As a country rich in heritage and diversity, and home to descendants of the Asian diaspora, Malaysia benefits from a range of cultural traditions. Among them, the vibrant art of wayang kulit or shadow play.
There are two types of stories in the traditional wayang kulit, that is, the main stories that are passed down from generation to generation, and the branch stories which are an offshoot.
Eddin Khoo, Founder-Director of PUSAKA, a non-profit organisation dedicated to supporting traditional performance arts in Malaysia, says, “Wayang kulit has narrative roots in the Ramayana, a secular love story which has travelled around the world. It has become such a diasporic narrative that even in India alone, there are over 300 identified Ramayana versions.
“It made its way hundred of years ago onto our shores in pre-Islamic times, as a rich puppet tradition based on oral storytelling. As the tale travelled to Malaysia, it has been adapted and renamed Hikayat Maharajawana. The main stories now revolve around the antagonist Maharajawana (Ravana) instead of Serama (Rama), the original protagonist. It has become a great morality tale and, in the process, also become imbued with the religious.”
Kamrul Hussin, established Malay traditional musician, wayang kulit practitioner, and Senior Lecturer of Malay traditional music in the Faculty of Music, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), adds, “The wayang kulit performance itself may be seen as a microcosm of our universe, where the white screen represents the world, the Tok Dalang (master puppeteer) represents God and the characters represent humans and other living beings.”
It is however the flexible and evolving branch stories that have become irresistible to the community.
They frequently include secondary comical characters which parody current events. For example, in some performances, they call Kuala Lumpur Kuala Pitih or money city, since ‘everything in the city revolves around money’.
The performances poke fun at the modern consumerist culture. The late Tok Dalang Abdullah Ibrahim, known for his ‘irreverent’ performances, also introduced a character dressed as Elvis with a quiff and funky platform shoes, based on Khoo.
Khoo says, “Malaysian wayang kulit and many of our traditional art forms are folk forms. They have always been performances of and for the people. In the 1970s, wayang kulit began to modernise and progress rapidly with many secondary characters and contemporary music, some based on film and even Hindustani songs.”
Popular in: Kelantan and Terengganu
Traits: Performed in a Kelantanese Malay dialect with Thai Patani influences.
Popular in: Selangor and Johor
Traits: Performed in Javanese and Malay in areas with a strong Javanese tradition.
Popular in: Kedah and Perlis
Traits: Performed in Thai and Malay.
However, in 1991, the Kelantan government banned wayang kulit and other traditional art forms such as mak yong and main puteri (or main teri).
Khoo puts across that this could be due to the power struggle between various forces. He says, “It is not so much about religion as a dynamic contained within an ideology. It is sometimes a struggle that arises because people in power are afraid of those who have an authentic sense of themselves, and thus do not easily come under their sway. Culture and tradition democratise people, giving them tools and voices – sometimes subversive ones.”
Kamrul Hussin says that the reaction could be due to a lack of understanding of what the original wayang kulit performances stand for.
Khoo echoes that sentiment, “No doubt there are rituals which are sometimes performed but they have to be understood not in terms of religious edicts, but in terms of psychology and philosophy. Take for example, acara menyembah guru, one of the ceremonies in wayang kulit. We must understand the rich heritage of the Malay language where one word may have nine different meanings. The language is not literal but contains much metaphorical and allusive power. No doubt the word sembah is used, but in this context, it does not mean worship, but commemoration.”
A surprising consequence of the ban was that it raised many questions on the meaning, traditions, instruction methods, and genealogy of wayang kulit.
Khoo says, “Though wayang kulit had challenges with political and religious forces, as well as modernisation, these have ironically caused people to develop more curiosity about the art.
“There is a very strong intellectual trend in Malaysia right now of exploring history, seeking culture and a sense of self. Wayang kulit is witnessing a dynamic resurgence in our country especially among young people in the Klang Valley, Kelantan, Johor, and in many places where Pusaka works. Reinventions are very much part of culture and we see this happening clearly with wayang kulit.”
Kamrul Hussin reaffirms this view, “As long as humans are alive, wayang kulit will be. It is going strong with support from institutions such as ASWARA (Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan), and universities such as UiTM, Universiti Malaya and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
“Malaysians remain interested in the art of wayang kulit and they can easily access related knowledge. For example, via workshops in ASWARA. With social media, various performances of different genres are also recorded and uploaded onto YouTube. There are also more publications on wayang kulit and performances now. Moreover, it is being adapted for the younger generation with humorous performances and children’s stories. These new genres are creative and exciting and help keep the art form alive.”
PUSAKA and its partners, 28 communities of traditional performers throughout Malaysia, have for the last 20 years played an immense role in preserving traditional arts such as wayang kulit.
They have documented it, putting it in the context of its history, diaspora, and local anchorings. They have also created a context where wayang kulit traditions can be discussed, acknowledged, and propagated.
More pragmatically, they have brought it to the world through global headline performances such as at the Festival Le’Imaginaire in Paris, France in 2007; a 40-day tour of the United States in 2015 with the Asia Society and in more recent years through performances and workshops at the Esplanade in Singapore.
A whole series of documentation is also planned for publication in 2022, and Khoo mentions the importance of constant engagement with regional and global institutions in this regard. Khoo pays tribute to PUSAKA’s partners, “PUSAKA hasn’t succeeded just because of us, but because communities adamantly continue to perform.”
Meanwhile, Kamrul focuses on elevating community education in Kelantan, including the setting up of Geng Wak Long which has become a professional wayang kulit outfit.
Kamrul stresses the importance of safeguarding our wayang kulit tradition.
He says, “We must acknowledge our wayang kulit master performers (Adiguru); encourage the continued development of traditional and contemporary wayang kulit, and finally encourage contemporary experimental wayang kulit.”
He fittingly says, “Ultimately, however, wayang kulit doesn’t just belong to us, but to the world.”
Cover image: A wayang kulit performance featuring Kamrul Hussin and members of the UiTM Faculty of Music. Image supplied by Kamrul Hussin.