Suatukala is a “community outreach initiative focused on story-telling in any form as a means for building an artistic eco-system” based in Langkawi and in early December 2015 they held a showcase to feature performances and exhibits by artists of all backgrounds, including young talents from workshops they had conducted a week prior.
For the showcase, a group of us came together with the intent of exploring Langkawi’s most famous story – that of Mahsuri, killed and sacrificed on suspicion of adultery, whose white blood poured forth proving her innocence, whose last curse rendered the land barren and untenable for seven generations. The group comprised of myself, Daman Harun, Jac SM Kee, Liyana Dizzy, Pang Khee Teik and Hazri Haili as our production manager. Jac, Liy, Pang and I wrote different interpretations of Mahsuri’s story, with Daman complementing the performances of these texts with movement and dance.
Jac rewrote the story using elements of existing folk tales (hikayat dan sastera rakyat) from Kedah, the northern state to which Langkawi belongs. She envisioned Mahsuri as a capable warrior with magical powers, cunning and stoic, steel-willed and prioritizing her community, as her parents did before her. Liy looked at what she saw as “contemporary” Mahsuri’s, basing her writings on a version of the story that set Mahsuri as having come to Langkawi with her family from Siam, during the Siamese war. She found stories of refugees and women who underwent hardships trying to escape difficult circumstances, who were punished based on rumour, who were oppressed as convenient victims, who died angry and wronged.
Pang meanwhile, took on the meta narrative of Mahsuri as a story essential to Malaysia’s narrative, post-independence, embodying first Tunku Abdul Rahman (Father Nation), Malaysia’s first Prime Minister and also the man credited with reviving her story and finding her tomb. He also wrote a play on Mahsuri which was later turned into a film he directed. The two other parts of Pang’s triptychs embodied two other notorious leaders – Dr Vision and Son of Donation (you can watch a short video of his performance here). Meanwhile, I took a more poetic and introspective lens, looking internally to what Mahsuri could have felt, first as a girl forced to leave her home, then as a prize wife and village trophy – othered, untrusted, coveted.
When you brought my fingers to your lips, they smelled of curry leaves.
you say it’s why you married me – “I need someone who knows how to feed us.”
dear husband, my hands do more than feed but I will cook and keep
your kitchen warm as you burn the crops of my people.
at the table, I spread a cloth, lay dishes for your family and mine.
across me a sharp young man, a guest, passing through the village trading a bite for a song.
his eyes hungry on my face tells me the real reason you made me your wife.
in the speech your father gave when you left, he spoke of the prize you are to the village,
and the prizes you would win, that the world would give you.
honour, victory, beauty. things to defend, to protect, to die for.
the sun is listing in the sky, ready to fall. I sit stirring at the fire,
watching gravy thicken with every turn of the spoon.
I crush spices in my hand and bring the powder to my nose,
think back to a time when you kissed me, and looked me in the eye.
They covered your spirit in cement, over the dirt and blood,
and very nearly – peace, of seven generations.
When I picture you then, beyond the reach of time, I see a wife, a mother,
a woman, an eagle stalking her own shadow in the cage of her house,
trying to ignore the buzzhum of the mosquitoes outside.
They’re still here. Thirsty. Camera traps swinging from their necks
as they pray over your ghost bones, that immortal version of you
who’s wandered very far from where another language sat in your lungs,
and the names of things were different.
When the months after went by without rain, or crops, or fish, or food,
they cast you in myth stronger than stone or steel.
They forgot the woman they killed and watched die, your warm human body
growing cold and limp as the blood pooled at your feet.
The flowers smell more fragrant on the grave of a symbol.
We imagine we can’t smell the rot.
We performed at night, by the sea, on the grass with about 30-35 people surrounding us seated on pool lounge chairs, listening at the bar. We hope to expand the performance into something more solid and well-rounded in the future, but what a privilege to have such surroundings and circumstances to try it out for the first time.