Time to travel, write and play
|Zubin Mohamad is a dancer-choreographer who is passionate about promoting "tradition-based contemporary" dance theatre, and is the artistic director of Kuala Lumpur Fringe Festival and Arts Exchange in Asia (AXiA). He loves to teach, research and write about culture, history, creativity and post-modernism.|
MARCH 31 — It was 2005 when I first started writing my first play, entitled “Bunga Sakura”, and it was mainly based on stories told to me by my late mother, Che Bunga Che Othman. She travelled a lot from Kota Baru to Singapore, Penang and South Thailand to buy things to sell in Kelantan.
She had been travelling to Singapore since 1950s with her younger sister, Che Mas, buying Javanese batik, fabric from Japan, lace material, stainless steel cutlery as well as little diamond jewellery. Her mother, Che Aminah, used to sell nice fabric and jewellery to people with money in Kelantan; she had relatives in Pattani, Penang, Singapore and Mecca.
Until today, we still have relatives living in Mecca. One of my mother’s cousin too was living in Mecca, working as seamstress and embroiderer, until she decided to come back to look after her ailing mother. I suppose that’s normal for Malay families. As for Kelantanese, you travel and make money when you are young and then you return home, like the Malay proverb “Sirih pulang ke gagang” or “Camar yang pulang” which is a contemporary song sung by Aishah (Wan Aishah Wan Ariffin). In some ways, there’s an air of tradition accompanying such practices.
As for me, I chose to work in a university in Sarawak for six years before moving to another job in Bangkok as “Senior Specialist in Southeast Asian Arts” and “Senior Officer for Tourism and Communication” in Jakarta, as well as “Culture and Communication Consultant” in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. All and all, I must have “merantau”(travelled) for nearly 15 years, and Kuala Lumpur is no longer considered as “merantau” for most Kelantanese, but just an extension, a place to “cari rezeki”(work).
When I turned 10 in 1974, right after the “bersunat” (circumcision), I started to accompany my mother to Singapore, during my school holidays, at least three times a year. That went on for years and that’s how my mother supported our studies. I stopped travelling to Singapore (via express bus from Kota Baru) at 17, in 1981, the year I had to sit for SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia). Thanks to my father who put a stop to all the travelling, otherwise I might not have been able to get a university degree. But then again, I might be a businessman now.
I decided to come back to Kuala Lumpur in 2004, after working in Kuching, Bangkok, Jakarta and Phnom Penh, due to my ailing mother. In some ways she was quite patriotic, she kept telling me “try to find a job in Malaysia.” I was finishing my doctorate at the time and at the same time trying to land a better job, but I might have to travel further.
We spent a lot of time together, cooking, eating and talking. She started telling me about the past, about her marriage, her husband, her family, her children, British colonial times, about World War 2 and the Japanese Occupation. I would spend a few days in Kota Baru and drive my little Satria (the car I bought in Kuching, brought to Bangkok and Jakarta and back to Kuala Lumpur) using the Gua Musang-Kuala Lipis road. It was during those trips that I started writing my first play, “Bunga Sakura” and completed the first draft in 2005.
The title of the play was changed to “Selipar Jepun” when I sent the script to Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 2006. By then I had four characters in the play; Che Kenanga, a simple housewife who had to work to raise her eight children, Shukri Haji Ismail, a village “Mak Andam”, Kamilah, a Chinese boy from Klang who changed his identity, and Che Hassan, who lost his memory after working on the “Death Railroad” in Burma.
My mother, Che Bunga, died in November 2006, when I was attending a conference in Bali. I didn’t get to see her before she died. Yes, I was devastated. But I know I did the right thing coming back home. A week after she died, I went to Singapore from Kota Baru. Yes, by the express bus and later to Penang, also by express bus, visiting her two favourite places, Masjid Sultan at Busseroh Street, Singapore and Masjid Kapitan Kling, Georgetown, Penang.
After “Selipar Jepun”, I went on to write another play “Kasut Tumit Tinggi”, a play about a former Mak Yong dancer before the war and an informant during the Japanese Occupation. The third part of the trilogy “Terompah Manik” was written as a musical. As for “Selipar Jepun” and “Kasut Tumit Tinggi”, both were staged at DBP Stor Teater in 2007 and 2008. “Selipar Jepun” was nominated for Best Malay Script at the Cameronian Arts Award in 2007.
This year, I decided to stage the meeting of Shukri Haji Ismail from “Selipar Jepun” and Che Aminah from “Kasut Tumit Tinggi” on a Kota Baru-Singapore express bus. The meeting takes place in the 1970s. The play, now called “Selipar Jepun, Kasut Tumit Tinggi”(www.svarnabhumi.blogspot.com) will be staged at MAP PUBLIKA, Solaris Dutamas, Jalan Duta (next to Masjid Wilayah) from April 6-8, 2012.
A play writer is not a playwright until the play gets staged. To actually publish the play as a book, is another story. Your play would not be published unless you are a “Sasterawan Negara” (National Laureate) in this country. Besides, who would be interested to read plays, unless you are a university student or belong to a theatre group. Staging a play is not an easy task either; auditions, looking for a venue for staging and rehearsing, looking for an audience and seeking funds to pay the actors and stage workers. I sometimes wonder what will happen to theatre actors, directors and playwrights when the government venues are only interested in staging musical theatre from movie adaptations with pop stars in them.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.