright 1980: 7). Barbara S. Wright observes:

The Main Peteri ceremony seeks to alleviate the stresses of its patient by a symbolic enactment of their problems through the Kelantanese arts. These problems are manifest by the patient’s withdrawal from society; the cure is manifest by the patient’s re-entry into society. This re-entry is signalled by the patient’s trance dance with the To’ Peteri: dance is the cure. (Wright 1980: 8)

The ultimate intention of Kelantanese healing performance is a confrontation with the Self, its expression and subsequent reintegration into the community through physical and emotional participation in the ritual dance, music and stories of the Main Puteri and Mak Yong traditions.

The mythical protagonists of the Mak Yong stories thus serve as archetypal metaphors for the Self, for the intrinsic temperament and layered personality of the individual. According to Laderman, “Explanations of conditions involving unexpressed angin do not employ projective systems. Sufferers of sakit berangin must face the reality of their own personalities undisguised by symbols that locate their problems outside themselves” (Laderman 1991: 82). This interpenetration of mythology, metaphor and psychology in Kelantanese healing traditions corresponds significantly to Clifford Geertz’s description of the ethos and worldview of the Javanese wayang (shadow play): “It is not the external world of principalities and powers which provides the main setting for human action, but the internal one of sentiments and desires. Reality is looked for not outside the self but within it; consequently what the wajang dramatizes is not a philosophical politics but a metaphysical psychology.” (Geertz 1973: 134).

Angin as desire
The expression of trapped angin in an individual may be achieved through playing out an archetypal Mak Yong role in a ritual performance space. Yet not all individuals with trapped angin necessarily identify with these roles, nor are they necessarily ill enough to be in need of a semah angin. This is where the spontaneous sessions of lepas angin (setting free the inner winds) take on significance. 

Towards the end of the semah angin that night, Pak Su Mat and Mek Ti suddenly asked the musicians to play joget music. The intense flow of the story was momentarily suspended and the mood of the night shifted drastically. I was both delighted and slightly puzzled. As the music pulsated, Pak Su Mat moved nimbly towards the centre of the panggung and sang the infectious ‘Joget Pahang’. Beneath the tanjak, his hair was already grey, yet his movements were extraordinarily fluid. He sang:

Dari Melaka ke Negeri Pahang
Singgah di Johor beli berangan…
Kami mengupcap Selamatlah Datang
Harap yang kurang dicaci jangan.1

At the sound of the gong that marked the joget rhythm, a teenage girl in the audience suddenly fell into a faint. Instead of rushing to her side to see if she was alright, Mek Ti and a few older women carried her to the centre of the panggung. She was not unconscious; she was in a trance-like state. To my surprise, Mek Ti pulled her to her feet and made her dance the joget. After writhing momentarily to free herself from Mek Ti’s grasp, the girl started to dance, gyrating her hips and twirling her arms in a sensual but disjointed manner. She was still in a semi-trance; her eyes were glazed as she was carried away by the music.

In all this, the musicians never missed a beat. Soon, another young woman in semi-trance leapt into the panggung, her movements vigorous and tense. A few sprightly teenage girls (not in trance) joined the joget as well; Esa and her sisters did not. Some older men also entered the panggung, but did not dance one on one with the women. Pak Su Mat, Mek Ti and the older women danced with the girls, making sure the ones in trance didn’t fall over. This lepas angin session lasted for some time, until the girls in trance were exhausted and the Tok Puteri came over to refresh their senses and lead them out of trance.

I wondered to myself if this practice was similar to the tarantella, the Southern Italian folk dance believed to have originated as a ‘musical exorcism’ for patients actually or symbolically bitten by the tarantula spider. To prevent descent into hysteria and even death, patients were made to dance wildly to the maddening rhythms of tarantella music. According to I.M. Lewis, although men were more prone than women to be bitten by tarantulas because they worked in the fields, patients suffering from tarantism were largely women, often young women experiencing psychic conflicts and repressed sexual desire (Lewis 1991: 514). My mind drifted too to what I had read about the ‘ritual madness’ of Dionysian cults—also popular among women—where states of ecstatic trance were induced amidst music and dance (and wine) to liberate the individual from social restrictions (Kraemer 1979). 

What was the underlying nature of the angin being released during the dancing of the joget? It was desire—layered and in many forms. The suppressed erotic desire of the girls hung thickly in the air of the panggung. Their nascent sexuality and subconscious longings were being playfully expressed and sublimated through the joget. The impulses, inhibitions, rapture and frustrations of desire were being negotiated here in full view of the community, albeit in a ritual space, under the guidance of elders.

A night of dancing at a club is something many teenagers in Kuala Lumpur take for granted. Social dancing in a kampong at the Kelantan-Terengganu border is an altogether different, far more powerful, experience. The cultural reality and social mores here are complex. On the one hand, kampong communities are perhaps more susceptible than city folk to the ramifications of rising religious conservatism. On the other hand, imaginative ways of challenging and resisting imposed codes of belief and behaviour still exist in the kampong. A ritual performance like the semah angin would be unimaginable in Kuala Lumpur, where modes of cultural ‘resistance’ are all too easily administered. In Kelantan, the ostensible support for the conservatism of PAS can be seen to some extent as a mark of the independent spirit of the Kelantanese, who reject the corrupt politics of the national ruling coalition. And despite the formal ban on ritual performance, in reality there is considerable flexibility at the ground level for discreet defiance. In some cases, kampong headmen who are PAS members also have Mak Yong kin, and will gladly allow a ritual performance to be held for fear of being haunted by their Mak Yong moyang (ancestors).

While emotional inhibitions certainly exist in gender interactions in the kampong, it is essential to note that the traditional role of women in Kelantan is one of household authority and economic power. On his voyage to Kelantan in 1837, Munsyi Abdullah observed that Kelantanese women dominated trade at the marketplace and remarked on their industriousness (Abdullah Abdul Kadir 2005: 114-116). Even today, women wield more presence and power than men at the local markets in Kelantan and often manage the family expenses. However, the Kelantanese woman’s robust sense of self seems to be less apparent in younger women who have been through the modern schooling system. Interestingly, many older women of the Mak Yong tradition operate along unconventional gender relations, rendered permissible by their special status as ‘stars’ of Kelantanese theatre. The great Mak Yong prima donna, Che Ning (Esa’s grandmother), was said to have had numerous ‘husbands’ or lovers, some of them simultaneously. Mek Jah—a charismatic Mak Yong actress now in her late 60s with whom PUSAKA works closely—has had 11 husbands (consecutively).

The desire that night was not simply erotic. At one point, an older woman rose to her feet and started doing silat (traditional Malay martial arts) and her husband was pushed into the panggung to duel with her. It was not simply a playful bout of sparring; they seemed to be enacting and working through unspoken domestic tensions in the panggung. Mek Ti whispered to me that this woman had been having household problems for weeks. Indeed, the woman—who eventually won the duel after throwing her husband to the ground—seemed to be demonstrating anger and authority that she was inhibited from expressing in her everyday life. This was desire for self-assertion.

As I watched the unfolding of angin in the Mak Yong ritual performance, I could not help recalling Federico García Lorca’s insights on duende. Lorca’s understanding of the Andalusian idea of duende, which he applied to his own poetics, parallels the Kelantanese idea of angin in many ways. The duende is a kind of primal artistic power that finds expression mainly in three genres of Andalusian performance—the flamenco dance, cante jondo (deep song), and the bullfight. Great singers, dancers and matadors are said to ‘have duende’, just as master performers in Kelantan are described as ‘ada angin kuat’ (having strong inner winds). In his 1922 lecture ‘Play and Theory of the Duende’, Lorca explains: ‘The duende … is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought … it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.’ (Lorca 1998: 49).

The duende is both irresistible and dangerous; it is battled in the being of the artist as ‘hand to hand combat’, wounding the soul of the artist in its wake. In Lorca’s words, ‘… the duende wounds. In the healing of that wound, that never closes, lie the strange, invented qualities of a man’s work’ (Lorca 1998: 58). In a similar way, angin is a living force within the artist and the individual which at times demands expression and, through the cultivation of its volatile power, throws open mysterious channels of artistic creation. 

Melancholy and Memory
Another aspect of the desire that lies at the heart of angin is melancholy. In Kelantanese ritual theatre, melancholy emerges as individual and collective yearning for something lost or distant; it carries a sense of the impermanence of joy and the elusiveness of true happiness. Indeed, the Mak Yong stories are elaborate narratives of melancholic beings who exist between bumi (earth) and kayangan (the celestial realm): they are filled with episodes of banishment, wandering, dreaming, shape-shifting and traversing realms in search of something beyond reach. Melancholy in Kelantanese theatre can be seen as the complementary counterpoint to desire. While desire is rooted in earthly reality and is urged, at least in part, by the possibility of being satisfied, melancholy is shaped by inexplicable longing and existential sadness.

For Mak Yong ritual healing, it is the stories of dewa (demigods) that are most often performed. In my conversations with Mek Ti, she referred to Dewa Muda, the most important of all Mak Yong stories, as raja segala angin (king of all the inner winds). Different episodes are performed for different kinds of patients and it is significant that the act of healing and restoration occurs several times in the narrative. In a key episode, Dewa Muda’s spiritual guide, Awang Sejambul Lebat, mends Dewa Muda’s broken wau (kite) so that he can soar upon it to kayangan. This episode is often performed in a semah angin to restore the health of the elderly patients or those with long-term sakit berangin (Hardwick 2013: 91-92). The most dramatic instance of healing in the story is when Dewa Muda is resurrected from death in kayangan by Awang Sejambul Lebat and brought back to the earthly realm. Once his health is restored, Dewa Muda ascends once more to kayangan to fulfil his destiny and union with the celestial princess, Puteri Ratna Mas.

The other Mak Yong story that is often performed for ritual healing is Dewa Pechil (The Isolated Demigod), a tale saturated with melancholy. Dewa Pechil is a rightful sovereign without wealth who becomes an outcast; he is banished from his kingdom and wanders the land in search of a spiritual home. Sakit berangin patients who feel isolated from society often identify strongly with this story. When performed for a semah angin, the story opens the floodgates of emotion and evokes a deluge of weeping. One could say that the release and expression of the desire of angin through ritual performance temporarily dispels melancholy. Ideas of healing melancholy through music are ancient and universal and can be found in various old texts—from Al-Farabi’s 9th century treatise on music therapy to Robert Burton’s 17th century classic, The Anatomy of Melancholy (2001), which devotes an entire chapter to music as a remedy for melancholy.

The characters of Dewa Muda and Dewa Pechil can be said to represent the two main archetypes of the Kelantanese psyche. Both are marked by melancholic yearning. Dewa Muda is the adventurous prince whose melancholy lies in not fully belonging to either bumi or kayangan, and in his longing to be united with his true love no matter what the circumstances. By contrast, Dewa Pechil is the exiled solitary wanderer, whose melancholy is expressed as lament, Weltschmerz (world-weariness), and renunciation. Although the outward paths of these narratives diverge greatly, both Dewa Muda and Dewa Pechil are eventually restored by a spiritual journey—a recognition of and return to their true Self. 

Memory plays a vital role in the process of healing, both for the individual patient as well as for the Mak Yong community as a collective. The centrality of memory is particularly evident in the final part of the semah angin, when the ceremonial offerings are symbolically presented to the guru asal (original teacher) of the Mak Yong tradition and the moyang (ancestors) of the Mak Yong community. Here, the act of remembering serves as a restoration of the Self through an invocation of the guru asal and moyang. Knowledge of Mak Yong has traditionally been passed down through bloodlines; the invocation of ancestors and teachers during ritual performances underscores the importance of keturunan (lineage). While individuals not of Mak Yong lineage may learn the external forms of the art, the deepest ilmu (esoteric knowledge) cannot be learned. It is something inherited through lineage alone. Individuals with keturunan in a tradition often have a sudden strong urge to perform that tradition, and even without formal training, may exhibit mastery of movement and ritual acts.

Esa unmistakably embodies the subtle workings of keturunan. The eldest granddaughter of Che Ning, and the descendant of many generations of Mak Yong practitioners, Esa is in an ideal position to take on the ritual responsibilities of the Mak Yong. This is something that developed naturally, with little conscious choice on her part. While her sisters also possess the deep knowledge of Mak Yong born of keturunan, it is Esa who presides over the ceremony.

During the concluding rituals of the semah angin that night, Esa—who had hardly participated in the performance besides the opening sequence—suddenly took command of the panggung. The family and kin of the Mak Yong performers gathered in the centre of the panggung to be collectively healed by the Tok Puteri. Amid the incantations of the Tok Puteri, some of the older women kin fell into trance, the kind of trance known as lupa (forgetting)—a deeper and more powerful trance than the girls during the joget session. To my astonishment, a few of them crouched on all fours and spun their heads wildly before the ritual offerings. Later I was told that these women had angin hala, which Laderman describes as an aggressive inner wind that expresses itself in the form of a weretiger (Laderman 1994: 191).

Esa too was clearly in an altered state of awareness, yet it was not the semi-trance of the joget girls, nor the lupa trance of her Mak Yong kin. She did not utter a word, but spoke through her movements, which were intensified gestures of the Mak Yong dance vocabulary. Her eyes were ablaze. She emanated lucidity, urgency, and an inner knowledge that had been forged through the discipline of inherited tradition. This seemed to me to be the antithesis of the lupa trance. This was not a ritual forgetting of a socially-constructed Self, along with the inhibitions that accompany it; this was a ritual act of remembering one’s origins, invoking one’s ancestors, and returning to one’s original identity and proper place in the cosmos. This was the anamnesis of Plato, the primordial memory that awakens man from the ‘sleep’ and ‘oblivion’ of the mundane world and historical time (Eliade 1963: 129-134). This was ceremony as described by the poet Christopher Merrill, who accompanied us to Kelantan for a Main Puteri healing ritual some years ago:  

… at its best a ceremony enacts the full range of human emotions in the service of interrogating the soul, articulating ways of knowing, pleading to the gods, defining one’s right relationships to family and community, tribe and country, the earth and the divine. (Merrill 2011: 87)

The concept of angin in the Kelantanese worldview reveals an intricate understanding of human needs, emotions, desires, and disappointments. It comes into being through the primal yearnings of the individual and the community, navigating unmapped journeys by tracing the footsteps of ancestors. It breathes, plays, and endures between the rooted self and open spirit of the Kelantanese people, between bumi and kayangan.

 

End notes

  • 1. Translation: From Malacca to the state of Pahang/ Stopover in Johore to buy chestnuts/ We greet you with a warm welcome/ Whatever is lacking, we hope you’ll pardon.
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Burton, Robert (2001) The Anatomy of Melancholy, New York: New York Review of Books.

Eliade, Mircea (1963) Myth and Reality, New York: Harper & Row.

Geertz, Clifford (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.

Hardwick, Patricia A. (2013) ‘Embodying the divine and the body politic: mak yong performance in rural Kelantan, Malaysia’, in Timothy P. Daniels (ed.), Performance, Popular Culture and Piety in Muslim Southeast Asia, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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Laderman, Carol (1994) ‘The embodiment of symbols and the acculturation of the anthropologist’, in Thomas J. Csordas (ed.), Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground for Culture and Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 183-197.

Lewis, I.M. (1991) ‘The spider and the pangolin’, Man (New Series), 26(3), 513-525.

Lorca, Federico García (1998) In Search of Duende, New York: New Directions.

Kraemer, Ross S. (1979) ‘Ecstasy and possession: The attraction of women to the cult of Dionysus’. Harvard Theological Review, 72 (1-2), 55-80. Abstract only.

McCartney, Eugene S. (1918) ‘Some folk-lore of ancient physiology and psychology’, The Classical Weekly, November 18, 35-38.

Merrill, Christopher (2011) The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1993) The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music, London: Penguin Classics.

Rahimidin Zahari and Sutung Umar eds., (2011), Mak Yung: The Mystical Heritage of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur: Institut Terjemahan Negara.

Wright, Barbara S. (1980) ‘Dance is the cure: the arts as metaphor for healing in Kelantanese Malay spirit exorcisms’, Dance Research Journal, 12(2) (Spring – Summer), 3-10.