The graceful dancers of the Gamelan.

The princess and her favourite pet

Descend from the heavens

To the forbidden garden

FROM the moment the gong announces the entrance of the dancers into the dimly lit hall, there is a hushed expectation. Each beat of the gong is accompanied by a single movement, restrained and proper. The lifting of the veil. A flick of the wrist. Downcast eyes raised to meet the audience. This is the subtlety and beauty of the Joget Gamelan befitting its stature as a royal court dance in bygone days.

At the Gema Gemalai inaugural performance held at the KuAsh Theatre in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL, the Joget Gamelan Timang Burung and Togok dances are performed flawlessly by the students of SMK Tengku Bariah, Terengganu.

When the lead singer of the gamelan orchestra starts to sing the ancient words, Timang Burung — Anak raja turun ke taman. it is almost as if we’re transported to a beautiful kayangan garden. There’s softness in movement that’s simply mesmerising. Music and dance telling a timeless tale.

A classic gamelan performance, like ballet, almost always tells a hidden story. Timang Burung, one of the most famous Malay Gamelan performances, is inspired by Hikayat Panji Semirang. It evokes the lovers’ tale of Raden Galuh Chendera Kirana and Raden Inu Karpati. Having run away from the royal palace, Chendera Kirana, alone and dejected, takes a breather in the forest. Thinking of her lost love, she plays with her beloved pet bird that can dance.

In the Joget Gamelan Timang Burung, every movement emulates the graceful movement of a bird in flight or at rest, exuding simple joy and serenity.

But the real story behind this performance is one beyond the mere appreciation of the arts. It’s an appeal to preserve and ensure the sustainability of the authentic Terengganu joget gamelan tradition.

It’s also a move to expose underprivileged children to Malaysia’s traditional arts and cultural heritage, which will in turn imbue them with confidence and means to lift their spirits and let them soar into adulthood, despite their earlier challenges in life.


Gamelan music is always accompanied by traditional instruments including the Saron Barung and the Bonang. Photos by Zunnur Al Shafiq

AN AFTERNOON OF GAMELAN

Gema Gemalai, a collaborative effort between Pusaka, Yayasan Hasanah and Pusat Kreatif Kanak Kanak Tuanku Bainun (PKKTB), is a culmination of various efforts to revive Joget Gamelan. It’s a wonderful soiree indeed. Ladies in kurung songket and kebaya nyonya arrive with men in formal attire in support of this effort.

The arrival of guest of honour, Raja Permaisuri Perak Tuanku Zara Salim certainly serves to heighten this feeling.

The main stars of the delightful afternoon are the young musicians and dancers. Students from three shelter homes and those selected from two secondary schools, the SMK Tengku Bariah and SMK Sultan Sulaiman in Terengganu, via open call nine months ago rise to the occasion marvellously, a tad in awe of their audience. But they pull off the show marvellously.

After the performance, Form 3 student Ahmad Rahmi Ahmad Rosli from SMK Tengku Bariah says that he and his friends had practised for nine months, first at Warisan Sari in Terengganu, and then four times a week in school after school hours, under the tutelage of Cikgu Norlela and Cikgu Rohani.

Ahmad Rahmi loves the gamelan classes so much now he feels he wants to pursue this at a university like Aswara given the chance. And perhaps travel the world one day performing gamelan.

Talking animatedly about gamelan, he pauses a while before confiding that before he joined the gamelan classes, he hadn’t even thought about university. This is how the programme has changed his life.


A classic Gamelan performance always tells a hidden story.

ROMANTIC HISTORY

The informative booklet provided at the beginning of the performance describes the lovely history of the Malay gamelan. In 1811, Tengku Hussein, the first-born prince of Sultan Mahmud Syah III of Pulau Penyengat Riau travelled by sea all the way to Pahang to marry Wan Esah, his betrothed and daughter of Bendahara Tun Ali of Pahang.

The wedding gift for his bride included a gamelan ensemble. And thus, the gamelan arrived in Pahang and became a court tradition, played for royal occasions in the royal houses of Pahang and Terengganu.

It was the work of a Pahang princess, Tengku Mariam Sultan Abu Bakar, that saw the rise of the Malay gamelan. She studied both the dance and the gamelan and even recorded the movements and music in a manuscript. At the time, she recorded 77 songs and 60 dances.

However, it’s quite sad that while the gamelan orchestra still enjoys recognition as a national heritage, the dance form, Joget Gamelan, is fast disappearing from the scene as a traditional art form and is in real danger of being obliterated altogether.

Founder of Pusaka, Eddin Khoo, when met at the soiree, shares: “According to expert practitioners, there were initially 60 gamelan dances, however, only 10 survive till today. The fast disappearance of this dance heritage underlines the urgency of documentation and conservation of the Joget Gamelan, particularly at the community level.”

CHANGING LIVES

Pusaka’s Joget Gamelan Sustainability and Cultural Heritage Project is a comprehensive programme, supported by Yayasan Hasanah, a foundation of Khanazah Nasional, to train the younger generation of Terengganu in the joget gamelan tradition.

The unique part of this programme is actually the serious effort to impart change beyond the cultural element. Apart from the Pusaka training programme at SMK Tengku Bariah and SMK Sultan Sulaiman, the PKKTB training programme was extended to underprivileged youth from Rumah Solehah, Rumah Safiyyah and OrphanCare Foundation to undergo introductory workshops in Joget Gamelan and Silat Tari.

It is how gamelan impacted the lives of these children that is most gratifying.


The Gamelan Gemalai Dance Esemble.

Pusaka presented a video during the evening which clearly portrayed how all these children are focused, excited and gained confidence in leaps and bound to communicate their feelings and thoughts.

Continuing, Eddin says: “To enhance the conservation and sustainability of the authentic Terengganu joget gamelan tradition, Pusaka collaborated with esteemed local custodians such as Zaharah Abdul Hamid (grandchild of Puan Adnan “Mak Nang”, the last Terengganu court dancer who was responsible for training the new generation of dancers in the 1970s, and trainer of Kumpulan Warisan Terengganu), Wan Salmah Sulaiman (Gamelan singer and most recognised voice of Timang Burung), Ramli Ibrahim (composer of Terengganu’s district songs and a gamelan musician), and Razali Ismail. This promotes the transmission of the music and dance tradition to the grassroots youth in Terengganu.”

While gamelan has a following worldwide in both Southeast Asia and the western world, it’s largely the Balinese Gamelan that’s well known. Therefore Pusaka’s efforts, in addition to that of Aswara and Permata Seni, to promote the Joget Gamelan, is most welcome as it also brings awareness of the Malay Gamelan.

Programmes such as these help enhance the public’s appreciation of the refined joget gamelan tradition, and at the same time, supports the viability of the practice through this showcase series. With the Joget Gamelan back in the limelight, it’s hoped that the youth of today will become the key players to ensure this legacy in dance and music will survive to the next century.

ninotaziz believes that the Hikayat belongs to all of us and contain the memories of our ancient civilisation.

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