April 2, 2014

Horsing Around Melayu: Kuda Kepang, Islamic Piety, and Identity Politics at Play in Singapore’s Malay Community

Patricia Hardwick, Postdoctoral Associate, Institute of Sacred Music; Lecturer, Department of Religious Studies, Yale University

Kuda KepangIn Singapore, the term Melayu refers to the Muslim descendents of pre-colonial inhabitants, Muslim immigrants from the Malay Peninsula and insular Southeast Asia, and, occasionally, to descendents of Muslim immigrants from India and the Hadhramaut. Thus, in the Singaporean context, ‘Malay’ encompasses a complex array of plural ethnic, regional, and linguistic identities.  Kuda kepang is a hobbyhorse trance dance introduced by Javanese immigrants to Singapore, but has been localized by Singaporean Malay practitioners, and has become a unique expression of Singaporean Malay identity. Utilizing information gained through the ethnographic study of more than a dozen Singaporean kuda kepang troupes from 2011-2013, this talk will explore kuda kepang performance as one embodiment of Singaporean Malay identity and provide insight into how individual Singaporean Malay performers are actively transforming and refashioning the art of Singaporean kuda kepang to reflect their changing understandings of their ethnic, social, and religious identities in Singapore.

Patricia Hardwick is an anthropologist, folklorist, and Fellow at the Institute of Sacred Music, Yale University.  At Yale, Patricia is working on a monograph that investigates how mak yong practitioners, confronted with changing interpretations of appropriate Islamic practice, are actively adapting how they think and speak about traditional Kelantanese Malay notions of the body, the origins of illness, and their healing performances. A former Fulbright and Javits Fellow, Patricia obtained her Ph.D. from Indiana University, Bloomington, and has done fieldwork in California, Malaysia, and Singapore documenting how individuals negotiate ethnic, religious, and historical identities through the performing arts.  Her research has been published the form of book chapters in Global and Local Dance in Performance (Mohd. Anis Md. Nor and Murugappan, 2005), Performance, Popular Culture, and Piety in Muslim Southeast Asia (Daniels, 2013),as well as in articles appearing in the Midwestern Folklore Journal of the Hoosier Folklore Society, Folklore Forum, and Humanities Diliman.

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