In the Steps of Lian Tadun Sinah Ngedtang

Dancing is his passion. Not just any dance but the traditional dance of the Orang Ulu. Saving and promoting it is his ‘cause celebre’, his sense of mission and his source of freedom; a prize claimed and a gift seen as being divinely conferred — all at the same time.

The Melancholic Sape’

It is an entitlement, almost. A gift of freedom from the world beyond, especially one as conjured in his mind and imagination, but more than that, something beyond innocent.

This is why he will not hesitate and never refuses to perform whenever the opportunity arises. No, the mortal, real-life Lian Tadun never misses an opportunity to display his prowess, to live his dreams, to dance his people’s tradition. It is an honour he takes on very seriously; something that he is beholden to; a lifelong mission; a passion. Sometimes, he takes the art so seriously that he gets into serious meditation that induces a trance, enabling him to commune with the spirits. This normally takes days before a performance is due. He is resolutely driven, repeatedly chanting the mantra, “I am Lian, I am Lian Tadun; I am tradition, I am music, I am Lian!” That’s what dancing means to him. It throbs in his earnest and passionate chest.

The traditional dance is an art form and transcendental transformation, turning him from an ordinary mortal into a god of his ancestors. In his transformed state, a jump on the longhouse floor is akin to a leap to the moon by the mythological hero by the same name, the esteemed Lian Tadun Sinah Ngedtang, whose footsteps he faithfully retraces and recreates. In his performance, a blood-curdling warrior’s shriek from his mortal throat is a reverb of the commands of the hero head hunter, the one most feared by enemies far and wide; whose thrusts of his mighty sword pierce the hidden shields of the giant Pun Tumid, laying him low, beaten and anguished. Or he shatters the skull of the demon king hiding in the nether realms, a feat affirmed by Lian’s triumphant shouts at appropriate moments in his ethereal dance, enthralling the crowd in the process.

Thus, Lian is an artist and a god at the same time. His moves are beyond imitation by lesser mortals. To his mind, and a majority of his audience, themselves pious believers in the traditional arts, he is incarnate; one of the select few; an anointed. No one disputes that ancient tradition is being lived through him, by him, and with him. They are a proud ancient people, so very proud and great all over again — conscious awareness of all and sundry. Only the willfully blind will not see this or not partake in the mass euphoria; or applause in enthusiastic celebration.

Lian’s consciousness is ‘as of one of the gods’, that of being ‘conscious of being observed’ and held in awe and high esteem.

As Lian knows, the gods are on the receiving ends of felicitation and worship. That’s their role — being conscious of being the objects of worship. If not, they cannot claim to be of the gods. That is why performing the traditional dance is so powerful and intoxicating to the performer-actor and the enthralled audience as well as the willing participants in group delusion and mass make-belief. The effects often last beyond the day of the dance itself or for as long as needed. It hangs in the consciousness of everyone, a lingering euphoria like the Blue Mountains on the distant horizon, where the black and brown eagles call home, always there and ever-present until the next occasion for dance and celebration arises.

Performing the ‘Arang’ to the tune of the Sape’

Indeed, Lian is the bridge across space and time. Just like the mythical Lian Tadun Sinah Ngedtang, who traverses the skies on bridges made of rainbows. Especially, when he is not in the mood to make the jump to the sun (‘lu’un adto’) and beyond (‘liyang ladan’), choosing instead to take the leisurely walk on the rainbow bridges.

The ‘Arang’ is no ordinary dance. It is a rite, a dream, and the performer is not neurotic or delusional performance; he is merely intoxicated by the enchanting and melancholic tune of the jungle lute, the sape’. Intoxication is not the same thing as being delusional. The sape’ itself was born in an equally enchanting story of fairies, nymphs and tales of lovers. Yes, dancing is a new way of seeing, a form of group-drama masterpiece, a world of make-belief, a good feeling episodic escapade, held from time to time.

And Lian is beyond it all, the master protaganist, the champion, the hero lover in the tribe’s ‘adih songs’ and valued mythology — valued until some strangers came along with a new gospel which overrode the hitherto accepted traditions and ‘adat’ norms. But for Lian, especially when he becomes the human interface and manifestation of the tribe’s ancient rites, music and dances, he is the master, the epitome of what people nowadays call tradition. Or what substantially makes up the remnant of tradition and heritage. But most importantly to Lian, he is the manifestation, the instrument of choice. The cool and talented protagonist. The maestro extraordinaire. Preserver of the faith and trustee of the realm of tradition, holder of the sceptre. Protector of The Realm of Tradition.


Singing the ‘Adih’

Note:

This is a fictional rendition of the romanticism behind the traditional dance of the Kelabit and Orang Ulu. It interweaves tales of mythological and fast disappearing stories from the ancients. Tales that run the risk of being lost forever, if not captured in writing or narrated orally around the ‘tet’tel’ fireplace or in the ‘adih’ songs – both the later modes of transmission and narration a fast disappearing certainty. The protagonistLian is fictional and metaphorical. The writer’s generation will be amongst the last with the knowledge, limited knowledge at that, of these tales and traditional and mythological accounts. The last remnants of a fast-disappearing heritage are put to paper here for posterity’s sake. Albeit told in a fictional way. Without doing so, what will remain of traditional stories, songs, recitals, chants and accounts will be just a white empty sheet. Silent, mute and an empty vacuum of space. Maya Green* is the alternate ego of the artistic and musical side of Datuk Mohammad Medan Abdullah, a poet, traditional musician, an aspiring writer and columnist.

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