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Feature - The digital story behind the mask

Feature - The digital story behind the mask

Mak Yong dancer in a 3D body scanner. Courtesy Info Com Development Centre (IDeC) of Universiti putra Malaysia.

Capturing culture in digital form can lead to impressive demands for storage and processing. And grid technology has a role to play in providing those resources. For instance, a 10-minute recording of the movements of a Malay dancer performing the classical Mak Yong dance, using motion-capture equipment attached to the dancer's body, can take over a week to render into a virtual 3D image of the dancer using a single desktop computer. Once this is done, though, every detail of the dance movement is permanently digitized, and hence preserved for posterity.

The problem, though, is that a complete Mak Yong dance carried out for ceremonial purposes could last a whole night, not just ten minutes. Rendering and storing all the data necessary for this calls for grid computing.

Faridah Noor, an associate professor at the University of Malaya, is involved in an EUAsiaGrid initiative to promote the use of grid technologies in Asia. She sees great potential for grid-enabled e-culture to digitally preserve traditional dances and artifacts for posterity. She and her colleagues are working on several projects to capture and digitally preserve even the most ephemeral cultural relics for posterity.

Mak Yong dancer with motion sensors attached for recording movements during the dance. Courtesy Info Com Development Centre (IDeC) of Universiti putra Malaysia.

Take one extreme example: intricate masks carved by shamans of the Mah Meri tribe to help cure people of their ailments or to ward off evil. This tribe's customs are dying out due to development of the coastal region where they live, and few young people seem keen to learn the old carving techniques. Even the trees that the shamans use to make the masks are disappearing, due to this development. But perhaps the biggest challenge to preserving this tradition is that the shamans deliberately throw the masks into the sea as part of the ritual, to cast away bad spirits.

The Museum of Asian Arts at the University of Malaya has managed to recuperate over 100 of these masks. But just preserving the masks does not amount to preserving the culture behind them. As Noor, who works in the area of sociolinguistics and ethnolinguistics, points out, "We have to capture the story behind the mask." Each mask is made for an individual and his or her illness, so capturing the inspiration that guides the shaman while preparing the mask is as important as recording the way he carves the wood.

The benefits of being part of EUAsiaGrid are not just the access to know-how and resources for grid-enabled processing and storage of data. Through participation in the project, Noor has become aware of similar challenges being addressed by European researchers. "We notice that there are some associated technologies that we can benefit from," says Noor. For example, she has made contact with researchers at the University of Heidelberg, who have tools that can help put all the digital information about the mask-making together into a coherent and easily accessible whole.

Mah Meri masks. Courtesy Museum of Asian Arts, University Of Malaya.

Be it the swaying of the dancer or the singing of the shaman, digital technology and grid computing provides some hope of capturing vestiges of ancient cultures from the destructive side-effects of modernization. Some day, young Malays may be able to peer into realistic virtual worlds, to experience traditions that have vanished from the real one.

-Francois Grey reporting for EUAsiaGrid

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