He's only six years old but Kamarul Baihaqi is a master of the shadows. The boy is already making his name as a tok dalang, a master puppeteer or storyteller in the grand tradition of Wayang Kulit Kelantan.
Kamarul Baihaqi recently performed his shadow puppetry at the launch of Shadows, a book about wayang kulit co-published by Kakiseni and MPH Publishing.
He was easily the star of the event, impressing audiences as he deftly manipulated puppets and sang the story of Memanah Pohon Jelati Jawa.
The young Kelantan-born prodigy’s talent runs in the family: His father is Kamarul Baisah Hussin, a lecturer and traditional arts instructor at the National Academy Of Arts, Culture And Heritage Malaysia (Aswara), who is one of the few practising tok dalangs in the country. His mother is Zamzuriah Zahari, a singer, dancer, actress and lecturer most known for her proficiency in Mak Yong and tari inai.
Zamzuriah, 35, says her son, who is the eldest of her three boys, showed a fondness for the traditional art form at a very young age.
“Ever since he was very little, he’s wanted to be a tok dalang. If I told him he couldn’t, he would get upset,” she recalls at an interview after the launch.
“After he was born, I would sing Mak Yong songs to him, while Baisah would sing songs from wayang kulit. And when we played wayang kulit songs, he would become quiet and stop crying,” says Zamzuriah, adding that she performed these traditional Malay artforms while pregnant with him.
She also recalls taking her son to visit fellow tok dalang and wayang kulit expert Che Mohd Nasir Yusoff (Pak Nasir) at Aswara. At the time, Kamarul Baihaqi was a year and three months old and was still learning to walk and talk. How-ever, when he caught sight of Pak Nasir’s wayang kulit puppets, he began to gurgle in excitement.
“Pak Nasir was playing music. And my son took up a gong mallet and followed his rhythm. When people played music at two beats, he would follow at two beats, when they played at one beat, he followed at one beat. We were all amazed,” Zamzuriah says.
Kamarul has been practising his art for about three years now, and can play all of the percussive instruments involved in wayang kulit. He performed with his father at last year’s 13th Boh Cameronian Arts Awards.
His favourite wayang kulit character, by the way, is the aggressive Bota Mahrajawana!
When he’s not performing behind a lit-up screen, the young lad enjoys playing ball and going fishing, and studies at a Chinese school in Seri Kembangan, Selangor. This means he can speak Mandarin – his mother says she enrolled him in a Chinese primary school so that he could be exposed to different cultures.
There’s a lot in store for this talented kid: Kamarul has a few more performances lined up, including a show with his mother at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre in July.
Asked about his future, however, Zamzuriah says she does not want to plan anything concrete for now, as her son is still very young.
“I just know he’s fond of music, so I might let him learn a few modern instruments. Maybe the piano and the violin,” she says.
Whatever he does, it’s clear that young Kamarul is one to watch in the coming years.