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Anita Ratnam ~ Dance as Sacred Ritual

Anita Ratnam: embodiment of dance

Anita Ratnam: embodiment of dance (photo: Amrutha Ananth)

Antares is awed by the consummate beauty, skill and wisdom that crafted UTPALA: THE AWAKENING

I very nearly missed catching the fabulous Anita Ratnam (and her Arangham Dance Theatre) in the world premiere of Utpala: The Awakening. The hot clammy weather had depleted my joie de vivre and I did not relish the thought of driving 110 miles merely to assuage my curiosity about this legendary dancer-choreographer, former TV producer, cross-cultural ambassador, and professor of aesthetics in the Universality of Dance. In the end I decided to toss a coin three times – and thrice the answer was, “Go… Go… Go…”

The moment I set foot in Sutra House – the magic garden theater of dance that Ramli Ibrahim built – my spirits began to lift. What a splendid setting for the epiphanies that were soon to follow.

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Utpala: The Awakening premiered at Sutra House, Kuala Lumpur

A crucial element was the enticingly eclectic music: a rapturous mix of prerecorded tracks culled from various sources – and live performance with Jaya Sekhar on veena and vocal, and L Subhasri on nattuvangam. There was an evocative dash of Sheila Chandran, plus some truly exciting sections featuring freestyle jazz piano and tabla. The editing could have been a little more polished – the fadeouts sometimes terminated abruptly, a jarring auditory experience – but the selection itself revealed the choreographer’s conceptual clarity and focused intent.

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Beyond all choreographic boundaries…

Art’s success must be measured by its power to reconcile, heal and ennoble. Technical discipline, flair and skill may define professional standards but the core of the performance is where Mystery dwells: it reveals the soul essence of the artist for better or worse. The complementary aspects of lighting and costume design are important in dance and, in the case of Utpala, were more than satisfactorily fulfilled. What truly shone through was the sublime inspiration behind the narrative concept and choreography, which delineated and unified the divine, demonic, and human dimensions.

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Utpala is the stalk that connects the lotus to its source

In reconciling eastern and western dance vocabularies, the sacred and the secular, the classical and contemporary approach, the celestial and the terrestrial, Utpala: The Awakening seduced and gracefully guided us through the birth pangs of incarnate being, adolescence and maturity, sorrow and joy, tenderness and brutality, and led us unerringly to the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel where our mortal existence is elucidated, validated and consecrated.

Utpala’s synergetic blend of classical Indian elements with a contemporary, cosmopolitan perspective was confident and uncontrived, reflecting the work of a mature artist comfortable with her Indian roots – yet adventurously seeking a universal aesthetic.

Using the lotus as the central motif of the work (“Utpala literally means the slender stem that connects the sacred flower to the muddy marsh from which it grows”), Anita masterfully synthesized Hindu cosmology with Jungian and gestalt psychology and grounded her thesis in the rich, dark soil of being human. Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva were invoked – then Shakti (the feminine principle) took over, in her Parvati, Mahalakshmi, Saraswati, and Kali aspects. And what a Goddess figure Anita cut with her charismatic stage presence – with a single mudra she was able to express a gamut of experience, her stillness was potent, her movements charged with ethereal grace.

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Dissolving the distinction between goddess & human

It was clear that Anita Ratnam was an object of devotion and an inspiration to her talented young dancers – to whom she gave generous space to display their admirable terpsichorean gifts. The two exquisite female dancers, Aarti Bodani and R Gayathri, were perfectly matched with their dynamic male counterparts, L Narendra Kumar and M. Palani. As representatives of humanity, the four enacted the phases of evolution, the dramatic (and traumatic) transition from tribal to individual consciousness, the inner and outer polarization resulting in the battle of the sexes, and realignment with and ultimate return to Source through spiritual awakening.

In ritual dance, symbolic objects carry immense significance. The large basin of water at a corner of the open-air stage suggested cleansing, renewal and rebirth; the glittering discs of mirrored glass harvested from the dancers’ feet by the Goddess at the finale (and lovingly returned to the water) might have represented the divine spark contained within each soul, the holographic fragment bearing the blueprint of the Cosmic Whole, the luminous, self-reflecting consciousness of a sovereign entity.

Even as I surrendered to the sensory and mental stimulation of Utpala: The Awakening, a part of me was acutely aware that Anita Ratnam had taken dance beyond mere art or entertainment, to the rarefied precincts of sacred ritual, whereby the boundary between performer and audience is temporarily transcended, and mutual blessing experienced.

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Embracing her destiny as a crosscultural ambassador (photo: Deepak Mudgal)

But just who is this Anita Ratnam? We learn from the program notes that her classical training was in Bharata Natyam, supplemented by the Kerala traditions of Kathakali and Mohiniattam. (Indeed, she met Ramli Ibrahim while both were students of dance guru Adyar K Lakshman, and was thus happy to premiere Utpala at Ramli’s 6th Sutra Festival of Contemporary Dance Theater and Music in Kuala Lumpur.) Anita subsequently obtained a Master’s degree in Theater and Television from the University of New Orleans, and embarked on a 10-year career as a New York TV producer and weekly talk show host. She produced the highly acclaimed Festival of India television series among others, earning two Emmy nominations, and then returned to Chennai (Madras) where she established the Arangham Trust – a foundation promoting dance and its interaction with visual and performing arts.

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Anita portrays the female trinity of Saraswati, Lakshmi & Meenakshi

In 2002 she collaborated choreographically on two international productions: DUST (which premiered in the U.S.) inspired by the life of Tibetan explorer Alexandra David-Neel; and Hyphenated (which premiered in Canada), a work addressing issues of race, identity, and the trans-cultural experience. Apart from dance, Anita Ratnam’s work “intersects at the crossroads of art, ethics, philosophy and culture” and she engages with young audiences through “physical theater” workshops. She also co-founded and co-directs The Other Festival – India’s “only contemporary arts festival” held annually in Chennai since 1998. And to top it all, Anita recently initiated http://www.narthaki.com – an award-winning web portal on Indian classical dance bringing together practitioners of Bharata Natyam, Odissi, and other Indian dance traditions – wherever they may be on the planet.

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Anita Ratnam by Ashish Chawla

This creative dynamo is also mother to two teenaged children who are proud of her celebrity status, but occasionally lament her absence from home when she’s touring or busy organizing arts events and workshops.

At the close of Utpala: The Awakening, Ramli Ibrahim invited questions from the audience. The calm, clear manner in which Anita responded was equally impressive. The Indian High Commissioner, H.E. Veena Sikri, happened to be in the audience, and was asked to say a few words. Her gracious praise for the performance was unstinting and augured extremely well for more vibrant intercultural exchanges between India and Malaysia. As Ramli rightly reminded us, the cultural, spiritual and commercial links between Mother India and her former vassal states in the Malay Archipelago go back thousands of years. We have every reason to cherish this precious heritage and continue working on behalf of its future evolution.

10 June 2003

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AMAH HITS THE MARK BEAUTIFULLY

Antares salutes the theatrical triumph of Mark Beau de Silva’s STORIES FOR AMAH  

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Joe Hasham: nominated
Best Director

No one – except perhaps for his ex-policeman father who was in the audience – was gladder than I for Mark Beau de Silva at the end of Stories for Amah, the prolific 23-year-old’s third play within the space of a year.  This time around what we got was a soul-satisfying serving of highly palatable Malaysian theater – thanks to a superb cast and the very capable direction of Joe Hasham, who seemed particularly pleased with how it all turned out. Hasham’s confident hand and mature directorial vision were precisely what was needed to shape the material into a seamless, smooth-flowing dramatic whole.

The text was written mostly in Manglish with a liberal smattering of Hokkien (the dialect Mark grew up speaking with his maternal grandmother, fondly addressed as Amah). Although the protagonist was a Chinese Eurasian girl named Ruth de Souza, it was fairly obvious that the play was largely based on the playwright’s own experience of growing up as a “lain-lain” – which is how Malaysian bureaucracy classifies those not of Malay, Chinese, or Indian ethnicity.

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Mew Chang Tsing:
nominated Best Actress

What came across most poignantly was the innocence and honesty of the narrative – and for this we have to thank and applaud the consummate performance of Mew Chang Tsing as Ruth. Dancer-choreographer Mew (who is artistic director of  Rivergrass Dance Theatre) brought to her pivotal rôle a freshness, purity, and angelic charisma that effectively stole the audience’s heart right from the start.

It would have been so easy for her to have milked the script for melodrama and pathos, but her dancer’s intuition, sensitivity, and perfect control kept the tears and laughter authentic, and touched us all to the core.

Mew was beautifully supported by the rest of the cast, who each contributed generously to the overall organicity of the stories as they unfolded. Every single one of them was memorably true to character, a sure sign that the casting was exceptionally well considered.

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Ben Tan

Merissa Teh was sublime as Mama (even if it took a major stretch of imagination to picture her “lying in front of the TV like some fat pig” in view of her slender and winsome appeal). Kennedy John Michael’s Papa was solidly archetypal and testosterone-charged; his portrayal of patriarchal ire is guaranteed to make anyone allergic to mathematics, or at least despotic father figures. Sabera Shaik was in fine comic fettle as Aunty Liza and the Headmistress; and Ben Tan’s cool versatility as the afro-wigged Uncle Zack and a whole slew of other male characters was indeed masterful.

Low Ngai Yuen’s down-to-earth Aunty Sien was well crafted and credible, while the young boys Andrew and James (winningly portrayed by Carina Ong and Juliana Ibrahim) were a delight to watch. But most heartwarming of all was Karen Chin’s magnificent Amah, who spends most of the play sitting silent and attentive – and totally in character – behind a translucent (and not very flattering) portrait of herself.

This was a particularly brilliant example of psychodynamic synergy when the whole cast and crew – including the lighting, sound, and production design team – seems to have set aside petty ego issues and devoted itself unstintingly to the success of the production.  Something like this happens only rarely and spontaneously, when the raw material they’re working with comes from the heart, and everyone is inspired to do likewise.

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Low Ngai Yuen

With perfect marksmanship, the fragments of childhood reminiscences that constitute Stories for Amah hit home every time. Mark Beau declares in his playwright’s notes that this is his “first play derived from personal experiences.” Nothing is more powerful than home truths, and what makes the play work so well isn’t the beauty of the language (which doesn’t for a moment pretend at sophistication), but the simplicity and truthfulness of the sensitive child’s voice he has dredged from memory. We all know that only innocence can publicly remark on the Emperor’s nakedness with impunity.

In a brief and graphic classroom scene where the Cikgu (teacher) takes time out to record the racial breakdown of the students, the play says all that can be said about how the seeds of bigotry are planted without having to say anything at all. The scenes of domestic tension and violence are minimalistic and stark – but they strike a universal chord. No blame is intended, only understanding and reconciliation.

In the end all the hurt and humiliation, the disputes and the despair, the sorrow and suffering, are dissolved and resolved in Ruth’s recognition of the unbreakable familial bond personified by the benignity and magnanimity of her beloved Amah. The triumphant and uplifting corollary of it all would have to be: it’s never too late to tell someone you truly love them because that simple act redeems the apparent meaninglessness of our lives and reconnects us to our core selves.

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Mark Beau de Silva: nominated
Best Original Script

One may be tempted to compare Stories for Amah with Jit Murad’s widely acclaimed recent play, Spilt Gravy On Rice which, by way of contrast, celebrated a wise and loving Bapak. But the most significant difference, of course, is that Jit Murad is a well-seasoned literary and theatrical talent, who has acquired the technical chops it takes to turn out complex and jazzy dramatic fugues with elegant tragicomic counterpoints – while de Silva, who’s only just beginning his career as a bona fide Malaysian playwright, can at least boast that he has secured for himself a warm spot in everyone’s heart simply by rendering a well-remembered nursery tune with the full force of his sincere soul.

24 November 2002

[I’m happy to report that Mark Beau de Silva’s Stories for Amah received 5 nominations at the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards 2002 for Best Original Script, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Set Design, and Best Lighting Design.]

Marvelous Marathon of Mirth

Harith Iskandar & Afdlin Shauki: fat funny fellows

Antares splits his sides (and meets old friends) at ACTORLYMPICS 

Oh, it’s good to spend a Sunday afternoon guffawing non-stop (though 150 minutes did seem a bit excessive towards the end). With a suave Patrick Teoh playing emcee or umpire, Afdlin Shauki, Harith Iskandar, Jit Murad, Jo Kukathas, Nell Ng, and Zahim Albakri treated KL audiences to another rousing round of theater sports (where everything is improvised).

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Nell Ng & Afdlin Shauki in action

They were absolutely brilliant, and you’d have to be a dullard to disagree. Bringing a whole new meaning to “thinking on your feet,” they winged it at high altitude, skydiving over Bangsar and taking the mickey out of the mouse. They performed on raw instinct, propelled by pure talent, driven by sheer wit. They had the audience completely enthralled and eating out of their hands. It’s tempting to try and recapture some of the highlights in a review, but you really had to be there to appreciate the inspired inanity of the performances.

(Okay, just to give you a taste of the hysterical goings-on: one event had the cast divided into two teams. Random props chosen by the backstage crew were handed to each team and they had to improvise short scenes using these props. A red plastic stool is offered to one team. Within 3 seconds, they’re improvising a scene at a clinic with the doctor saying: “Good! I see you’ve brought a stool sample!” That sort of thing. Virtually impossible to translate into mere words…)

Ladies and gentlemen, here are a few mutant Malaysians equipped with high-speed data-processing circuits, oodles of charisma and, most importantly, a healthy sense of humor and the ability to laugh at themselves. I’d entrust the entire country to their moisturized and slippery hands. Indeed, I’m proud to have witnessed their ascension to world-class comedy status.

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Afdlin Shauki

Afdlin Shauki first caught the public eye around 1990 when he starred in a self-penned production directed by Joe Hasham. It was evident even then that he was some sort of prodigy in the mode of John Belushi. He had enough promise as a singer to get signed up by Roslan Aziz along with Zainal Abidin and Amir Yussof. He honed his comedic skills in a series of Instant Café Theatre revues and was a great success in Huzir Sulaiman’s hit musical, Hip-Hopera. Recently he was seen as one of Mongkut’s courtiers in the movie, Anna and The King. For a while he toured with his R&B group, Acidiz, and recorded on his own label, Acid Rain, in between acting and directing engagements. Afdlin is a bona fide Malaysian showbiz success story and has never been known to make a foolish move [at least not until the year 2012, when he decided, much to my distress, to join a racist rightwing political party].

I remember Harith Iskandar’s early ventures into stand-up comedy at All That Jazz when he’d go on stage and try out his routine between sets by Rafique Rashid. It was obvious the man had the wherewithal to make it big in comedy. Later he tried his hand at filmmaking and directed Ella and Hans Isaac in a Malay feature called Hanya Kawan. As to be expected, Harith was cast as a neanderthal warrior in Anna and The King. He’s physically big but mentally agile and his comedic body language and timing are spot on.

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The one & only Jit Murad

There was a lady in the audience who told me it was her second time at the show, and she’d brought her family along. “I came to see Jit Murad,” she sighed, “I just love Jit!” I bet she wasn’t the only one who’s enamored of Jit’s inimitable charm and wit. I met Jit Murad back in the mid-1980s when he made his KL stage debut in Thor Kah Hoong’s seminal stage sitcom, Caught In The Middle. A couple of years later he played my son in Maureen Ten’s whimsical For The Time Being. Zahim Albakri was making his KL stage debut, too, as an angel assisting my transition from the physical world. Soon, Jit and Zahim were regularly seen on TV in a whole slew of Malay dramas.

Not surprising, as there was always a gaggle of giggly schoolgirls waiting outside the dressing room for Jit and Zahim at the end of each performance. No one had the heart to tell these girls they didn’t stand a chance in heaven of dating these pretty lads. When the Instant Café Theatre was inaugurated in 1989, Jit and Zahim were among the founder members, along with Jo Kukathas and Andrew Leci. Jit has since made a name for himself as a playwright, while Zahim branched out into directing with great success.

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Jo Kukathas

Ms Kukathas’s illustrious theater career warrants a 5,000-word article. She was an English teacher when I first met her through one of her colleagues. The next thing I knew, she was appearing in Caught In The Middle which is how she connected with Jit and Zahim. The enduring success of the Instant Café Theatre is largely due to Ms Kukathas’s superhuman drive and tenacity.

A few days before Actorlympics opened, she was hospitalized with bronchitis. I suppose that was when Zahim was roped in, just in case, but Jo Kukathas is such a trooper, she simply had to see it through. No one would have guessed she wasn’t in top physical form throughout the strenuous proceedings. That’s what I call dedication, though some might deem it a form of divine madness.

Nell Ng was playing bit parts only a few years ago, but her intensity and focus were clearly evident. And so were her consummate skills as a comedienne. She soon became a regular member of the Instant Café Theatre and confidently held her own among the veterans. For a while she worked the graveyard shift at a radio station as a deejay until she was offered a juicy rôle in a Singapore TV sitcom series. Baby star Nell Ng will be making her directorial debut in a series of skits produced by Faridah Merican and performed by a group of acting students.

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Patrick Teoh

Patrick Teoh I’ve known for over a quarter century when he was a producer with Rediffusion. Back then I kept urging him to get involved in theater and he’d shrug and say, “Don’t have the nerve, lah!” These days you can’t keep the man off the boards and a good thing too – he’s an absolute gem on stage, as well as on the screen!

These amazing talents deserve their own TV station, film company,  recording studio, theater, and unlimited funding… or, at least, no more reactionary bureaucratic impediments. We’d soon be exporting the best that Malaysia has to offer in the way of cultural artifacts. This is no laughing matter. The Beatles were awarded Orders of the British Empire (OBEs) for boosting the British economy during the 1960s. The fact that the Fab Four said, “Thanks, but no thanks!” and promptly returned their medals to the Queen is quite beside the point.

30 April 2002

WRITINGS ON THE WALL

Antares catches a whiff of ‘concretoceptual word-artist’ Latif Kamaluddin’s BAD BREATH

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Latif Kamaluddin, philosopher-monk
disguised as a human being

A couple of years ago, Latif Kamaluddin asked me to review a self-published collection of his “concretoceptual poems” entitled Words Have Meaning. It was printed in black ink on red card, which brought on eyestrain on top of brainstrain.

Much as I’m fond of Latif Kamaluddin the human being, I couldn’t oblige. In the first place, his idea of poetry, which he terms “word-art,” left me cold and unmoved. I viewed it as a purely cerebral exercise – a verbal wank to relieve the pressures of a stultifying ivory-tower tenure – Latif’s way of rebelling against everything academia stood for by parodying with a poker face the academic mindset itself.

Recently I received in the post his second self-published compilation, this time printed on recycled brown stock and infinitely more legible and stimulating, which bore the irresistible title (itself a work of word-art): BAD BREATH & FIREPROOF DRAG QUEENS (Otherwise known as Khepa’s Dilemma – Being a Concretoceptual Celebration of Irrelevant Research).

Never mind who Khepa is and why he’s in a dilemma, one soon gets used to Latif’s esoteric references to obscure authorities and his invocation of little-known sadhu lineages. With his navel-length Mr Natural beard, perpetually furrowed brow, and shiny pate, Latif could easily pass for a sadhu or mad monk himself.

Indeed, this hirsute professor-cum-philosopher-turned word-artist, who heads a small research unit in Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Social Sciences, looks like some venerable Greek Cypriot archbishop or a mantra-chanting beatnik poet from an era long gone. All he needs is a pair of shades to completely mask his identity as that rarest of endangered subspecies – an “Indo-Malay-Hungarian” academic holding a unique niche in a field unvisited by mainstream Malaysian concerns.

All the more reason, then, that the advent of Latif’s second concretoceptual word-art anthology should not pass unremarked. In the arid, conformist intellectual climate of Malaysia in her slogan-slinging, consumer-industrial phase of development, Dr Abdul Latif Kamaluddin shimmers like an oasis of open-minded eclecticism and eccentricity – an indicator that there is intelligent life yet in the utilitarian factories of state-controlled academia. Or at least a mutant high-brow graffiti artist at large in the instant ghettoes of our national psyche.

What does Latif mean by “concretoceptual”? What on earth is Word-Art? Is it all a put-on? And who is Nabanidas Baul, whose mad Bengali sadhu visage opens and closes the slim volume? I can’t answer these questions. Unless some brave soul takes on the challenge, we’ll just have to accept Latif’s word for the existence of literary and philosophical notables like Dolf Hartsuiker, Oeyvind Fahlstroem, Konstantin Amadeus Wecker, and Hermes Phettberg. This is one highly educated hierophant mystic indeed.

Among my personal favorites in the anthology, Latif’s Ode to Mr Bush deserves special mention for its clarity, cogency and conciseness: 45 “SIEGHEILS”  (all in caps) arranged like a column of orcs in 15 rows.

Politics is another prime example of concretoceptual word-art: what looks like a trash can constructed  from the word POLITICS contains only the looped phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out.” No bin liner, bed linen or bin Laden jokes, please.

In Words-Worth, Latif approaches the zen heart of a logical-mystical conundrum with pristine geometric economy: “WORD ON PAGE/PAGE ON PAPER/PAPER ON BOOK/BOOK ON TREE/TREE ON SOIL/SOIL ON EARTH … EARTH IN SOIL/SOIL IN TREE/TREE IN BOOK/BOOK IN PAPER/PAPER IN PAGE/PAGE IN  WORD.” Twelve 3-word lines set in two vertical columns with a “prayalic” break – suggesting the sacred pause between inhalation and exhalation, destruction and creation, one swing of the pendulum and the next.

Latif’s polysyllabic concretoceptualizations walk a tightrope between the serious and the absurd, between the sagacious and the puerile, between solemnity and spontaneity. In a preface entitled Why Write?, he solipsistically concludes:

“WE WRITE (AGAIN) BECAUSE it is an act of semi-totalized self-colonization.” Practitioners of tantric sex value the sublime process of orgasmic non-ejaculation, wherein the seedforce is redirected internally along the spine, so that it can inseminate and fructify the crown chakra, meeting-point of Mind and Spirit.

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Front cover of Bad Breath & Fireproof
Drag Queens

Well, imagine attempting to do that in print.

There is a noticeable change in the tenor of the works dedicated to the poet’s muse, who is acknowledged only as “K.” His words become grounded in organicity, they even acquire rhyme: “We are but blood and a tear/Posted on some painted door/Yet we know not what to bear/All we ask for is some more” (Liturgy for K).

Occasionally, Latif erupts in pure peevishness, notably when he addresses local politics in pieces like Alamak Ulamak, Lagu Kebangsaan, Wa Wa Wa San, Bladi Gomen, Guess Who, Malaysia Boleh, and Sudden Death. Yes, he also writes in Malay and Manglish whenever he’s feeling particularly pissed off. Though these off-the-wall moments do not attain the heights of poetic finesse, they do serve a potent purgative purpose, and reveal a man whose heart is essentially with the rakyat, even when his mind soars way above the clouds.

Latif the Human Relations Worker has been known to support fringe causes with a burning passion, attending to marginalized groups like abused children, the visually handicapped, and the transgendered (which explains the reference to “fireproof drag queens” in the book’s title). Indeed, Latif provocatively dedicates his second anthology “to the Malay-Muslim Apostate.” There are times when one is sharply reminded of the paradigm-shifting power of the printed word.

BAD BREATH is destined to be a collectors’ item: a bold and fragrant breeze of inspired unworldliness, lovingly published in a limited edition and on sale at Silverfish Books, Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru (next to Devi’s Corner).

For a free digital sample of Latif Kamaluddin’s concretoceptual word-art, visit http://www.magickriver.net/latif.htm

October 2003

CAN’T WAIT TO SEE THE MOVIE!

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Title: MALACCA GOLD*
Author: Wayne Stier
Publisher: Meru Publishing
Pages: 369
ISBN 983-99152-0-7

My trusty Britannica describes Ophir as “an unidentified region, famous in Old Testament times for its fine gold.” In the time of King Solomon (circa 920 B.C.), “Ophir was thought of as being overseas… the Jewish historian Josephus… evidently understood that India was the location of Ophir…”

How does this relate to Mount Ophir (now known as Gunung Ledang) which straddles the border of Malacca and Johore? Was this landmark peak named after an original Mount Ophir located in the Pasemah Highland of Sumatra – where English mining engineers found ancient gold mines dating back at least 3,000 years? Could this have been the true location of King Solomon’s legendary mines?

Farfetched as it may sound at first, the notion isn’t altogether preposterous. Otherwise, Wayne Stier’s rambunctious but highly readable romp through Malacca’s intriguing past and present could simply be dismissed as a darn good yarn spun by a Texan gunslinger-turned-punstringer who happens to write “in a hammock with a laptop on top of his lap on the veranda of a house in a coconut grove on the beach of an island in the Gulf of Thailand.”

This might explain Mr Stier’s “swinging” style – which gleefully combines swashbuckling adventure and historical romance with a dash of mystery, treasure-hunt travelog with a generous dollop of vaudeville comedy, maverick scholarship (guaranteed to annoy the dour academic) with straight-talking, in-your-face satire.

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ImageBut pure whimsy alone would not have fired the author’s imaginative flair to such a compelling degree of literary ardor and passion. Stier is quite clearly convinced that he has stumbled upon a mystery of mind-boggling significance. Yet, he has opted for a flamboyant, flippant tone – and further protected himself by attributing the entire manuscript to an ex-colleague and barmate named Edwin Prebble – who, in turn, credits the story to a certain Ms Cindy Anna from Montana, salivatingly described as a “luscious, statuesque woman” with “long, blonde hair… long supple legs… powerful lapis eyes… stunning!” Hmmm. Who do we cast in that role? Kim Basinger? Sharon Stone? Uma Thurman? Daryl Hannah?

Can’t wait to see the movie. Maybe if Steven Spielberg turns it down, Wayne Stier will offer the film rights to me? Malacca Gold undoubtedly has all the ingredients of a big-time Hollywood box office hit. The epic action sweeps across time and space: starting on an island in southern Thailand, we’re taken on a dizzy Disneyland ride to Munich, a beach resort in Spain, then on board a gas tanker bound for Tokyo. Our heroine Cindy Anna accidentally falls into the Malacca Strait and gets rescued by a boatload of amateur Gudang Garam (clove cigarette) smugglers. After a brief sojourn in a hormonally charged Malay village, she meets the dramatis personae of the Majestic Hotel – Alfonso Fernandes, Dominique D’Abreu, Jimmy Ng, Arthur Rangjit, Percival Wiggins, and Vijay the newshound – who take turns guiding us on a whole gamut of magical-mystery-history tours.

ImageHere’s what you get for the price of your ticket: Malacca before, during, and after the Portuguese; medieval China, the Revolt of the Red Eyebrows, Shaolin Temple, ta’i ch’i chuan, kungfu monks, and the rise of the Chinese triads; Mesopotamia, Ptolemaic Egypt, Phoenicia, Palestine, Damascus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, cryptic gold inventories; the Knights Templar and the secret history of Freemasonry; Madagascar, the Solomon Islands, and Pulau Upeh (a nondescript isle off the Malacca coast). Somehow there’s even space and time for a few poignant Chinese immigrant vignettes like Tai Tai Bong and Lucky Lim’s amazing lifestories – set against the soap opera backdrop of Malacca’s Baba and Nyonya families, and the hellish horrors of the Japanese Occupation.

ImageStier manages to conjure a constant undercurrent of mystery in his copious history with titillating references to magical kris (wavy-bladed Malay daggers), “gileega” stones (usually spelt geliga, bezoar stones associated with dragons, the mythical guardians of subterranean hoards), Batu Pahat gold (reputedly the finest in the world), and apocryphal speculations about the cabalistic Keys of Solomon and the precession of the equinoxes.

Among the colorful and everchanging cast of characters in Malacca Gold, two are particularly memorable: the young Portuguese troubadour-chef Duarte Fernandes, and retired planter Percival Wiggins. Duarte Fernandes is portrayed as a prototype Forrest Gump: besides playing romantic lead to the beautiful 16-year-old firebrand Anyi, daughter of Utimuti Rajah, Duarte is credited with (among other things) introducing the joget and red hot chili peppers to Malacca high society, penning the lovesong that would later be adopted as Malaysia’s national anthem, and “donating” a drummer dwarf named Captain Universe (Panglima Awang) to Fernao Magalhaes, better known as Ferdinand Magellan, the “first” world circumnavigator.

Anyi and Duarte’s foredoomed liaison parallels the ill-fated passion of Putri Ledang for her lover, Dua. (Note the “coincidental” similarity of the names Duarte and Dua.) Putri Ledang, of course, was the love-maddened princess and sorcerer’s daughter of Malay legend after whom Mount Ophir was renamed.

ImageStier’s portrait of Percival Wiggins as the archetypal expatriate-gentleman-scholar-raconteur is charmingly crafted. (Sir Alec Guinness would have been the ideal choice for this plum role.) The fact that Planter Wiggins – the embodiment of the late Classical European mind at its scientific and encyclopedic best – is named after the Percival (or Parsifal) of the Grail Quest is significant. It reinforces the intricate interlocking motifs of all major planetary myths: lost kingships, lost civilizations, lost treasure, lost keys to the Mystery, lost stories, lost meanings. Wiggins is a crucial lynchpin of this multi-layered, meandering tale; indeed his solid characterization anchors the more exotic sub-plots in the realm of the credible.

Despite her obvious sex appeal, Cindy Anna (from Montana not Indiana) emerges as a perfectly edible… sorry, credible and well-developed central figure (pun intended, if only as an example of the spicy ribaldry that seasons Stier’s storytelling). Indeed she comes across as a fine embodiment of feisty, free-spirited femininity: adventurous, intelligent, imbued with an earthy spirituality. When she describes ch’i as “that mysterious force in the universe that causes water to ripple, and mountains to fold, that puts the spin in planets and makes stars explode and then reform within our bodies,” she makes perfect, poetic, profound sense. The quest for buried treasure – the thematic thread which links the diverse characters in Malacca Gold – acquires an altogether deeper, alchemical meaning in the light of many such metaphysical epiphanies hidden throughout the text.

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Author Wayne Stier in his Hawaii home

However, it is as a veteran writer of travel documentaries that Stier’s prose flows most comfortably. The cinematic detail of his descriptions of Malacca and its street life are among the most animated and vivid I’ve read. Naturally he couldn’t resist throwing in a satirical montage of “current affairs” images culled from reading the local newspapers. The Great Malacca Drought of 1991 and the two-million-ringgit “High-Tech Rainmaker” scam receive prominent attention, along with grisly gossip inspired by Mona Fandey (the infamous killer-witch) and the private shenanigans of people in public office.

Occasionally, the narrative flow is broken by the interjection of painful puns and sophomoric sexual innuendoes – which, of course, the reader must blame on gin-and-tonic-loving Ed Prebble, recording angel and interlocutor. Ed comes across as an incorrigible pedant with his poker-faced, pseudo-academic footnotes, signed “Ed, ed.”

Alas, Ed’s pedantry is sometimes unjustified, as his facts are not always impeccably researched. (For instance, Ed informs the reader that Malayan independence was declared “in a ceremony in the center of Malacca” on August 31, 1957. This isn’t completely correct: the imminent granting of Merdeka (independence) was announced in Malacca on February 18, 1955. But the actual Merdeka ceremony was staged in the national capital, Kuala Lumpur more than two years later.)

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Jacques de Molay

In a brilliantly succinct chapter on the advent of the Knights Templar as the first international bankers, Stier – or, rather, Ed – misspells the name of the first Grand Master, Hugues de Payens – as well as the last, Jacques de Molay, who was burnt at the stake on the orders of King Philip le Bel, and died cursing the French monarchy. But these are trivial complaints when weighed against the sheer entertainment value and little gems of gritty, witty insight Malacca Gold provides. For example, Cindy Anna on her short stint as a sidewalk mime: “Takes a lot of concentration to stand still. I never realized how much we use speed to help keep our balance. I think that’s why so many people are afraid to slow down – afraid of crashing. It takes guts to do nothing.”

I won’t vouch for the originality of the following quirky quip, but I liked its sparkle: “He calls himself a ‘Heinz 57’ breed, a mixture of a little English stock, Dutch, and probably some orang asli, the aboriginal people of the Malay peninsula. Alfonso hinted that there might also be an orangutan swinging around in Dominique’s family tree.”

ImageIs there anyone on earth who can deny that we all have a primate or two swinging around in our family tree? After all, recent paleo-anthropological evidence suggests that the Adamic race may have been created by the “Sky Gods” – Nefilim from the planet Nibiru (symbolized by the winged orb of the Sumerians/Assyrians/Egyptians and the splayed cross of the Templars) – specifically to mine for gold. Isn’t that why men (and women, too) have always been obsessed with the Metal of the Gods?

Personally I found Wayne Stier’s fantastic patchwork of short and tall stories so engaging and enjoyable, I would have happily kept the Malacca and forgotten about the Gold. But who knows… the world may soon be queuing for the movie version, thereby inspiring Mr Stier to switch from Gudang Garam to Lucky Strike.

Read Wayne Stier’s memoirs, Stars When The Sun Shines.

*[Book review for The Star written in 1996. In June 2009 I received an email from Mars Cavers, Wayne’s wife and lifelong traveling companion, informing me that Wayne had succumbed to the cancer he had been diagnosed with in his early twenties. Seizing life with superhuman passion, Wayne Stier was extremely productive till his death at the age of 62, churning out travelogs, novels, plays and metaphysical poetry. He even tried his hand at woodcarving and sculpture, and did a few tours as an itinerant monologist and raconteur. I dedicate this post to an old pal who made a few inspiring cameo appearances in my life.]

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