Sunday July 15, 2012
Unique artistic mix
CULTURE CUL DE SAC
By JACQUELINE PEREIRA
The arts bring cultures together and present the best by people who are proud of their identity and heritage.
VISUALLY stimulating, mentally challenging and musically mind-stretching – that was Manganiyar Seduction, performed last weekend at the George Town Festival. This production had to be the highlight of the third Penang arts fest.
Languorously melding into layers of contrasting emotions, the 80-minute show culminated in a crescendo of aspiration and euphoria. As a member of the awestruck audience, I saw, heard and felt a performance that transcended all expectations, and fiercely defied categorisation.
Let’s start with the coquettishly curtained set of wall-to-wall boxes, inspired by the windows of Amsterdam’s red light district. Dressed in white robes and multi-coloured turbans, the 42 musicians – all Muslims called Khan, except for one Hindu – relayed through haunting vocals and an astonishing array of traditional instruments the intricate narratives of historic Rajasthan.
In marrying the repertoire of rhythms with a spectacle of the senses, this concert of folk music and classical compositions with Sufi poems connected the audience to another realm, while staying true to its roots. Using space, light and sound imaginatively, the director captured the dying storytelling culture of these residents of India’s Thar Desert in a modern interpretation.
Similarly, the festival’s Live Heritage programme last weekend blew fresh energy into George Town streets. Penang literally came alive with an amalgam of more than 40 cultural performances, open house visits to historical sites and homes, talks on history and culture, as well as food and craft bazaars.
The Heritage Heboh Children’s Festival, along Acheh Street, was particularly lively, with children of all ages, their parents and teachers joining in the simple enjoyment of traditional games, food and craft. Much later in the day, earnest students could be spotted diligently looking for clues and answers on treasure hunts and heritage trails.
The Indian Muslim Cultural & Heritage Celebration in the vicinity of Masjid Kapitan Keling was another feast that included “Baith” recitals, photo exhibitions, snake charmers and a nasi kandar showcase. To that melting pot add Hokkien opera, Khmer puppet theatre, Sri Lankan dancers and living museums, and you get an unmatchable artistic mix.
But what was most telling, despite this year’s glaring lack of corporate sponsorship and funding for the festival, were the enthusiastic local residents. They opened their homes and minds in showcasing their diverse cultures and heritage in an invitation to the city’s visitors.
For instance, the sweet and still beautiful 72-year-old Mrs Kok Yuet Ho willingly kept at her post in her front garden on Cannon Street, beside a framed picture of herself taken 41 years ago on that same street. She still lives in the same house that her family has lived in since the 1940s, and four generations have now passed through the ornate corner house.
A few streets away, an Indian Muslim man with a grey goatee, wearing a checked sarong and burgundy songkok, cycled through the streets, stopping often to pose with tourists who wanted a picture with him.
Festival director Joe Sidek has always maintained that it is the people and spaces that tell the stories that matter. Throughout the month-long event, art and culture were both created and preserved in unexpected places throughout the island: on walls, in abandoned spaces – and in the mind. For Joe, there are still stories to discover. Although Penang seems to be in a state of constant renewal, it still manages to retain its olde worlde feel.
Strategically positioned, Penang has always been the unwitting recipient of cultural influences, from the 15th-century explorers who came in search of spices and a safe harbour to the 21st-century travellers, who are also looking for new tastes.
For this reason, Penangites cannot be easily categorised either, being a potent mix of immigrants, traders and adventurers who arrived from China, India, the Middle East and Europe to carve a little corner for themselves on the island.
Even from British Guiana. Inspired by the batik sarongs his Nyonya ancestors used to wear, Australian-based Malaysian multi-media artist David Cheah hosted a small exhibition at the Town Hall, titled Mapping An Identity. This was illuminating. Painstakingly produced in Pekalongan, each of his designs weaves a tale, thread by thread. His prized piece is a fluid floral map of Penang that he created specifically for this festival.
For Cheah, identities can be expressed by traditional textiles that offer another route for mapping. Designs and motifs are cultural symbols of an era and, by preserving and proclaiming these storytelling techniques in textile form, the artist expresses his identity traced from his father’s birthplace in British Guiana.
Culture is fluid and formless, only kept alive by people who care. This festival proves, in more ways than one, that the arts tie cultures together, marrying moments of genius to the times and places we live in, will live in and hope to live in.
■ Delighting in dead ends, Jacqueline Pereira seeks unexpected encounters to counter the outmoded. Find her on Facebook at Jacqueline-Pereira-Writing-on.