There is a man, all brawn and with even more brains, walking down the street on a hot Tuesday afternoon. In this city, he is a respected professor. His name is Sang Kancil, transported straight from the magical land of folklore and given another identity.
In stories from our childhood, he roams the jungle as a mousedeer. But this new story, with elements of wayang kulit included, presents an alternative Sang Kancil tale. It is one where our hero can write his own ending, or so we hope.
The Main Wayang project, founded by Fairuz Sulaiman, kicked off in 2014 at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre Arts Festival with a reinterpretation of Hikayat Sang Kancil, cheekily referred to as “edisi kisah benar”, or the true story.
Presented in the form of a live investigative TV show, puppets and shadow play reminiscent of the beloved wayang kulit are important elements of the production, but they do not make up a whole. The performance also incorporates live drawing, live camera, video graphics and live music involving experimental soundscapes.
So is this wayang kulit ... or is it not?
According to Fairuz, Main Wayang aims to go beyond traditional wayang kulit by incorporating “contemporary” elements into the mix.
“Main Wayang is all about storytelling and creating new limits. We try to create new ways of telling stories by combining different media and techniques. We hope that in such a space, new stories will be born,” he says.
Alongside shadow puppets, paintings and archival material from various collections and sources, Main Wayang are among those presenting a snapshot of their works at Dari Tradisi Ke Pop (or From Tradition To Pop) exhibition at the National Visual Art Gallery (NVAG) in Kuala Lumpur, showcasing some of their efforts over the last two years or so, including the Sekolah Main Wayang initiative which is a series of multimedia theatre workshops designed for teenagers that kicked off in March last year.
This exhibition at the NVAG, Dari Tradisi Ke Pop, might be modest in size, but it dreams big in its effort to bridge the old with the new. It showcases in bite sizes the evolution of the wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) in the country, from its early heyday to contemporary reinterpretations of this beloved art form.
The exhibition features 35 artworks, which includes puppets, paintings, and an installation piece; complemented with archival material such as digital prints and video documentation.
Paintings from Long Thien Shih and the late Nik Zainal Abidin Nik Salleh, digital images of shadow puppets from Prof Ghulam-Sawar, and the collection of master puppeteers such as Tok Dalang Saari Ahmad and Tok Dalang Pak Hamzah Awang Amat are among those given prominence in this show.
Digital images of master puppeteer Tok Dalang Dollah Baju Merah (from the National Visual Arts Gallery’s permanent collections), as well as collaborative efforts such as the likes of Fusion Wayang Kulit (by master puppeteer Pak Dain and character designer Tintoy Chuo and Take Huat) are also included.
With this exhibition, the NVAG hopes to revive interest in an art form that is, more often than not, perceived as being old-fashioned thanks to its traditional arts label.
“But if you look at it closely, wayang kulit has evolved through the times. Its contemporary form borrows from other influences, such as pop culture elements. But this is not often discussed, so many people are not aware of this,” observes NVAG curator Tan Hui Koon.
She shares that wayang kulit has indeed come a long way from those days where villagers gathered wide-eyed around a storyteller who made characters from folk tales come to life with the aid of puppets and a gas lamp.
Today, modern takes on this art form introduces new characters and design surprises, from the fabled Monkey King to Star Wars and beyond. Many puppets designers combine aesthetics from other parts of the region, including our neighbours up north in Thailand. Balinese-inspired designs are also not uncommon.
Music-wise, Tan comments that it is hardly unheard of nowadays for a wayang kulit performance to incorporate pop numbers or even Bollywood songs.
Dari Tradisi Ke Pop attempts to capture this transition in its various forms. After all, the sky’s the limit, and you are only limited by your imagination.
Dari Tradisi Ke Pop is on at National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur till Sept 30. Call 03-4026 7000/4990 or visit www.artgallery.gov.my for details.