The concept of the semangat and the angin may sound peculiar to most people. These otherworldly terms are deeply rooted in our traditional folk culture.
They talk about the “spirit” that exists within a person, a certain force that performers – of traditional and ritualistic art forms such as the mak yong or menora – tap into once on stage.
Some call it getting into a trance. Some believe a deity or entity from the spirit world takes control of the performer.
“My father once told me for the artiste, the divinity is there all the time,” shares Eric Peris, 79, a stalwart in the world of Malaysian photography, during a recent interview at Sutra Gallery in KL.
“If the performer gets into that field of interacting, then the person moves out of that shell and becomes somebody else,” he continues.
Through his photography, Peris explores this theme in his Divinity Within, a solo exhibition which is showing now at Sutra Gallery.This exhibition, which runs till Oct 7, also commemorates the late O. Don Peris, who was the Royal Artist of Johor in the 1920s. The pioneer portrait and landscape artist would have turned 125 years old this year.
After his father’s death in 1975, Peris decided to remember him through the Tin Mine Landscape series. This went on to become one of Peris’ most significant contributions to Malaysian art history.
A few of his previous exhibitions were also dedicated to his long gone family members. Batha (2017), Akka (2016) and A Flower Does Not Talk (2014) were tributes to his brother, sister and mother respectively.
The Divinity Within exhibition – Peris’ 40th – features 16 stunning photographs, mostly monochromatic, each an insightful study of the inner force driving performers of traditional and ritualistic dance, namely the mak yong, menora, Balinese dance and classical Indian dance.
“Arts at its highest level is divine. This is the reason the arts, especially ritualised performing arts, have a therapeutic effect on both the actors-dancers and also the audience. It is well known that actors are also shamans and we often talk of the ‘performance’ of healing,” says Sutra founder, choreographer and dancer Datuk Ramli Ibrahim.
“In the context of Malay traditional healing where mak yong, menora and main teri are concerned, the actor deals with communing with the ‘semangat’ (vital force) and ‘angin’ (inherent temperament) of the individual and also the community, and how these can be harmonised with inner psychological landscape,” he adds.
Historically, the mak yong and menora dance find their origin in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu and are considered one of the oldest and purest traditional Malay art forms in the region.
These dance-theatre performances are based on old world mythologies and are also used in traditional healing practices. They are believed to be shamanistic and animistic in nature due to their spiritual practices and uses and were effectively banned by the PAS-led Kelantan state government in 1991.
Despite the ban, Ramli took a group of writers, photographers and researchers along to the deep ends of Kelantan and Terengganu in order to document and support the families which still preserved these ritual theatre performances.
Peris joined several of these long haul trips, which Ramli initiated in 1994.
He recounts a few awe-inspiring experiences when he was confronted with these traditional and ritual art forms.
“I was shocked to see how these people could just turn over from the norm that they were in and through meditation and their own interaction and listening of verses, they could change. Suddenly, you are no more for them. They are on their own. They are performing for themselves. The whole idea of an audience becomes irrelevant,” he recalls.
This whole notion of the divinity within and performers entering into a different state (of being) can clearly be seen in the Mak Yong Primadona Mak Su Doing The Menhadap Rebab photograph. This 47cm x 39.5cm photo shows a mak yong prima donna in her elaborate garb, midway through her performance in Batu Rakit, Terengganu.
Her eyes are closed, her mouth slightly open, her hands lifted. It is almost as if the prima donna is no longer herself. There is something preternatural about the whole affair.
“I also saw this in Ramli when I saw him first perform. In the first two or three minutes, he’s entertaining us. But then slowly, the divinity built up within and he was no longer performing for us but himself,” says Peris.
Recognising that these traditional and rural art forms might soon disappear, Peris stresses the importance of recording and documenting them. But he warns it is not enough to merely capture these images for the sake of it. Neither should an individual enter into this venture with pre-conceived notions about these art forms.
He says it is imperative for photographers – or anyone who chooses to document these things – to read and understand the culture and tradition of rural and ritual theatre and spend time talking with the practitioners before even clicking the camera.
“You must understand what you are recording and how to record it,” Peris points out.
Divinity Within is on at the Sutra Gallery, 12 Jalan Persiaran Titiwangsa 3, KL till Oct 7. Opening hours: 9am-5pm. Monday-Friday (public). Saturday-Sunday (by appointment). For more information, call 03-4021 1092 or visit sutrafoundation.org.my.