My first taste of palace life happened during my early teens. Although my late father was the Raja Muda of Perak (1963–1983), I only spent a few years living in his official residence, the Istana Raja Muda Perak in Teluk Intan. Before that, my mother, sisters and myself lived in a bungalow in an affluent part of Ipoh. After the house was sold I moved to be with father in Teluk Intan. For someone who had, until then, spent many years growing up in ‘metropolitan’ settings, the quaintness and size of a backwater sleepy town came as a bit of a shock. In retrospect however, some of my most memorable moments were spent in Teluk Intan. It was there that I, for better or for worse (!) saw more of father, became more exposed to official functions and also got to know the rest of my rather large family. After father’s demise in 1983, the istana, as was the tradition, was vacated to make way for the next Raja Muda. Since then, I have only made one visit there, during Raja Ahmad Sifuddin Iskandar’s brief tenure as the new Raja Muda.
In my early 20s, I moved back to Ipoh where I spent several years living in a Malay kampung. The house belonged to a family whose male children had served as manservants during different periodsof father’s life. Except for a drastic reduction in scale and grandiosity, and with a little imagination I might add, one could imagine it wasn’t that far different from living in the old istana. In a sense, both an istana and a traditional Malay kampung are ‘active’ receptacles of traditions, cultural practices and oral histories, their occupants handing them down from one generation to the next. Although they appear to be obstinately unchanging, these fierce bastions of tradition slowly but eventually adapt to, and change with, the times.
Istana or kampung, the rustic charms of a traditional Malay house have been featured in movies, paintings, films and literature. Among them is a newly published translation of Tenas Effendy’s prose poem Rumah. Originally written in Bahasa Indonesia, it has recently been translated into English by the Malaysia-born, Australia based academic Raimy Ché-Ross and published by Areca Books Penang in August 2014. I was first introduced to Rumah in April 2013. Initially perplexing and enigmatic, it slowly revealed its inner secrets after several readings and reminded me of my own experience of living within traditional households. Utterly unique, the poem has really no peer or precedent and any attempts at comparison would only reveal disparate counterparts. That notwithstanding, the compositional style of Rumah occasionally reminded me of classic Sufi poetry, particularly Farid Attar’s Conference of the Birds and Rumi’s The Guest House. The architecture and design of a traditional istana and a kampung house bear certain similarities, as do the building materials. A porch serves as the main entrance for people and vehicles, and there are public social and dining spaces for guests and private ones for family members. ‘Secret’ passageways and staircases abound, and these were set well outside of the main spaces. My guess is that these clandestine corridors were once meant as a means of escape from threats (!) but a more mundane and likely explanation was that they served as entrance and exit points for the hired help.
Apparently such passageways are a common feature in kampung houses, as described in Rumah:
The Pintu Malim is where modesty lies, The Pintu Belakang is where laughter bides, The Pintu Tengah is where the Adat resides. (from Rumah)
Floors and walls were fashioned from planks of hardwood, and the former, as sturdy as they were, often creaked and clacked noisily under the weight of human footfalls and footwear. Parts of the walls were fashioned from hardwood too. Two balai rong seri, set on the istana grounds, were used for official functions like the birthday of the Raja Muda, Hari Raya, weddings and kenduris. The Raja Muda’s fully equipped office, replete with a secretary, clerk and office boy, was also situated within the Istana. Here, various official assignments and personal businesses were attended to. Servants’ quarters, the earlier ones built in the style of modest kampungs on stilts, were situated at the back portion of the istana. The help comprised cooks, gardeners, grounds keepers and stable boys. One could say that the istana was a self-contained ‘village’ of sorts.
A large home contains smaller houses, Like wood and its concentric rings, Three tiers of gable blinds to the left, Three tiers of gable blinds to the right, A place where sovereign rulers reside, A place where noblemen bear the Adat, A place for an assortment of Penghulu. (from Rumah)
End of Part 1
Written by: Y.M. Raja Abdul Razak bin Raja Muda Musa