When I first saw the play “Halik sa Kampilan” by Sining Kambayoka in 1983, I was enthralled and inspired. I knew for sure that “Halik” was a landmark in Philippine Theatre History. And it was.

More than a decade later, I saw two other productions of Sining Kambayoka-“Pilandok” in 1994 and Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1998. The power, novelty, and magic of what Sining Kambayoka was to me wore off. Apparently, the MSU-Marawi-based theatre group lost its lustre and remained where it was when I first experienced it.

This is however, probably not just the demise of one theatre troupe.

After Kaliwat Theatre Collective’s 1992 “Siak sa Duha ka Damgo,” it became virtually difficult to match its dramaturgical novelty and impact. The only other play which equalled “Siak” in ingenuity and imagination was “GroundUp,” a collaboration between Kaliwat and Melbourne’s GongHouse. All other Kaliwat plays were potent when viewed separately, but altogether lacked the sense of newness, and a moving forward.

And Kaliwat Theatre Collective and Sining Kambayoka are two of the most powerful theatre groups in Mindanao.

For urban theatre groups who utilize indigenous artistic expressions like Kambayoka, Kaliwat, Kathara, Kabpapagariya, IPAG, Kahayag, and a host of other theatre groups all over Mindanao, the very idea of utilizing indigenous concepts and artistic expressions has become a trap, rather than a wellspring of inspiration for enhancing our artistic creations. More and more, we are simply duplicating our previous productions. As theatre groups, we have stopped reinventing ourselves.

It is surprising to realize that even indigenous peoples themselves continually reinvent their own culture. A prominent example of this is the Talaandig tribe of Lantapan, Bukidnon. The dugso dance teacher Bae Magila has actually added dance steps to the traditional steps that were taught by their ancestors. Even their drumming is no longer traditional. Going back further, the “ahongan” among Manobo tribes is actually a reinvention from the traditional “agongan.” Even traditional gong artists have composed their own contemporary musical motifs with the “ahongan.” The T’boli got their kulintang from neighbor Maguindanons. And still further, the gongs are actually brought by the Chinese to Mindanao through the galleon trades. In mythology, the Manobo-Tinananon have a tale about a colossal flood that wiped out the entire world much in the tradition of the Christian Bible’s Noah’s Ark. The Bagobo and Manobo goddess Mebuyan’s thousand breasts is told to be an interpretation by a visual artist way back, a concept that was soon assumed to be the original version. And who is to know how different the tales of Tuwalang and Bantugan were in the 15th century compared to today’s version?

In another part of Asia, a very interesting example of reinventing culture is Cambodia. Cambodia’s arts and literature have been literally decimated by the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s. Artists were killed, tortured, manacled, turned into farm slaves, and starved to death. The surviving handful (90% died from the holocaust) began to rebuild their lost tradition from memory. But because many of these traditional expressions have forever been annihilated, the surviving teachers and the new ones reinvented the classical Cambodian dance that you see today.

The context within which Mindanao theatre groups survive is the continued threat to indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. The dramaturgical trend and the social need therefore, is to approximate traditional artistic expressions and, in portraying myths and stories, to be as faithful to the original material as possible. The reasons vary: some groups advocate for the perseverance of indigenous life and culture in the context of aggressive modernization. Other groups simply think indigenous culture is exotic and beautiful and focus on that culture’s aesthetic merits.

Of course, the qualities of these artistic attempts vary. And so disparate are these artistic efforts that the question of bastardization of indigenous culture has constantly been an issue among arts practitioners.

In the final analysis, the question remains: has the social context-the threat to ethnicity and tradition-of indigenous communities changed with the surge of theatre groups utilizing indigenous expressions? Remember that for whatever reason contemporary arts groups use indigenous art forms, the fact remains that the source, the wellspring of these aesthetic inspirations are indigenous peoples. One can only imagine with such sadness and despair, what our lives and our arts would be like, when these wellsprings dry up.

Arts practitioners and storytellers-traditional or contemporary-are crucial contributors to the whole process of defining a people’s culture. It has been proven through centuries that myths and folklore-essential ingredients of culture-are powerful tools for conquering nations, building civilizations, and stabilizing centers of power. The artists and writers are major vanguards of these cultural tools, alongside the media. Germany’s Hitler knew this. Philippines’ Marcos knew this. China’s Mao Tse Tung knew this. Cambodia’s Pol Pot knew this. The best way to subjugate a nation is to exterminate the emissaries of that nation’s culture.

It is crucial therefore for us artists to understand why we do what we do. If our understanding of myths and folklore are myopic, for example, we impress on our audiences a myopic worldview and this myopic perspective will certainly multiply. People’s understanding of many present-day realities depend on how artists interpret myths, tales, real stories, dreams, imaginations, and actual truths. I continue to marvel at the power artists possess! And yet, do we fully comprehend this power, this serious responsibility that we have assumed the moment we decided to become arts practitioners.

Myths and tales are often interpreted by a storyteller based on his/her perception of the story and this is passed on from one generation of storytellers to another in the oral tradition. As the stories are handed over, they take on the spirit of each storyteller, each time changing modes and colors depending on the storyteller’s cultural and political framework. This process of passing on stories involves multiple levels of reinvention.

Because of its oral (and visual) nature, theatre is subjected to varied degrees of reinvention.

First is sensory reinvention. This involves transporting real people’s stories, myths, and phantasmagoric scenarios from the source (storyteller, dreamer) to the stage by enacting these scenarios based on the theatre artist’s sensory (see, taste, hear, smell, touch) perceptions.

Second is literary reinvention or the act of judiciously putting double-triple-quadruple meanings into these stories, or approaching the stories along metaphorical paths.

Third is cultural reinvention or the act of purposefully finding or creating new dimensions in the stories to the point of turning a story upside down to change modes of thinking, and to provide alternative perspectives or worldview.

Most of the theatre groups in Mindanao and in the Philippines have successfully ventured into the first and second levels of reinvention. But only a few have dared dip their toes into the third.

How would you explain how the Bagobo’s Mebuyan underworld goddess has just very recently been transformed by some Bagobos themselves into an evil god banished to the bottom of the earth as a punishment? And why would Salangayan or Saangayan be female in another tribe and male in another? And what of a million other present-day myths? Dare we not challenge them?

History has provided us enough examples of how actual realities, myths and folklore have easily been reinvented to promote and impose a particular political and cultural viewpoint. It is dangerous waters to tread, indeed. But in the context of the continuing exploitation by the powers-that-be of these cultural dimensions in peoples lives, no one particular group of people can better challenge this cultural brainwashing than artists themselves.

It is therefore a challenge for all artists to analyze seriously the contexts from which these myths and stories have emerged. And from such analyses, to cultivate and heighten our capacities for artistic creation so we can actively engage mainstream cultural vehicles in this whole process of cultural reinvention. Let us not leave this power to re-create cultural consciousness to those very forces who suck the life from the wellsprings of our art.

It is high time we stop becoming mere exotic creatures of art presenting indigenous myths and contemporary stories. As artists we have a responsibility to change the world and we can only do so if we continue to explore beyond the boundaries of cultural patterns and artistic tradition.

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