Monday, August 30, 2010

Creation myths

Happy Independence Day, Malaysia! (31st August) Here is my entry for Merdeka.

One can embark on so many interesting adventures via footnotes. Reading the aforementioned Malay Poisons And Charm Cures has led me to another book I am keen to delve into: R.O. Winstedt's Shaman, Saiva And Sufi. A similar sort of book, it is about the mysticism of Muslim Malays and was published in 1925. You can read many of its chapters on Google Books.

It is not a fascination with the dark arts that drives my curiosity here. I am primarily interested in the etymology of the familiar Malay words I grew up with, and the origins of cultures.

And I have to say, even though I do not have a drop of Malay blood in me, Malay culture is part of my culture too as a Malaysian and I take full ownership of it. No amount of racist propaganda is going to make me think that I am an outsider in my own country; the mountains accept me and call me theirs - who can argue with their authority?

Today I want to write about creation myths. I love reading them, and even wrote one myself a few years ago which I would like to expand into a larger story. Anyway, in his book, this Winstedt chap relates several versions of a Malay creation myth I had not heard of before, but which very much resembles the Maori creation story of Rangi (sky) and Papatuanuku (earth).
In the Moluccas the earth is a female deity, who in the west monsoon is impregnated by Lord Sun-Heaven. 
A very Zeus-Danae style of procreation!
The Torajas in Celebes (Sulawesi) believed in two supreme powers, the Man and the Maiden, that is, the sun and the earth. The Dayaks of Borneo hold that the sun and the earth created the world. ...
...A Kelantan account relates that sun and earth once had human form, sun the form of a man and earth the form of a woman, whose milk may be traced in the tin-ore of Malaya and whose blood is now gold. 
Meanwhile, the following brief account reminds us of the tremendous influence Indian culture had on our region all those centuries ago:
Actors in the north of the Malay Peninsula say that "the earth spirit, whom actors fear, is the daughter of Seretang Bogoh, who sits in the sun and guides the winds, and of Sang Siuh, the mother of the earth, who sits at the navel of the world." 
Many religions at once unite and dissociate the fruitful earth and the gloomy underworld. But as Malay drama came from India, this northern tradition may be a corruption of Hindu mythology. By some Malay actors Raja Siu, lord of the surface of the earth, is invoked along with Siva, and the name [Siu] is perhaps a corruption of Siva. Anyhow, in time Siva and Sri usurped the place of Father Sky (or Father Water, as he is sometimes called) and of Mother Earth in the Malay pantheon, and today even the existence of these two primitive gods has been forgotten.
Winstedt goes on to explain, or conjecture, how these early cult figures evolved into djinns and spirits...

Reading all these ancient stories makes me feel connected to all these disparate cultures that today seem at odds with each other. We are indebted to Indian culture for its great contribution to our literature, early medicine, arts, medieval astrology; and yet in today's Malaysia many Indians are made to feel like 'third citizens'. Deepak Chopra teaches that everyone shares the same atoms, and the same breath.

This Merdeka, as all others, I am hopeful that we can keep this in mind and not let our minds be blinkered by the politics of hate.

I would also like to bring your attention to Amir Muhammad's Merdeka project, Sejarah Melayu Reloaded. It is his very funky, witty retelling of the classic Malay Annals, which was often quoted in our primary school history textbooks. Dating back to (according to Amir) 1612, Sejarah Melayu was the go-to source for the early history of the Malayan Archipelago. Amir's updated version is spiced up with entertaining pictures, too.

Salam merdeka kepada saudara saudari berbagai kaum di mana jua mereka berada.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Malay ghost stories

I have here in my hands, even though I know it is improbable that I am typing and holding it simultaneously, John D. Gimlette’s Malay Poisons And Charm Cures. It was first published in 1915 but the edition I have in front of me was issued in 1971 by Oxford University Press. I obtained this interesting artifact from the library a few weeks ago.

I would like to share what I learned about the Malay word hantu, which means ghost, from this book. As a Malaysian and therefore having had a childhood ‘bombarded with warnings of unfriendly spirits’ as my friend KB would put it, the fascination with this word is unsurprising. The spirit world is so real to us - too real!!

Gimlette quotes H.N. Ridley’s (the author of List of Malay Plant Names) suggestion that hantu is sometimes used to mean “false” in Malay botanical nomenclature. Limau hantu, for example, is the name for “wild pomelo”.

paku langsuir
Certain wild plants are said to be planted and cultivated by spirits. Paku langsuir, the Malay name for bird’s-nest fern, is made up of the words “fern” (paku) and “female vampire” (langsuir, or langsuyar), the creature that makes her home within this wild jungle fern. In Malay mythology, women who die in childbirth are said to turn into langsuirs, and when they do, all hell breaks loose. Interestingly, I have heard that Malays boil the leaves of the paku langsuir as medication for women in confinement, so that the fern becomes, in my mind, a strange symbol of feminine duality, that of nurturing mother (because the fern resembles a nest) and that of angry she-devil.

There are other interesting uses of 'hantu'. Gimlette writes:
Certain clouds, when of very quaint or changing form (hantu dagok) are believed to be the ghosts of murdered men. 
In Kedah, an evil spirit called Hantu Doman is a survival of the Monkey-God, Hanuman, who occurs in the Hindu legend Ramayana.  It is described as having the face of a horse and the body of a man. 
The word hantu is applied to the middle finger (jari hantu), perhaps supporting the old superstition of “making the horns” against the Evil Eye;
a sea-shell called siput laut, unidentified, is called hantu, and the word siput, if used in another sense, signified the lines or markings on the hands used in palmistry.

And now, to see if I can go to sleep after reading all that…

Friday, August 27, 2010

A bit of film silliness

Best understated ending for a film: Eat Drink Man Woman

Best love scene: Don't Look Now (see Jonathan Lethem's essay, Donald Sutherland's buttocks)

Saddest love scene: Smash Palace

Sexiest Hitchcock scene: The 39 Steps, when the two main characters are unwillingly hand-cuffed to each other and she has to remove her stockings...

Second viewing surprisingly rewards: Eagle Vs Shark, As Good As It Gets, Basquiat

Second viewing surprisingly disappoints: American Splendour, Lost In Translation

Most interesting book to film adaptation: Tristram Shandy A Cock And Bull Story

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

After the Quiet

looking out from Tiritiri Matangi Island
I have managed to catch a virus and sprain my neck at the same time. Today is my final day convalescing at home. Admittedly, it's a welcome relief from the coal face. Working six days a week at my non-art jobs isn't so bad. I'm often asked how I manage that on top of my art practice. The answer is, other aspects of my life give way, like not having the time for family and friends. A slipping exercise routine. No time to watch films. Overgrown armpit hair. A slightly dirtier house.

It may sound pathetic that I have to be sick in order to catch up on all the things I have been remiss in. I finally had some time to put finishing touches to a few small watercolours, watch three Hitchcock films (Topaz, Mr & Mrs Smith and Rebecca), listen to book podcasts and also start reading Tan Twan Eng's Gift Of Rain which I picked from the MPH store at KL airport. I still haven't made human contact outside the house, though.

This is not a book review

Gift of Rain is proving to be an enjoyable read. It is set in 1940s Penang and Perak, and I find myself stopping every few pages or so to drift off into a reverie of my childhood and experiences at the very places that Tan describes in his book. It's the story of Philip Hutton, a young lad of English and Chinese descent growing up in Penang. He befriends a Japanese diplomat who starts teaching him aikido and becomes his sensei. Their friendship deepens but is frowned upon by others as the threat of a Japanese invasion looms over Malaya.

I'm only two-thirds into the novel, so I can't say whether the story is satisfying. But I'm very much enjoying the telling of the protagonist's special friendship with his beloved sensei, as well as Tan's gift for apt similes like this one:
Under the eaves were more carvings, crawling down the columns that held up the roofs like petrified vegetation.
Many of Tan's descriptions of Malaya are very romantic... Okay-lah, a bit drama-lah, but this time I really don't mind-lah. Consider this passage about Penang itself, narrated by the protagonist, Philip:

I have never seen the light of Penang replicated anywhere else in the world - bright, bringing everything into razor-sharp focus, yet at the same time warm and forgiving, making you want to melt into the walls it shines on, into the leaves it gives life to. It is the kind of light that illuminates not only what the eyes see, but also what the heart feels.
I want to check with my Penangite friend KB to see if she feels the same way, heh heh. Perhaps that is what Home feels like, anywhere in the world.

Can't wait to reach the conclusion. I'm dying to find out how the characters betray each other. If you're thinking about buying this book, I recommend looking past its production quality! The print job is amateur; you can make out the pixels in the letters and the ink comes away when you rub your clammy fingers on them. Oh dear, is this what all print-on-demand books look like?

Craig Cliff

I've started reading Craig Cliff's blog and added him to my links bar. He is a New Zealand author and his first novel, A Man Melting, was launched by Randomhouse just recently. This will be my next book purchase, for sure, but I am being VERY disciplined by promising myself to read the unread books on my shelves before buying a new one or even borrowing one from the library. I came across Craig's writing in Sport magazine (a literary magazine, mind you, so why on earth is it called Sport??) and was quite impressed by his short story 30 Ways Of Looking At Marumaru South which is made up of thirty vignettes, each told from the point of view of an inhabitant of Marumaru South.

I like that on his blog Craig writes things like: "I still feel a bit dirty with all this thinly veiled self-promotion, but hopefully there’s enough honesty in these sorts of posts to be, I dunno, redemptive?"


Well, I've only a couple of hours left before my usual life routine engagements responsibilities sweep me up again in a vortex of activity... So, I'd best be art-ing along. I want to finish a watercolour work today. Friends, until next time!

She hobbles away coughing...

Friday, August 13, 2010

The one and only Antares

This is a plug for my dear friend Antares who is re-releasing his album Second Coming. Click here for the background story, music samples and how to get your mits on a copy.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My art on view

Retrospectively: the Choice! exhibition in Melbourne has been documented and now has an online home at Pippa's blog.

Upcoming: my painting in this year's Trust Waikato Contemporary Art Award (but renamed to Bold Horizon) can be viewed on the online catalogue. See you at the opening!