Mak Yong: the Captivating Folk Dance-Drama in the Riau Islands


Mak Yong is a Malay performaning art that incorporates ritual, dance, drama, song and traditional instrumental music in a captivating form of folk theatre. Mak Yong has taken root in communities in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. It is believed that this form of theatre originates in southern Thailand, which was then brought to Bintan in the Riau Islands via Singapore.

In the Riau islands, Mak Yong has been known as an ancient theatre and dance drama since a century ago. Here Mak Yong was originally performed after the harvest in the Riau villages. The best Mak Yong performances were called to perform at the royal court for special occasions where villagers were also invited.  Mak Yong had its heydays in the golden age of the Riau-Linga sultanate in the 1850’s and is therefore considered a royal art performance.

Nonetheless, Mak Yong is often staged in villages in an open field, where a small and simple stage with a roof is built. Few simple stage-props and hand-props are used for the performance. An elderly man called Panjak (Bomo) will usually choose the right place for the stage. He will conduct a series of rituals before the performance commences. Mak Yong, however, is usually performed on a hexagonal concrete stage when staged for royal occasions.

The stories, dances, songs, music, lyrics, costumes, as well as its slapstick comedy, all form part of the Mak Yong entertainment. Mak Yong consists of a dozen stories relating the adventures of gods or mythical kings, princes and princesses.  It is usually performed in the evening, starting from 9.00 p.m till midnight. The full course of the story, however, is generally completed only over several nights from between five to seven nights.

In Mak Yong, all are female performers, where even the male lead role (Pak Yong) is conventionally played by an actress wearing a mask and acting a man’s gestures. Other roles in the story are the female lead (Mak Yong); a pair of clowns, a pair of female attendants (inang), an astrologer, as well as other roles of gods and spirits, palace functionaries, ogres or giants, and animals.  In all male roles performed by women, the actresses must wear masks. Mak Yong is also popular in Malaysia (in the states of Terengganu, Pattani, Kelantan and Kedah), but here performers do not wear masks.

Musical accompaniment for Mak Yong is played on traditional instruments. The harmonious musical background comes from a three-stringed violin (rebab), a pair of double drums (gendang) and a pair of hanging knobbed gongs (tetawak). As this dance-drama is an oral tradition, written scores and lyrics of Mak Yong are rarely found.

Today, the Mak Yong dance-drama may still be found in the Riau Islands (otherwise known as Kepulauan Riau) on the islands of Batam and Bintan. In Bintan, Mak Yong is often played at Keke Kijang and Mantang Arang (East Bintan). Other areas where it is found are at Kijang (East Bintan), and on Rempang or Sembulang, Dompak, Kasu, Pulau Buluh, and Cate near Batam island.


Photo Courtesy By Hasrinaldi Eri