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The role of the arts in developing sustainable inter-ethnic engagement in Malaysia
- Ramli Ibrahim

August 21, 2014

(Keynote address at Padu-Kita Merdeka Symposium, UKM on Aug 16, 2014)

The Arts play a vital role in building the character of a nation. When we mention the Arts, we associate it synonymously with culture. To a layman, art generally equates with beauty and excellence. Culture, on the other hand, has to do with the traditional, the way of life of the people and the endeavours which are representative of the collective psyche of society.

The Arts inevitably mirror society and plays the role in engaging society to look at itself as it evolves towards being more civilized. The universal message of Arts is inclusive but at the same time is opened to personal interpretation and represents an enigmatic challenge in its engagement with society. Together with the Humanities, the Arts promote the quest of self-reflection, celebrate the miracle of life and cultivate the positive transformation of the human race. Due to this, the Arts have a moderating influence on society. This 'civilizing' process, which is a prime consequence of the presence of the Arts, also informs us of the directional path of the society towards a progressive and better quality of life.

The Arts not only have a strong association with culture but also with all knowledge. Here, I am speaking of the description of the artist and artistic venture going beyond dance, music, drama, literature and the visual arts but encompassing the highest levels of knowledge that not only include the Humanities and Social Sciences but ultimately having even a mystical inter-relationship with philosophy and Higher Sciences. True art alludes to the elusive and deep link in the interconnection of all knowledge.

Ultimately, at its highest level, every endeavour and subject matter, which serves the positive perpetuation of life and its celebration, is art. However, art is more than just culture. The Arts implies excellence, depth, intense preoccupation and the ability to evoke a high state of consciousness. Though art is part of culture, not all cultural matters can be considered art.

One associates the artistic phenomenon to reveal a depth of involvement, a heightened state of experience which catalyses a transformative realization, for those who partake in it. The phenomena of beauty, truth, abstract concepts and many more are the subject of art, which makes its definition as elusive as a definitive description of its role. Arts play the vital role of redefining and reforming our relative world view of reality which changes with time.

With the above in mind, let us zero again to the generally perceived realms of Arts and culture, which in many ways are inseparable, and examine their engagement with society. One must be reminded again and again that both art and culture are itself a constantly evolving phenomenon. Both are fluid manifestations at every level of the human state. They defy strict definition but simultaneously and metaphorically represent the face and spirit of a society. Art and culture are sensitive to prevailing influences. Like the air we breathe and water we drink, the quality of art and culture of a community or nation, indicates how it has evolved. They provide sustenance to human civilization. Sensitive to the socio-economic-political environment that nourishes them, they are of interest, as they function, not as much of a definitive index but more of a sensitive barometer of the quality of life we aspire to lead. What is interesting about them is that they tell us about the society that feeds them, honestly and as it is. What you see is what you getů

By nature, Arts and culture cannot lie. Even in lies, as it happens in a culture that is sustained by falsity and hypocrisy, their very existence alludes to the deception that has fed them and in doing so tells the truth of the duplicity of the people that spawn them. If the arts and culture of a nation seem shallow and immature, it tells much about the psychically impoverished society, which has manufactured them. It sends the message that the particular society is out of sync with reality and lacks the inner voice and conscience, which informs its fundamental direction. However, at times, the line that marks the difference between the Arts and culture is ambiguous and to a large extent, a subjective man-made construct. As alluded previously, what eventually is art is relative truth and can be contested by anyone at anytime.

It is easy to associate art with beauty and truth. This is the understanding of the lay person but this description is incomplete and does not explain why we call a work or phenomenon a piece of art and another, just a mundane one. The definition of art as we enter into the realm of modernism becomes more open as its definition is not subject to any strict criteria. Contemporary modern art which celebrates individual interpretation and statement, functions on a different level of consciousness, if compared to traditional art, which represents a collective statement of a community.

An artwork, which is an expression of a strongly creative and individualistic artist may rebel against, and reject, outmoded and relative cultural truths. Contemporary modern art has repeatedly shown an anarchic disdain for rules and decorum. Ravishing or repulsive? When it comes to viewing contemporary modern art, it's all in the eye of the beholder! This kind of art lies outside the realm of traditional art and culture. The Arts that come from traditional culture represent conditioned and shared values as filtered and outlined by generations of people.

We have come now to the implication that ethnicity and its manifestations have to do with tradition and the collective statement. Ethnic Arts and culture, which represent important aspects of ethnicity have been subsumed by that particular ethnic tradition and have transcended the personal. On the other hand, as we understand it, contemporary modern art is individualistic. However, to be truly effective, this individualistic statement must be "big'' enough for society to celebrate its revelation of knowledge, idea or truth to exercise a lasting impression and fascination for society to value it as art. It is interesting to note that it is in the realm of contemporary modern art that ethnic differences are minimized. Contemporary art follows the dictates of market demands, which transcend ethnicity and paradigmatic constraints of tradition.

Paradoxically, when all said and done, the most effective art, whether it is individualistic or traditional, says it all in simple metaphorical terms. Its very existence is powerful enough to stir the imagination of those who are sensitized by its statement. It is able to reaffirm and summarize the drama of existence in the context of the world view of the milieu that produces it. Therefore, its presence intensifies our own understanding and meaning of 'being' part of the human fraternity. With multi-ethnic and multi-racial communities the influences, which contribute towards art make the analysis of the resultant cultural identity more cosmopolitan, richer but simultaneously more complex.

Take the Malay Peninsula which has been the entry point of trade routes from time immemorial. The Peninsula had stood in the midst of the cross roads of many prevailing cultures. Culture being fluid is interactive and influenced by everything and with anything it reacts. The final manifestation of the Malay culture is the sum total of its inherent characteristics together with what it absorbs and digests from other influences and eventually transforms into its own.

Left on its own, both art and culture, naturally find their own level and unique identity or identities. Like a natural eco-system, there is usually a sustainability balance not unlike natural selective process in the drama of life, death and rebirth. We find this re-enacted for us in myths of most traditional cultures. The food culture is one example which has transcended ethnic differences and where shared commonality in the taste bud is instead celebrated in a cuisine explosion, not just in Malaysia, but the world over. A sumptuous range of culinary choices is now available on our food platter. Malaysians now appreciate world cuisine and are not averse to trying the most exotic spectrum of spread from the global kitchen. Our malls are littered with food courts catering such incredible variety of cuisine with celebrity chefs notching high ratings in the TV channels. This was not the case just ten years ago.

Where food is concerned, we celebrate our similarities of being human rather than being fixated on our differences. However, how much of these foods are of the quality good enough for our consumption? How many of these have become insidious extension of the same kind of junk fast food variety with MSG, preservatives et al, that we are all too familiar with? The adage that we are what we eat is true but is not an entirely complete picture. We should also include the other variety of 'intakes' that we consume consciously or unconsciously. I am speaking of what we assimilate through our other senses - through the hard-selling of commercial and political propaganda, our education, or through exposure to direct or subliminal influences - all these contribute towards the mindscape and eco-culture of the individual and society which help form his or its world view and character.

The sustainability of this eco-culture has a lot to do with the arts, culture and the education of the individual, society and nation. Like the comfort equation, this sustainability equation, especially when it involves multi-ethnicity and even sub-ethnic groups becomes highly valenced and has many constants. It is not as simple as it seems and it is vital that government takes heed of the advices of the humanities and social sciences analysts before it is too late.

Cultivating a sustainable ongoing inter-ethnic engagement is like cultivating a sustainable wholesome diet for our own food intake. In a commercially driven world, subject to food laws and right information, aren't the majority of the population still victims of mis- and dis-information of misleading advertisements? Cancer, diabetes, alcoholism and smoking are still rampant results of a grossly stressed population manipulated by large scale deception by corporate food moguls. Can we then blame our children for choosing KFC, McDonalds and Coke rather than the more healthy unbranded fresh food products?

Similarly, the constants in the sustainable equation mentioned before can be manipulated such that what is absorbed, consciously or subliminally, by our mind and other senses will eventually contribute to form the collective psyche of the society and eventually the nation. We may need to exorcise and 'unlearn' the toxic matters consumed, not just through the mouth and nose, but our minds and other senses.

How matured or otherwise - the individual, society and eventually the nation is, is henceforth dependent on this intake and absorption of information and matters which will effect and inform its cultural trajectories and identities. Unwholesome lifetime education eventually breeds mistrusts and imbalance which skews negatively a multi-ethnic society's regard of each other. The total information consciously or subliminally fed to us, from the general to the particular, from the political to the religious, will affect the psychic bearing of the individual and society such that it will not be able to find the right level of 'stable tension.'

Can we blame our youths for being more familiar with Lady Gaga or Madonna rather than makyong, Chinese opera, Bharatanatyam, rebab or erhu if everywhere they go they only hear voices of the former and seldom the latter? Can we blame them for being zealots on Friday afternoons and mat rempits during the night?

Inter-ethnic engagement and cross-cultural dialogues between artists functioning in a culturally liberal society, is generally taken for granted. Between artists of different ethnic backgrounds we don't usually think of ethnicity as a problem but as a resource. We encounter, interrogate and examine problems by making them the subjects of our works. There is usually a critical mass within the artistic community to provide the 'voice' as check and balance which regulate this inter-ethnic engagement so that it does not degenerate into a critical predicament.

This is not as simple as in the present political, religious and multi-national scenario. Much of what the population consumes with regard to economic-politico and religious propaganda includes the manipulation of social issues and the indoctrination of absolutist values. These are now perpetrated in such colossal proportion to artificially impact the world view of a community for preconceived agendas by those in power. The huge psychical shifts and gaps are beyond the capacity of art to cope or healů Ethnicity at most time, no longer comes in its authentic forms. It comes with political agendas and power play, which makes the question of ethnicity in its one-dimensional term, obsolete.

Yoga, Ayurvedic massage, Bharatanatyam and basmati may no longer come from India. Dates and belly dancing are no longer just prerogatives of the Arabs. British India is neither British nor Indian but a brand made in Malaysia. Champions of makyong, wayang kulit and menora may no longer be Malays. Hijab fashionistas and designers are not necessarily devout Muslims. However, in the open market there is a constant inter-ethnic engagement, and ethnicity is not only a resource of creativity but also of appropriation and exploitation. The demand for the new and the exotic makes the engagement with ethnicity sustainable and attractive in the shelves of food, clothes and other 'alternative' products.

I have alluded to the roles of the Arts in inter-ethnic engagement. One of the great powers of the Arts is its in use of metaphor. In the Malay performing art of makyong, the body is viewed as the istana (palace). The semangat or the vital force is metaphorised as the raja, who needs to be strong to govern the istana or body proper so that it is healthy. The semangat as the strong raja protects the istana, which house the mind, body and spirit of the person. When the raja is strong, it is able to control the penggawa or guardians of the various orifices of the body to ward off any untoward influences and attacks which may be detrimental to the physical and spiritual health of the person. When the raja or semangat is weak, the Tok Teri or the traditional shaman is called to restore the strength of the presiding raja and semangat. The shaman uses mythic stories to evoke the raja to once again govern the istana. The shaman negotiates with the penggawa to open the palace windows and doors so as to allow the angin (inherent creative temperament) and creative juices to flow freely. The semangat is an extremely sensitive entity, which has to be appeased both physically, emotionally and spiritually. From time immemorial, the shaman has been the actor-dancer-artist par excellence.

Arts and culture, which includes music, drama, dance, mythic literature and poetry are the vital paraphernalia which allows the efficaciousness and creative ministrations of the artist/shaman to take effect and to restore balance. He is the catalyst in negotiating the balance and adjustments in the changing eco-culture in the imagined and real world of his community. I feel that this is even more poignant in the present contemporary scenario. In a multi-ethnic community, this artist-shaman may no longer deal with traditional elemental spirits but those of a more complex nature. It is one of the major roles of the Arts to act as a moderating influence by exorcising the demons and angst of the community by confronting them with their creative outpourings.

The Arts serve to open the windows and doors of the palace, allowing the outpouring of the creative juices to find their own sustainable level to heal, celebrate and revel in our brief existence in this life of ours.

Contemporary, Odissi and Bharatanatyam dancer Ramli Ibrahim is the artistic director of Sutra Dance Theatre, Malaysia. He has been acknowledged as a 'Living Heritage' by the Government of Malaysia in 2012 and received his Datukship from the King of Malaysia in 2013.

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