In the Dari Pusat Tasek performance, I was assisted by Sang Nabil Utama who is musician, sound engineer, sonologist and a committed Malay culture activist. We were introduced by Azizan Paiman the afternoon before the event at which time we first discussed the underlying ideas and possible controversies of the performance. We refined and rehearsed the performance that night, and went on to execute the event the next afternoon (25 Dec 2019).
This intervention in the public space of the Lumut Waterfront, which was based on a Perak Malay cleansing ritual, was grounded and given poignancy by the fact that Sang Nabil Utama is a native orang Perak. It was also great working with Nabil as he showed great sensitivity to my approach and generously offered his own ideas about Malay ritual form in a way that brought the best out of the performance.
According to researcher Ariffin Mohd Dahlan, in 1528, on the request of some Perak nobles, Sultan Mahmud Shah, the deposed Sultan of Malacca, sent his son Raja Muzaffar to take over the Sultanate. As he made his way with the Malacca Royal accoutrements such as the nobat (drum), naifiri (woodwind), pedang Chura Simanjakini (sword) and the cop mohor halilintar (seal) and several other tools his vessel was hit by a storm as passed Pusat Tasek (Navel of the Seas) which was near the Beting Beras Basah at the mouth of the Perak river, and his vessel ran aground on the sandbank. They discarded all many weighty items and even the acctruments, but the vessel would not move. Finally, the Jin of the Navel of the Seas instructed the Raja to, throw his crown to the sea. Only when the Raja obliged the Jin, did the storm subside and the vessel move on to its destination.
According to some versions of this dynastic legend, the Raja had to dive into the sea at the Pusat Tasek and spend 7 days and 7 nights in negotiations with the Jins and other supernatural beings before this arrangement was arrived at. The prince was installed as Sultan and to this day the air to the throne of Perak is known as the Raja Muda (Young Raja) and not the Raja Mahkota (Crown Prince). It is also known that mysteries still abound in the area of the Beting Beras Basah which is a place where any new Sultan of Perak must perform a rite of passage (Istiadat Mencecah Kaki) in order to take up the throne.
The 12th series in the Koboi Project, ‘Dari Pusat Tasek”, consists of a pair of photographs titled Naan Anaiyttal and Rockin Cowboy taken in Kampung Indian Settlement, Batu Caves and on West Broadway, Mount Pleasant, Vancouver, respectively. Naan Anaiyttal presents the Koboi standing before a hoarding of 12 meter cutout of formerly jailed Deputy Prime Minister and Parti Keadilan leader, Anwar Ibrahim. The Koboi stands gesturing forwards and upwards with a green skinned mango in his right hand. The cutout was initially erected around the 2008 election but taken down in the context of political controversy and fears that the structure would be vulnerable to weather conditions. It was put up again for the 14th general election which took place in May 2018. The Koboi photograph was taken in 2018. Naan Anaiyttal is title of a song from M G Rmachandran’s hit film Enga Veettu Pillai (1965). MGR was of course to become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and the song has populist and egalitarian theme. Anwar Ibrahim, in turn is, however tenuously, in line to be the next Prime Minister of Malaysia.
The Dari Pusat Tasek exhibition will run at Percha Artspace, Lumut Waterfront, till 19 JAN 2020 Photographs of the Lumut performance will go towards making the 13th series of the Koboi Project tentatively titled Badan Aku Tubuh Negara. The draft of this work can be viewed at https://koboibalikkampung.wixsite.com/sialjambalang
The combined downward spiral of the Pusat Tasek and the upward thrust of the enormous Pokok Pauh Janggi combine to create an axis of Malay Ontology or cosmos. Anker Rentse explains, from ethnographic notes that seem to have been made in Ulu Kelantan, “Shurga, Heaven, is on the top of Pauh Janggi, and Nuraka, Hell, is down below its roots. A gigantic hole between the roots causes the ocean water to disappear into hell’s big boiling-pot, kawah nufaka , whence the whirl-pool. Underneath the pot burns everlasting fire. A dragon guards the hole, the gate to hell ( pintu nuraka) with its body in order to prevent the ocean from running dry. In Pusat Tasek an account is kept of the good and the bad deeds of every human being in the world. The accountant in Heaven is Ka’ Tebir, and in Hell, Kiraman. The last one is said to be so busy on occasions, that he gets angry, throws his pen on the floor and declares, Ini sekarang sudah chukup!”
In the Mak Yong Endeng Tajali, when the Great Raja dies, his sons the Elder Raja, the Middle Raja and the Young Raja fight for the throne. The Elder Raja is victorious and Middle Raja flees to the forest to became a Jin Gergasi haunting the land, while the Young Raja goes to the Laut Buih Gelombang Tujuh to become the Nenek Sepit Pentala Naga. At the centre of this lautan is, of course, the Pusat Tasek Pauh Janggi.
In the Kelantan Wayang Kulit at the bottom of, presumably, the same Pusat Tasek, there also lives a Nenek Sepit Pentala Naga. He is the Raja of the Negeri Lautan Buih. He has a beautiful daughter, the Tuan Puteri Ikan Selar Banum who marries the great warrior, Hanuman Kera Putih and has a child named Hanuman Ikan.
The Dari Pusat Tasek, exhibition at Percha Art Space runs till 19 JAN 2020.
The enormous tree at the centre the ‘Pusat Tasek’. is an known as the Pokok Pauh Janggi. While I have been insisting that this is a mango tree, I have to acknowledge that the more commonly held view is that it is a coco de mer palm. Still, pauh is the Malay word for ‘mango’ and as Paul Kekai Manansala suggests janggi, probably, derives from the Toroja word ‘djjandji’ which, like the Malay ‘buah’, means ‘fruit’.
The Toraja are a people from the Sulawesi island, to the Southeast of Borneo, whose ancestral myths seem to claim origins from an island somewhere to the north where there is a powerful current, which could possibly be the Pusat Tasek. In the Taroja language taripa djandji means ‘mango tree,’ where or taripa means ‘mango’ and djandji , derived from djampu means ‘fruit’. In suggesting that the Toraja taripa djandji is the more original form of Pauh Janggi , Manansala points out that among the Bare’e people, also from Sulawesi, taripa djandji is the common way of saying ‘mango tree.’
Manasala also notes that Antonio Pigafetta, a mariner on Ferdinand Magellan’s pioneering voyage of ‘discovery’ (1518-1522), mentions local tales of an island surrounded by whirlpools, somewhere north or south of Java Major (Borneo), called Puzathaer (Pusat air?) on which there was a very large tree in whose branches perch enormous birds called Garuda. The fruit of this tree was said to be ‘larger than a cucumber.’ This size comparison, which must surely be with the in terms of the chayote cucumber from the Americas, suggests that the tree concerned was, indeed, a mango tree. The nut of the coco de mer is very much larger.
In Malay, of course, Pokok Pauh Janggi refers only to the mythical tree. A quotidian Mango tree would be pokok pauh and the coco de mer is referred as kelapa laut. While none of this is conclusive, in my understanding of language and of myth, the fact that, even when the signifier ‘Pauh Janggi‘, is understood as an index for the signified ‘coco de mer‘, the fact that it is indexed via the word ‘pauh‘, confirms that the root of chain of signifieds or similes is, indeed, the ‘mango’.
So where is the mythical Pusat Tasek Pauh Janggi located? I have found two possible locations so far; one from Pigafetta’s notes, is somewhere north or south the island of Borneo and the other, from the Perak establishment (pertabalan) myth of the Perak Sultanate, somewhere off the mouth of the Perak River. Now from that masterful, yet woefully ‘ortentalist’ (in Edward Said’s meaning of ‘Orientalism’ ), storyteller Rudyard Kipling’s, Just So Stories, I have found that there is also a way to conceive of a congruence or conflation of these locations.
In his tale of how the crab came to have pincers and live in holes in the sand titled The Crab That Played With The Sea he tells also of the cause of the tides and the currents and their primordial connection with the Pusat Tasik Pauh Janggi. While this tale is most interesting for its domestication and massification of colonial ethnography in the public discourse of Empire, I find its placement of the Tusat Tasek its greatest draw in the context of my present Dari Pusat Tasek project.
As the Elder Magician, the Son of Adam and his young daughter go in search of Pau Amma, the giant crab –
“they pushed out on the Perak river. Then the sea began to run back and back, and the canoe was sucked out of the mouth of the Perak river, past Selangor, past Malacca, past Singapore, out and out to the Island of Bingtang, as though it had been pulled by a string … So he took the paddle; but there was no need to paddle, for the water flowed steadily past all the islands till they came to the place called Pusat Tasek—the Heart of the Sea—where the great hollow is that leads down to the heart of the world, and in that hollow grows the Wonderful Tree, Pauh Janggi ..“
So it seems that in the space and time of mythology, and, in fact, of voyages in general, movement on a given course implies no necessary limit on the distance travelled, such that “off the mouth of the Perak River” can mean “North or South of Borneo Island”, of course!
In connection with my show at Percha Artspace titled Dari Pusat Tasek, which runs till 5 Jan 2020, I ask the obvious question – where is the Pusat Tasek Pauh Janggi (Navel of the Seas)? The performance carried out on the Lumut Waterfront was based on a Perak Malay cleansing ritual that purports to wash all the sial jambalang (ill luck and malevolent spirits) away to the Navel of the Seas.. Many sources on the location of the Pusat Tasek place it somewhere in the South China Sea or Southwest thereof. According to Antonio Pigafetta, a mariner on Ferdinand Magellan’s pioneering voyage of ‘discovery’ (1518-1522), there were local tales of an island surrounded by whirlpools, somewhere north or south of Java Major (Borneo), called Puzathaer(Pusat air?) . The location of this Pusat Tasek varies, however, with the source of the myth. According to a Perak legend associated with the installation of its first Sultan, Mudzaffar Shah I, the Pusat Tasek is located somewhere off the mouth of the Perak river, beyond the extensive sandbanks there. This area, named Beting Beras Basah or Beras Basah Sandbank, is known as a deeply magical place – one filled with all manner of makhluk ghaib (supernatural beings).
The Dari Pusat Tasek exhibition runs at Percha Artspace, Lumut Waterfront till 5 Jan 2020 (EXTENDED TILL 19 JAN 2020). The gallery presents the Koboi Balik Kampung Series as well as a record or residue of the Dari Pusat Tasek performance that took place on the 25 Dec 2019. This performance stems from the 12th series of the koboi project that carries the same name and which is based on two images. The first of these is a shot of the Koboi standing at the base of a 35 ft elections hoarding of Malaysian prime minister in waiting, Awar Ibrahim at Kampung Indian Settlement, Batu Caves. It is titled Naan Anaiyttal.
Hanging in the Percha gallery is a t-shirt bearing the second image titled Rockin Cowboy. This is the t-shirt worn by Sang Nabil Utama during the performance at the Lumut Waterfront. This is a shot of the koboi outside the Rockin Cowboy Western store on Broadway, Vancouver. This is where I got my hat, boots and shirts for the first Koboi performance at the National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur in 2013. I bought one black and one white version of the Rockmount Classic Sawtooth Western shirt. The white shirt is now in the collection of the National Art Gallery. Since then, I have acquired much of my gear for the Koboi Project at the Rockin Cowboy. In the photo with me are Dave Lawr and Danny Kresnyak from the store.