Not Horsing Around

13 October 2016

Naim Marjani is serious about preserving the art and heritage of the Kuda Kepang. We speak to the veteran practitioner to find out more.

Back in its heyday, the Kuda Kepang (a Java-originated traditional dance that mimics a horse’s gallop) graced the stage of events and occasions, whether big or small, especially in the state of Johor. Known for its mystical and magical elements, the performance traditionally features smoke from burning kemanyan incense, and spells recited by the group leader known as the shaman that send performers into a trance-like state.

The routine, usually performed by nine people and another five playing music instruments, starts off with a slow beat that gradually builds up with the music tempo and the ‘horses’ becoming more alive at each step. At the climax of some shows, the performers transcend into a frenzy by climbing on top of tables, stepping on burning charcoal and even eating glass shards – which was very much looked-forward to and enjoyed by the audience, according to seasoned Kuda Kepang practitioner Naim Marjani from Kampung Sungai Nibong in Semerah, a small town in the Batu Pahat district.

Speaking from an extended shed in front of his kampung wooden house, Naim, who heads the Sinar Warisan Kuda Kepang troupe, says the performance used to be a popular feature at most events where guests would be kept entertained by the routine that could sometimes run up to a few hours on end. The performers, when in a trance, would tease some of the audience members by chasing them around, or rip up coconut husks with their teeth, or endure lashes whipped by another performer, all done without showing an ounce of pain, says Naim. He adds that the audience usually loved to see such stunts, which was why some performing troupes tend to add more spice by prolonging their routines.

Naim started learning the art from some village elders when he was 18 years old and he elaborates that back in the day, the troupe had about 20 active members who would go around the village and other villages to perform at weddings and official functions. “I followed them around, learning the ropes. At that time, the elders did not allow us younger ones to perform just yet so we followed them to observe and learn,” he says. A few years later, the elder villagers moved away to FELDA settlements, which gave Naim and his peers the chance to take over, which he has until today.

However, the Kuda Kepang performance has mellowed down a great deal over the past few years with the dance being promoted as a cultural dance for the entertainment of tourists. “A lot of the spiritual elements and myths have been taken out in the name of pantang (taboo) and disapproval from the religious authorities,” he says. He says that troupes like his had to lay low, only performing at small gatherings and village weddings. But that is not a reason for him to hold back from passing down the art in order to keep it alive.

It is important to him that the traditional art, inherited from his forefathers, is passed down to the future generations. Over the decades, the experienced performer has led his troupe to perform at various events all over Johor, Malacca, Terengganu and also Singapore in efforts to entertain and to promote it. He says the kampung had a few other similar troupes but not many survived. Sinar Warisan managed to keep the tradition alive since forming in 1959, but it was not without hardships. The troupe faced many obstacles such as financial constraints as the villagers struggled to find footing two years after the nation achieved Merdeka. It was with perseverance of the troupe’s leaders and members that it managed to pull through and survive.

Now at age 75, Naim tends to his chilli plants and other vegetation during the day and runs a workshop beside his house to teach those with an interest to learn the traditional art, in the evening and on weekends. He hopes to pass down the ways of making the horse prop used in the dance, playing traditional music instruments like the angklung (instrument set made from bamboo) and gong, as well as the dance itself to as many people as he can.

He believes that making the Kuda Kepang prop teaches its learners good virtues because like most handmade things, it takes time and patience. Each horse takes about five days to make, with a lot of weaving involved. After weaving the horse into shape, the maker has to sew its features, decoration and mane into place. “The younger students are not so much into this part of the art as it is time-consuming. It is leceh (troublesome) to them,” says Naim, with a laugh.

According to the veteran, the children in his kampung are more interested in the dance. He also finds them easier to teach compared to his students back then as they are more flexible, probably due to exposure to other dances on television and the Internet. “Parents are now more open to their children learning the Kuda Kepang dance and my students are mostly girls, unlike before when parents preferred not to let their daughters out of the house,” he says.

On the walls of the shed hangs framed photos of a younger Naim in action, demonstrating Kuda Kepang making to the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar and former deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, among others. Until today, he still holds on tight to his hopes for the traditional art to be passed down for generations to come.

His students are mostly eight to 16-year-olds from the kampung who have taken a liking to Kuda Kepang - the now watered-down version without the trance and extreme stunts – but Naim does not mind it. To him, as long as there are people still interested in the art, he is wiling to teach.

By Yee Xiang Yun
Photos by Jasmine And Sun

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