Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof set up the first performing arts programme in Malaysia at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang in 1970. The first scholar ever to obtain a doctoral degree (1976) in any of the Malay performing arts, he has been the pioneer in the study traditional Malay theatre. Since the 1970’s he has assiduously carried out research and documentation activities in Malaysia as well as in several other Southeast Asian countries, particularly Indonesia and the Philippines, establishing himself as one of the world’s leading scholars and researchers of traditional Southeast Asian theatre, with numerous publications on theatre and related disciplines. He has lectured widely on culture-related topics.

For much of his research, Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof developed his own methodological procedures, combining in unique fashion methods employed in theatre, anthropology, literature and other disciplines in keeping with his firm view that knowledge cannot be compartmentalised. This is particularly the case with Southeast Asian theatre genres given their multidisciplinary and multidimensional character.

As a result of his interest in preservation and documentation, as well as his field-work activities, Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof has built up a vast collection of materials, particularly those related to mak yong, wayang kulit, main puteri and other ancient genres of Malay theatre, genres which are, in addition to their value as performing arts per se, perhaps more importantly, repositories of invaluable traditional knowledge and wisdom. Several of the forms of theatre thus recorded are no longer active, and the remaining ones threatened with extinction. The importance of these materials can be gauged from the fact that it will no longer be possible to obtain any further reliable data, given that many of the greatest artists involved in these genres are no longer alive, that present performers are not adequately acquainted with these art forms, that performances have been drastically reduced in frequency and have lost much of their authenticity under pressures of modernisation and changing values.

Most of these materials in Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof’s collection still remain to be published and disseminated in an appropriate manner. Given a whole range of constraints, including lack of interest and absence of support from Malaysian institutions and organisations which should, in theory at least, be particularly concerned, Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof seriously feels that much of the invaluable data collected over a lifetime of research will eventually be totally lost or leave Malaysia, that it may never even see the light of publication.

As he so often puts it: “All this valuable knowledge may be worth only twenty cents a kilogram”, the price of scrap paper.

Field Documentation

Extensive documentation on u-matic and betamax tapes for a project aimed at preserving Malaysian traditional performing arts material in view of the fact that many of these genres are on the verge of extinction. The following forms, principally active in the states of Penang, Kedah, Perlis and Kelantan have been documented:

  1. Mak Yong
  2. Wayang Kulit Siam
  3. Main Puteri
  4. Jikey
  5. Mek Mulung
  6. Bangsawan
  7. Nora Chatri (Menora)
  8. Selampit Perlis
  9. Awang Batil
  10. Wayang Kulit Melayu
  11. Mak Yong- Main Puteri
  12. Selampit Kelantan
  13. Wayang Kulit Gedek
  14. Mak Yong Laut
  15. Biduan
  16. Rebana Kerching
  17. Hadrah
  18. Dikir Barat

This videotapes collection on traditional Malaysian performing arts is currently the most comprehensive single collection on Malay theatre in the world. It has been used by researches visiting Penang. Two documentaries- one each on the Kelantan shadow play and mak yong- have been produced from the collections. Others are planned.

In Malaysia, field work has been carried out almost continuously from 1975 to the present. Several volumes of books and a large collection of essays have resulted from this research; others are expectd to be published in the coming years.

In the Phillipines, Thailand, Indonesia and Burma, field work has been undertaken sporadically for various durations from 1983 with the objective of collecting data for various publications. One of the most important results of this research was a Dictionary of Southeast Asian Traditional Theatre (Published by Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur in 1994).

Additional data is being compiled for an enlarged edition of the Dictionary. A further detailed study of Traditional Southeast Asian Theatre is also expected to be published in 2008.

Current Research Projects

  1. Main Puteri: The Most Important Form of Malay Shamanism
  2. Malay traditional theatre: A Study of the Principal Genres
  3. Traditional Theatre in Southeast Asia
  4. Mak Yong’s Dramatic Literature
  5. Aesthetics/ Theory of Malay Traditional theatre
  6. Traditional Malay Culture

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