Malaysian Art and Culture
Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multicultural make up, in which people of different religions, countries of origin and race live in a peaceful and harmonious society has influenced its art and culture, in much the same way it has influenced its cuisine. Therefore, the eclectic culture of the country is reflected in most of Malaysia’s music, dance, art and crafts.
Two integral aspects of the culture of Malaysia are music and dance. Both of these evolved from more basic needs into the spellbinding, complex art forms that they are today.
Music in Malaysia was born out of necessity. In order to live comfortably in an age without phones, computers and fax machines, musical instruments like such as the rebana, or giant drums, were used as essential tools of communication
Traditional Malay music and performing arts appear to have originated in the Kelantan-Pattani region with influences from India, China, Thailand and Indonesia. The music is based around percussion instruments, the most important of which is the gendang (drum). There are at least 14 types of traditional drums. Besides drums, other instruments (some made of shells) include: the rebab (a bowed string instrument), the serunai (a double-reed oboe-like instrument), the seruling (flute), and trumpets. Music is traditionally used for storytelling and celebrating life-cycle events such as harvests.
One of Malaysia’s most prominent art forms is mak yong, a traditional form of Malay drama in which the performers sing, dance and act out heroic legends about sultans and princesses. These performances are backed by Gamelan orchestras; with musicians playing mainly metal percussion instruments including gongs, xylophones and drums. Mak yong is considered the most authentic and representative of Malay performing arts because it is mostly untouched by external sources. Although most traditional Malay dances were influenced by India, Java and other parts of South East Asia, mak yong’s singing and musical repertoire is unique. A performance begins by paying respect to the spirits with an offering, followed by dancing, acting and improvised dialogues.
Malaysian batik is a textile art especially prevalent on the east coast of the country. The method of Malaysian batik production is quite different from that of Indonesian Javanese batik as the patterns are larger and simpler and the colours tend to be lighter and more vibrant than the deep hues of Javanese batik. The most popular motifs are leaves and flowers. Malaysian batik depicting humans or animals are rare because Islam norms forbid animal images as decoration. However, the butterfly theme is a common exception. In line with the “1Malaysia” concept, the Malaysian government endorsed Malaysian batik as a national dress and they encouraged home designers to create new batik designs which reflect the “1Malaysia” concept.
Another popular attraction is Wayang Kulit, a traditional form of theatre using puppets and shadows to relate epic tales about the Ramayana. The shadow play is an old cultural entertainment using shadows cast by intricately carved puppets to relay mythical parables of good versus evil. The puppets are made of cow leather (kulit) that have been stretched and dried. The patterns are then carved; hand painted and held on banana stems. Good characters will appear on the right side of the stage and evil characters on the left. Behind the screen, backlit by a flickering oil lamp, the dalang (puppet master) will weave his tale, bringing to live the play. Moral values are easier to absorb in the form of parables, which is why wayang kulit has flourished.
Also known as Bunga Malai, garland making is an integral part of the cultural heritage of Malaysian Indians and these finished products are used in religious occasions, such as weddings, moving home, or welcoming important guests. Flowers, holy basil, and the leaves of the margosa or mango tree are strung together to form a malai or garland. They are done in different styles to suit each particular occasion.
Malaysian Silat or Silat Melayu is said to have come about through the observation and imitation of animals including the monkey, eagle and tiger. It is a highly stylized Malay art of self-defence and combines a sequence of supple movements which enables a person to defend against attack. Silat is also considered a performing art as it is accompanied by drums and gongs and performed during weddings and other significant occasions. The descendents of former headhunters still perform ancient war dances which are considered the precursor of the freestyle form in silat.
Having the world’s largest reserves of tin, it seems appropriate enough that Malaysia also produces what is widely regarded as the world’s finest pewter. Most of it is produced at the Royal Selangor Pewter Factory, which lies just outside of the capital Kuala Lumpur. Today Royal Selangor is the largest single manufacturer of fine pewter in the world.
The jungle provides an abundance of materials for Malaysia’s weaving industry. Many types of thorny vines are worked and woven into comfortable chairs and tables; unique furniture that was so popular with the English that it could be seen in the parlours of just about every British resident during colonial times. The strong and versatile fronds of the sago palm are also superbly suited for crafting. In Borneo, the sago is dyed and woven into beautiful and distinctly patterned jewellery, baskets, hats, floor mats and more.