by Tan Sooi Beng
A flowing river is a living thing
As it winds and wefts, you can hear it sing
To control its flow is an inhumane task
A straightened-out river is disaster masked
– A poem by Sabrena Arosh
Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Penang-based arts collective Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio revisited Sungai Pinang, Penang’s largest river basin, in a wayang pacak (mobile cinema) entitled Seruan Nadi, The Battle Cry of a Dying River (see video above).
The wayang pacak was used by the Information Department to educate people living in the villages about development policies in the 1960s and 1970s when television was not yet widely available.
Performed and streamed live on 17 and 18 December 2021, Ombak combines wayang, dance and music to disseminate the message about river awareness. Ombak hopes that river and water coalitions will continue to screen the video of the performance for educational purposes.
The performance of Seruan Nadi in Penang seemed to be divinely timed as severe floods swamped Selangor on the same dates. Rivers overflowed after heavy rains and high tide, leaving many stranded on roads, on rooftops or on the upper floors of their homes. The result: massive property losses and tragically, even a string of deaths.
Ombak’s presentation echoes the call of Gabungan Darurat Iklim (Climate Emergency Coalition of Malaysia) for the federal and state governments to develop “concrete people-centred solutions” to floods that are caused by “deforestation”, “poorly planned development” and “changes in river management systems”.
Why do floods occur? Why do rivers overflow? What happens when rivers are covered up? Watch Ombak’s live streamed video of Seruan Nadi (top) for answers.
Co-directed by Izzardzafli Padzil (artistic), Aida Redza (dance) and Tan Sooi Beng (music), this show features the creation of younger composers Sivasilan Muniandy and Kang Su Kheng, choreographer Luvenia Kalia and videographer Andrew Han.
The skilful and polished musicians begin the show with their own Malaysian tracks, combining live instrumentation and singing styles from the different ethnic groups with pre-recorded environmental sounds and dialogues.
Through sajak and rap, they communicate how Sungai Pinang was once the heartbeat of Penang life but later became the dirtiest river in northern Malaysia.
Following this, the audience is engaged emotionally and aesthetically by energetic dance sequences, the mesmerising beats of the Malay gendang, Indian tabla and dhol and Chinese drums and guzheng, as well as spectacular lighting design.
With gusto, the dancers depict the continuing impact of development, construction, pollution, diversion and canalisation on the natural state and flow of Sungai Pinang that has resulted in perennial flash floods and other disasters.
Videographer Andrew Han’s thought-provoking present-day drone images of Sungai Pinang from its source to the river mouth and scenes from the last century portray the gradual pollution of the river, its overflow when there is heavy rain, and its canalisation. These images are intricately collaged with video clips of dancers playing and bathing in and battling with the river.
Seruan Nadi is based on research, facilitated by Dr Kam Suan Pheng, an expert in rivers and flooding, about the plight of Sungai Ara in Penang.
Ombak Ombak ARTStudio is a non-formal collective of multi-ethnic artists and producers who create waves through community performances, exhibitions and festivals that project Malaysian identity and creativity. Ombak is committed to nurturing and promoting the arts through cross-cultural exchange, mixed-media presentations, inter-generational and inter-ethnic collaborations, and the training of young artists.
Our previous productions include Ronggeng Merdeka (2007), Storm in a Box (2008), Kotai Penang (2012), River Meets Light (2011), Bridges and Kaki Lima (2013), Cross Waves and Moving Jetties (2015) and Moved by Padi (2018).
Professor Tan Sooi Beng is a concerned ethnomusicologist who is actively involved in socially engaged arts