All across Malaysia Baharu, the collective spirit behind community arts, culture and theatre initiatives cannot be denied.

There are hundreds of groups either making sure that traditional art doesn’t die, ensuring that theatre culture is developed in far-flung places or that community art can evolve into an inspiring force to galvanise not only a small community but an entire nation.

Here are five community-based groups shaping the arts scene.

Pangrok Sulap

Where was Pangrok Sulap 10 years ago? They started out as a small collective in the sleepy town of Ranau in Sabah, less than an hour’s drive from the foothills of Mount Kinabalu. The aim then was to extend a helping hand to the community, in particular those living in the far-flung areas of the state.

“We wished to use art as a means to give a voice to the community. We also wanted to promote DIY culture and convey the importance of being self-sufficient and not be overly dependent on the government,” says Rizo Leong, one of the founding members of Pangrok Sulap.

Today, its woodcuts have taken the collective all over the world. This year itself, it has been invited to showcase works in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris and Singapore.

“Our beginnings are humble: We first started selling our art at the tamu (open-air market) and all we wanted to do was to reach out to the local community. We have come so far from when we first started, thanks to support from the people, and we are very grateful. This has been quite a journey. To be frank, we never expected to make it this far,” he says.

Pangrok Sulap captures social issues and environmental concerns in its works in KL.

To Leong, the messages contained within the work serve merely as an entry point for further discussion. “We would like to start conversations. We believe that art should evoke a reaction in the viewer. After all, art is a tool for education and information,” he says.

Pangrok Sulap holds woodcut workshops for the public, both to nurture a love for the arts and to encourage people to realise their full potential.

“Many works we exhibit abroad are projects we worked on together with the community. We see these overseas engagements as opportunities for us to share our stories with the outside world. And the big picture? We hope that through our art, we will move towards a community that is productive, creative and able to stand firmly on its own feet,” he concludes.

With the funds from art sales, Pangrok Sulap is looking at setting up a “rumah kraftangan” in Kampung Keiyep in Ranau.

A demonstration of Silat Jawi by the students of Sanggar Budaya Geng Wak Long. Photo: Kamrul Hussin

Sanggar Budaya Geng Wak Long

By nature, traditional arts seem to thrive when the local community is involved in its growth. Thanks to multi-instrumentalist Kamrul Hussin, the son of the late Hussin Yusoff (a master Kelantanese rebab player), the future of traditional Kelantanese arts and lineages have been restored.

When this Kelantan-born percussionist set up Sanggar Budaya Geng Wak Long in his hometown in Banggol Gelang Mas in 2013, he knew exactly why it was crucial.

“Sanggar Budaya was founded with the purpose of introducing, encouraging, training and promoting traditional Kelantanese and East Coast arts to the local community primarily and then the people of Kelantan and Malaysians in general,” says Kamrul, 41, referring to the cultural centre that teaches silat, tari inai and Malay percussion.

Kamrul realises the importance of the “next generation”. In so many ways, Sanggar Budaya is serving its role as a platform to nurture traditional Kelantanese arts.

To date, 43 students have graduated from the centre’s silat jawi Kelantan and tari inai programme. Besides mastering these art forms, the students also get to showcase their talent at local events such as weddings or perform at cultural events in KL.

For Kamrul, Sanggar Budaya gives the young people of his hometown an essential platform to “learn, interact, communicate and encourage the spirit of togetherness”.

Die Die Tak Bayar by Pitapat Theatre. This play was staged in 2013 at the Sabah State Museum, G. C. Woolley Hall. Photo: Pitapat Theatre

Pitapat Theatre

Theatre does not just belong in the big cities. That is something Seng Soo Ming holds on to strongly. “If people hardly reach out to theatre, then theatre should come out from the city and reach out to the people,” says the Seremban-born Seng.

He returned to Malaysia after graduating from Singapore’s Intercultural Theatre Institute, and decided to set up Pitapat Theatre in Kota Kinabalu in 2012.

Choosing Sabah as my first stop came from an intention not only to reach out to the people but it was also to develop the theatre scene in Sabah and build the (theatre) bridge between east and west Malaysia,” he adds.

Some of the Pitapat shows have explored local political issues, while developing a community of actors in Sabah.

“I think Pitapat’s biggest contribution is that we raised awareness about the existence and potential of the theatre industry in Kota Kinabalu. We insisted on keeping our plays multilingual and we had continuous actor-training programmes,” says Seng.

Apart from workshops and acting classes, Pitapat Theatre played at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (India), worked on Bu Dai Xi (hand cloth puppet theatre) in collaboration with Taiwan’s Shan Puppet Theatre, and organised a workshop series with Mexican actor/director Beto Ruiz in 2016.

“These programmes and workshops are important to show the local community the outcome of the works together with the introduction of the process. This is why for us, performances and education always run in parallel, because we are not just opening a market for theatre but developing the appreciation of arts in the community,” says Seng.

That is exactly what Seng and his team intends to do in Seremban, Pitapat Theatre’s new base since the beginning of this year.

Master of his art: Renowned sape’ master and The Tuyang Initiative talent, Mathew Ngau, captivated audiences at the Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival.

Tuyang Initiative

Juvita Tatan Wan, a young Kenyah woman, was fearful for the fate of her community. Many members of her indigenous community were moving to urban centres, all eager to make a sustainable living. This had many side effects, including a loss of their traditional culture and heritage.

Concerned, she and her father, John Wan Usang, set up the Tuyang Initiative in 2016, which aims to promote and develop Dayak cultural heritage.

“We landed on a simple idea of working to our community’s own strengths, which is our cultural heritage, as opportunities to generate income, and in hopes for it to consequently lead to continued practice and meaningful preservation of our traditions, arts and culture. Two years on, we’re still doing, learning and reiterating, sometimes making strides, but there’s still a very long way to go,” says Juvita.

Tuyang Initiative has come a long way, and its members comprise many practitioners and artisans skilled in the practice of traditional cultural forms.

These include Mathew Ngau Jau, a sape performer and master who is only one of five people in Malaysia to hold the title of Living National Heritage, 21-year-old traditional singer and storyteller Adrian Jo Milang, and Rose Belarek, a traditional craft maker who conducts craft workshops in rural villages.

Cultural showcases at festivals such as KL’s Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival (2018) and Kuching’s Rainforest Fringe Festival this year have given the Tuyang Initiative a broader audience.

The group continues to conduct performances, workshops, classes and talks, as well as programmes for cultural talent development. Recently, the Tuyang Initiative made its theatre stage debut at DPAC in Petaling Jaya, with a show brimming with Kayan and Kenyah music, poetry and dance.

Members of the Chinna Rasa Urumi Melam Masana Kali Temple Drummers during a performance. Photo: Tang Chun Cheuh

Chinna Rasa Urumi Melam Masana Kali Temple Drummers

S. Vigneshwaran has always enjoyed playing the drums. Even when he was a little boy, he used to secretly take the drums from his local temple and play them, even when his parents asked him to study.

It’s perhaps fitting that now, at 34, he’s the leader of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinna Rasa Urumi Melam Masana Kali Temple Drummers (Chinna Rasa), one of the most prominent urumi melam groups in the country.

“There’s vibrations from the urumi. You can find no sound like that in any other music or other instruments. There’s nothing that compares with it. When you pick up the sticks and start to play, you will be shocked. You will be excited. The vibrations talk to your soul,” says Vigneshwaran, popularly known as CR Vicky.

Urumi melam is a folk music style originating from the Tamil Nadu area of India. It’s name comes from the urumi, which is a double-headed drum played with sticks. The style is popular in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and has spread to countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.

While traditional urumi melam songs are devotional, the style has today been extended to appeal to the mainstream.

The group, founded by Vicky’s father S. Subramaniam and MK Arasu in 1985, now comprises 15 members. They met up to train at least twice a month, for about three hours a session, depending on the schedules of its members, who all have day jobs.

Chinna Rasa mostly performs during cultural shows as well as temple festivals. The group has released seven albums, and is currently working closely with Pusaka, a traditional arts organisation.