Kelantan's wayang kulit mesmerise US audiences in month-long culture tour

  • Arts
  • Sunday, 22 Feb 2015

Khoo reckons that there’s nothing alien about wayang kulit culture to who Malays are.

The tour aims to expand dialogue between American communities and contemporary Muslim societies.

There is something about wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre), the grand imageries it conjures with just light and shadows and its grandiose themes of good and evil that has captivated this part of the world for centuries.

Maybe that’s why this ancient art form, one of Malaysia’s most treasured historic and cultural possessions, has not dissolved with time.

And now, American audiences will have the privilege to experience the intricacies and allure of this cultural icon, presented by Kumpulan Wayang Kulit Sri Warisan Pusaka from Machang, Kelantan.

The troupe is part of the annual Caravanserai programme, organised by Arts Midwest, which aims to showcase the diversity of Islamic cultures across the world, in order to enlighten American audiences and fight prejudice.

Arts Midwest international initiatives staff travelled to Malaysia in late 2013 to identify suitable candidates to be part of its 2014–2015 season.

Irsyad (R), the youngest member of the troupe at 13, says wayang kulit is in his blood. – M. Azhar Arif/The Star.

Cultural activist and Pusaka’s founder Eddin Khoo says that the wayang kulit troupe, under the patronage of Pusaka, was immediately selected after the team from the United States watched one their performances.

“One of the things I like about tours like this is that not only do you get to perform, you also get opportunities to do lectures, talks and workshops, to basically expound on the complexities of these traditions,” says Khoo at the recent media session in Kuala Lumpur for the Kumpulan Wayang Kulit Sri Warisan Pusaka US tour.

“And considering the great chasms in cultures today, it is very important to talk about the depth which only tradition can bring. People don’t have a very monolithic sense of any culture,” he reckons.

The wayang kulit troupe will be performing the Malay adaptation of the Ramayana epic called Hikayat Maharaja Wana, which tells the story of the evil Maharaja Wana who kidnaps Seri Rama’s beautiful wife, Seri Dewi. There will be no subtitles throughout the performance unless it is to signal episodic changes.

The programme also included percussion group Diplomats of Drum and 15Malaysia (the innovative short film project that featured works by some of Malaysia’s famous directors, like the late Yasmin Ahmad, Nam Ron and Khairil Bahar, which toured the United States from September to October last year, and January this year respectively).

Khoo reckons that there’s nothing alien about wayang kulit culture to who Malays are.

The Caravanserai, funded by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program (which promotes the study and understanding of Islamic arts and cultures), has brought in arts from Turkey, Pakistan and Morocco for its previous seasons.

The troupe began the first leg of the tour at the Piney Woods Fine Arts Association, Crockett, Texas on Feb 16 and will travel to the Society for the Performing Arts Houston (Texas), Rialto Center for the Arts (Georgia) and the University of Florida Performing Arts (Florida) until March 14.

While endeavouring to perform the stories in their pure cultural form, the usually three-hour long performances have been shortened to an hour and a half to suit the occasion.

When asked if the tour is a cross between cultural and academic fields, Khoo points out that Pusaka never made the distinction.

“One of Pusaka’s major objectives is to intellectualise our tradition. There’s no intellectual foundation to our traditions. So, while we engage very much on the ground by supporting troupes such as this, on the other side of Pusaka, it is to develop all the intellectual foundations for traditions such as this.

“So, people don’t see it as a performative tradition, but they are able to understand the deep roots it has in society, in psychology, in community and in self,” says Khoo.

Kumpulan Wayang Kulit Sri Warisan Pusaka from Machang, Kelantan, will perform Hikayat Maharaja Wana in Texas, Florida and Georgia. – Cheryl Hoffman
Kumpulan Wayang Kulit Sri Warisan Pusaka from Machang, Kelantan, will perform Hikayat Maharaja Wana in Texas, Florida and Georgia. – Cheryl Hoffman

The 46-year-old shares that the troupe, with whom he has worked with for 25 years, has endured “very challenging circumstances. I am amazed at their tenacity. This gives them a sense of great fulfilment and also satisfaction that their cultures and traditions are taken very seriously. It ensures the viability of these traditions.”

The nine-member troupe consists of four adult men, one woman, two teenagers and two young adults.

“When I started to work with them in 1990, nobody thought wayang kulit would survive. Today, not only has it survived, it has captivated the younger generation, and people are constantly seeking to understand these cultures,” he enthuses.

Irsyad Abdul Rahman, 13, the youngest member of the troupe, says he became “interested in wayang kulit when I was seven but started learning when I was nine. I think it is in my blood.”

The leader of the musicians, Abdul Rahman and the tok dalang (master puppeteer), Mohamad Hassan Noor, were both disciples of the late Tok Dalang Abdullah Ibrahim, or more fondly called, Dalang Dollah Baju Merah. Khoo was also under his tutelage.

Khoo points out that a tour like this will greatly enhance the skills of the performers.

“You are performing to a totally different audience. What’s very interesting is how easily these performers who come from a very small kampung (village) in Machang, settle in very nicely. That’s based on the improvisational skills of the performer as such,” the apprentice shadow puppeteer says.

Khoo is not sold by the idea that foreign audiences will not be able to grasp wayang kulit.

“They might be a bit unsettled for the first 10 minutes. Then, they begin to fixate on those things that they are naturally drawn to such as the music or the puppetry skills.

“Also, tradition has a very deep soul and this is irresistible to people as people. This is where the great divide between cultures is very obvious to me. In Paris, people were totally attracted to the subliminal nature of these performances.

Khoo opines that a similar response should be expected of audiences in the United States because of shadow play’s intangible magic.

Kumpulan Wayang Kulit Anak Sri Baju Merah, another troupe from Machang, was the headliner at the 11th Festival de l’Imaginaire at Maison des Cultures du Monde, Paris in 2007.

While Caravanserai aims to expand the dialogue between American communities and contemporary Muslim societies using the arts, wayang kulit is not at its core an Islamic art form. It is an amalgamation of the surrounding cultures, which are not necessarily Islamic.

Khoo rubbishes this notion and said that there’s nothing alien about the wayang kulit culture, to who the Malays are.

“While religious practice among all Muslim is the same, your culture can be different and they are not irreconcilable. Many people say that wayang kulit is not Malay in essence.

“Its origins may be Indian, not Hindu, but it has been adapted and ingrained in Malay society. It expresses Malay sensibilities, states of being and, attitudes about love, death, war, jealousy and so on. So, this traditional art form is innately Malay,” asserts Khoo.

The wayang kulit is our national treasure. It behoves us, then, as Malaysians, to realise the importance of such traditions and culture in the face of modernisation. What else besides traditions and culture that can fill the hollowness experienced by many of us today?

“If you have no tradition, you have no culture,” concludes Abdul Rahman Dollah.

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