Shadow play or shadow puppetry is a traditional form of storytelling and has a long history in Southeast Asia namely, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia. Shadow play uses flat, cut-out figures (shadow puppets) which are held between an oil lamp or halogen lamp and a white muslin cloth.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, shadow plays are known as wayang kulit – wayang means shadow or imagination while kulit means skin which refers to the cow hide or goat skin that the puppets are made from.
Historically, wayang kulit was once performed in the palace of the first Malay king around 200 to 250 years ago, and it became a form of entertainment mainly in the palaces. Eventually, it was performed outside of the palaces and moved into the villages for feasts and celebrations such as rice harvest, weddings and circumcision ceremonies.
Wayang kulit is traditionally performed in Kelantan, a north-eastern state in Peninsular Malaysia, and is similar to Thai shadow puppets, hence wayang kulit in Kelantan is also known as Wayang Siam.
Malaysia has several types of wayang kulit such as Wayang Gedek, Wayang Kelantan, Wayang Purwa and Wayang Melayu. Due to geographical locations, wayang kulit in the northern states especially Kelantan are influenced by Thai shadow puppets while wayang kulit in the southern states such as Johor was originally brought from Java, Indonesia.
A wayang kulit performance typically involves the theatre, puppet master (Tok Dalang), puppets, story, and the musical ensemble (a variety of hand drums, gongs, cymbals and wind instruments). The Tok Dalang skilfully manoeuvres the puppets, narrates the story using different voices AND leads the ensemble that provides the gamelan music for the shadow play.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, wayang kulit story is often a local adaptation of the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabrata, and based on local mythical tales. The puppets i.e. the characters bring the story to life and more often than not, wayang kulit stories consist of good, evil and humorous characters.
The protagonist is always the good character; its cut-out figure is tall, good-looking and its face often cast downwards as a symbol of humility. The antagonist, or the evil character, is portrayed as stocky and large with its head facing upwards associated with pride and arrogance. The humorous character, well, is often humorous and generally depicted as short, bald, and has a pot belly. In terms of vocal style, the Tok Dalang speaks with a soft intonation for the protagonist character but changes to loud and rough intonation for the antagonist.
Wayang kulit puppets are usually made from cow hide or goat skin; cow hide is preferred as it is long-lasting and if it’s treated well, the puppets can last for about 100 years.
Wayang kulit¸ unfortunately, is gradually disappearing with a handful of practising Tok Dalangs remaining in Malaysia. To attract the interest of the younger generation, the said art has evolved by changing the stories to reflect the real world. For example, they have incorporated influences from the West; renowned science-fiction films such as Star Wars, Superhero characters like Superman, Batman and Wonderwoman, and popular animation characters.
Some critics dispute that the so-called “modern” wayang kulit performances are straying away from the conventional art form where the stories and characters are no longer based on local Malay folklore or the classic Ramayana and Mahabrata epics. However, others argue that modernisation is present only in the stories and cut-out figures of the shadow puppets whereas the music and ways of making those puppets remain the same as the traditional form. Most importantly, proponents of modern wayang kulit emphasise that the moral values which are intrinsic to wayang kulit traditional stories remain intact in those science-fiction and Superhero films where essentially, good triumphs over evil.
*An exhibition on Malaysian wayang kulit at the National Museum of Kuala Lumpur (Muzium Negara), titled “Symbolism Behind The Screen” is on display until 28 February 2017.
This post was written based on my visit to Muzium Negara organised by Tourism Malaysia as part of “#AboutKL 2.0 Things To Know About Kuala Lumpur & Beyond” launch, and personal readings on wayang kulit as I have always been curious about this traditional art. Opinions expressed in this post, if any, as always, are my own.
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