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Session 6 - Death

Writer-in-residence, Kembali: Dia Hakim Khaeri

Engagement date: 7 July 2022


“Performance is ephemeral, as it is enacted, so it does die.”

Nabilah Said, Pretty Displaced (2019, ArtsEquator).

There is a dua (prayer) that I say on autopilot when I hear about a death. “Innalillahi wa innali rajiun”. To Allah we belong, and to Them we return.

In drama school, I’ve learnt many things about performance. It doesn’t matter where it lives – dance, theatre, the cinema screen. But of course, dance and theatre stick painfully out next to the screen. The live element of performance lasts only for the show. The moment a movement – a flick, a wave, a turn – is placed on stage, it dies immediately. Sure, moments can be photographed. But even the best post-production photos will never match up to the feeling that both the artist and audience feels in the place they are performing. A gravestone, almost. Or perhaps the funeral, eulogy and burial all crammed into one.

Immediately, there is a sense of irony that I feel as I think about Both Sides. Bear with me. When death is closely intertwined with performance, I started to wonder how meshing the very concept of death – bare, using the word death death death in all the shows, scripts and talks — would bode on stage. It may sound pretentious, but again, bear with me.

Theatre is no stranger to death. Beyond the philosophical concept of death in performance, we have our share of displaying what it means to die onstage. Shakespeare contemplates death in the height of Hamlet. Euripedes allows Medea to murder her own children. Konstantin outright kills himself by the end of Chekhov’s Seagull, his pre-planned death given to the audience with the existence of a gun onstage. Seemingly useless, almost a more decorative prop right up till the end.

All these examples mentioned are tragedies. One could probably infer by those endings or instances in those plays alone.

Strangely enough, the Islamic concept of death is no different. As a young, unsuspecting Muslim, the message of death being painful, slow, that lasts till the very end – disgusted me. My mental illness quickly made me fall fast and hard for a quick one. When your life becomes so closely intertwined with death, any age beyond 30 feels old, a shell of yourself that probably shouldn’t exist.

Sitting with the participants of Kembali, I start to feel like the title of the piece is apt. To kembali – to return. When I have wanted to die, I never thought of death like it was an act of returning. I associated my death the same way performance dies. Gone when the moment ends, to never ever be seen again. Unless someone asks for a DropBox link of my photographs.

Flowers given to the makciks. They helped to arrange them into bouquets.

When we think of death onstage, we seem to be obsessed with the idea of this grandeur display of how it is enacted. The blood. The horror, the sinking disgust that both the character / performer and their audiences have to sit with.

Kembali is different. There is a sense of care that hangs in the air when being with these older women. These women have lived, much longer than I, much longer than the organisers of Both Sides, much longer than their potential audiences.

I wondered, quietly. If it is blasphemous to reconnect this sentiment with performance. In creating, we kembali to things that seem minute at a glance. They magnify when we rework, reconstruct, rebuild them.

To ask an old person what they think about death might be a slippery slope. The person themself is already more than acquainted with the subject. To ask feels almost rude. How can you ask someone so “close” to death what they feel, especially that their days seem to be more numbered? Let alone ask them to perform with you – complicit in another simultaneous death while onstage?

Hasyimah and Haizad in the midst of the makciks, leading them into the choreography.

Death in itself, proven by the existence of these women, is nearly ephemeral. When someone dies, we may live on posthumously. Through photos, prayers, visits to a grave. When one thinks about it, death seems more like it is for the living than it is for the dead. Maybe that is why we are choosing to talk about it, regardless of the medium. Life is quick, fast-paced, forever changing. But death is certain. A part of life, a part of us.

In theatre, there is a lot of emphasis on pretending. Which is not very different from how we navigate real life. But the difference is how deliberate it is.

Kembali’s core visual lies in the act of seeking forgiveness. The tableaux of older women – or makciks as we know them – extending their hands to each other. Kissing or placing the skin of their foreheads gently onto the other person’s palm.

Within the Malay-Muslim community, this act carries a great weight of ikhlas. To be genuine about why you are asking for forgiveness and who you are seeking it from.

It’s just like performing. You have an action. You take that action, and give it intention. And when something has intention, it has a purpose. It can mean something greater than yourself.

As I sit in the rehearsal, I wonder if these older women know. If they know about the weight that comes with this image, magnified on a stage. I can see it already, in the back of my mind. The living room ritual spelled out for the public – now for non-Malay-Muslims to pick apart and dissect. If there is anything beyond what you see. If this act of forgiveness – can be something that can be left to interpretation.

I also wonder what God thinks. Do They think it’s blasphemous? Do They wonder why we humans have such a strong fascination with the rituals They created, if Their creations have turned out more complicated beyond divine knowledge?

It is easy to make assumptions. It is even easier to form biases, and it transposes into the way we make, feel and do.

As an amateur art critic, I have always found myself to be harsh. I can rip apart a piece to shreds – conveniently forgetting the things that go into making a work. A final performance always feels definitive. That is the version of the artwork that you will see, on that night, that matinee, that gallery timing.

But art itself transcends beyond the human eye, hand and body.

Art goes beyond. It goes beyond life and death. The act of art making, as we continually try to politicise, to make ‘correct’ – when it has always been inclusive and non discriminatory. To be complicit in art, is to ensure that even the people you least expect can be part of it. When the flowers are thrown, or passed to the usher – you acknowledge. You acknowledge life, death, and everything that comes in between.

Perhaps in Kembali – in being the artist, the witness, God – we try to stop life for a time, just for a moment. We can make an attempt to make a stillness in a world that is constantly changing.


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