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  • Staging Raja Tangkai Hati at Istana Budaya: Modernizing Malaysian Mak Yong
  • Kathy Foley (bio) and Sabzali Musa Kahn (bio)

This report will consider scenic issues of staging contemporary mak yong by looking at the 2003 production of Raja Tangkai Hati (King of the Heart; literally, “liver stem”) presented at Istana Budaya, Malaysia’s National Theatre in Kuala Lumpur during the artistic director-ship (2001–2005) of Hatta Azad Khan. The genre is the dance-drama of the Kelantan-Patani area that was supported in palace and/or village environments prior to the 1940s. The guru leading this offering was National Artist and mak yong prima donna Khadijah Awang (1941–2009), who used a combination of professional artists from her group (Kumpulan Seri Temengggung KST) and students she trained in mak yong at the national arts school, ASK.1 The design head for scenery, lighting, property, and stage elements was coauthor Sabzali Musa Kahn, and this report, as a result, will often focus on scenic issues in the translation [End Page 419] of a regional, traditional art of eastern Malaysia into the context of the urban “world-class” theatre facility in the national capital. The discussion will touch on issues of traditional versus contemporary, on the one hand, and the contrast of regional, national, and global, on the other. While we deal with only a single production, the decisions highlight larger strategies of modernizing heritage arts.

After introducing the narrative and discussing traditional staging, the personnel and the theatrical space of this performance will be detailed. Finally, specific design choices will be discussed. For mak yong to continue into the twenty-first century, adaptation is necessary. Cultural heritage that remains too “true” to the past makes for an endangered form. By using alternative spaces and new technologies, designers perpetuate older forms like mak yong into the future.


Raja Tangkai Hati is one of the twelve major narratives of traditional mak yong. Plays like Dewa Muda and Dewa Pechil are felt by some practitioners to be more central to the tradition, probably because those stories were heavily used in main puteri (literally, “playing the princess”), a healing genre intertwined with mak yong in the Kelantan-Patani area, where Malaysia meets Thailand. Narratively Raja Tangkai Hati is interesting in that, as with other mak yong stories, it reflects the melodrama of love and loss. It also shows the old seagoing tradition of the east coast of Malaysia. An explanation of the traditional plot (drawn from Ghulam-Sawar [1976: 316–319], but with names of people and sites spelled as in the 2003 program) will clarify some changes in focus for this production.

Raja Tangkai Hati is the ruler of Sekota Batu. He sails to neighboring kingdoms for diplomacy and trade, but he stops temporarily at the Pulau Mati Anak (Island of Dead Children), home of an ogre princess, Puteri Bota. She transforms herself into a beautiful woman and enchants the king, who pledges his love. But, sailing to the next port, he marries Puteri Cempaka Emas and has two sons, Malim Bisnun and Malim Bongsu. As the king returns with this new family to his capital, the ogress waylays the ship. She disguises herself as a flower (Figure 1), which Puteri Cempaka Emas picks. The ogress immediately transforms Puteri Cempaka Emas into a half human, half monkey and assumes the princess’s form. When the sons reject this false Puteri Cempaka Emas, their father throws them into the sea. Betara Guru (literally, “God Teacher,” Shiva) transforms them into sea creatures, limpets, which attach to the bottom of the vessel. Arriving in Sekota Batu, the ship mysteriously cannot enter the harbor: a bomoh (shaman), who is actually Betara Guru in disguise, is called. He returns the limpets to human [End Page 420] form and tasks them with saving their monkey mother. The father now claims he is childless, but his memory is jogged when his sons turn up at the palace, and one challenges and kills the false Puteri Cempaka Emas. The sons collect the demoness’s blood, which, poured on their true mother, restores her to her original form. The family is reunited.

The story has patterns that are common to other...