A keeper of tradition passes on

HIS reputation – notoriety, even – for being an unrivalled dalang samseng (hooligan puppeteer) wasn’t hard earned. For Abdullah Ibrahim, the mocking of human foibles such as duplicity, avarice, and hypocrisy came easily.  

The legendary Dollah Baju Merah (Red Shirt) of Kok Lanas, Kelantan, performed wayang kulit (shadow puppet play) as he read and comprehended the world: with a deep sense of paradox.  

In performance, there was the “reaching out” – he could, and did, urge audiences to laughter, tears, induce a fountain of sensations and affirm the Kelantanese yearning for grand histrionics. But there was also the “looking in” – the personalisation of storytelling, the cultivation of mythmaking, the affirmation of ancestry, and the deepest fulfilment of individual passion and desire.  

By the time of his passing on Sept 27, wayang kulit Siam (the formal term for the Kelantan tradition of wayang kulit), where it mattered most – in his native state – was synonymous with the name of Dollah Baju Merah.  

Even by the austere standards of Kelantan wayang lore, Abdullah Ibrahim was exceptional.  

Dollah Baju Merah inhis element, behind theshadowy screen of hisbeloved wayang kulit

A dalang budak (prodigy), he yielded very early on to his angin wayang (desire for wayang), confessing that his interest was “obsessive”. 

Unable to obtain real puppets, he created his own, from twigs and leaves, of the traditional protagonists drawn from the Hindu epic, Ramayana – Seri Rama (Rama), Sita Dewi (Sita), Maharaja Wana (Ravana) – and of his much-loved and revered comic characters, such as Pak Dogol, Wak Long, Samad and Said. 

Years later, as the name of Dollah Baju Merah – a nick name that arose from his favourite show time garb, a very non-traditional red T-shirt – gained appeal as well as infamy, a legend would arise that he was “the incarnation of Pak Dogol”. 

In his early teens, Abdullah Ibrahim entered a brief period of formal training under a renowned dalang, Pak Dol Sabok. 

“I had heard that a famous wayang troupe led by the dalang Dol Sabok was going to perform in Pasir Tumboh, in a village close to mine,” he would recall later.  

“It was an extremely remote village ? a car would not be able to enter ? but he was going to play there and brought his gong and gendang (drums) with him. 

“As the hour of performance approached, the dalang began to sound his gong, calling his audience. I was so moved by that sound that I, too – I had a gong at home – began to sound mine. That made him very angry and he made his way to my house. 

“‘What ilmu (knowledge) do you possess to dare challenge me,’ he asked. ‘I wasn’t challenging you,’ I said. ‘Then why did you strike the gong?’ He was very angry. ‘If you sound that gong again, I’ll seize all your instruments.’  

“I was very afraid. He was, after all, a very famous dalang. But then he offered, ‘If you really want to learn, build a stage and I’ll teach you.’ I promised never to ‘challenge’ him again and he became my first and most revered teacher.”  

A few years later, Abdullah Ibrahim “graduated”, according to Kelantan wayang custom, by swimming to a raft containing the puppets set adrift in the middle of the river and dragging it back to the bank.  

He assembled his first troupe – Kumpulan Wayang Kulit Dollah Baju Merah – and began performing at a time when wayang, in fierce competition with film and the burgeoning television age, was experiencing a radical transformation.  

Dollah Baju Merah emerged as the principal force behind substantive changes in wayang repertoire, creating a lasting and contemporary tradition of cerita ranting (branch stories) that combined all the elements of bawdiness, sensuality and high drama for which he was renowned and which he performed with inimitable dexterity and grace. Popular Hindi songs found their way into his musical repertoire, and his comic sequences embraced sardonic political satire.  

At 68, just months before hisdeath, Dollah Baju Merah wasstill intensely involved in hisart. – Photo courtesy ofSORAYA YUSUF TALISMAIL

Years later, following the proscription on wayang performance in Kelantan by the PAS-led state government, he would state, with a combination of contempt and pride, “they did not like me”. 

Throughout his life as a performer, Dalang Dollah Baju Merah negotiated the boundary between tradition and innovation, creating deep, dramatic tensions off which he played effortlessly.  

“Performance,” he would explain, “is theirs,” referring to his audience. “Tradition, on the other hand, is mine.”  

He held firm to this sense of duality, offering his audience episodes of unbridled hilarity, deep sadness, poetic sensuality and rough rawness, while embracing, with depth, reverence and intelligence, all the elements of ilmu.  

Several months ago, in the town of Machang, Kelantan, he conducted his last performance. Unable to perform beyond 45 minutes – due to a debilitating stroke in 2000, from which he partially recovered by sheer determination – he conducted the ceremonial buka panggung (consecration of the stage) and the pembuka cerita (opening of the story), wielding the pohon beringin (Tree of Life) with such grace he gave the impression of creating great storm clouds, before leading the sons of Rama in a sequence of dance and duels. 

Abdullah Ibrahim’s final years proved a combination of bewilderment, frustration and rage directed at politics, politicians and the purposeless loss of Kelantan cultural expression.  

“So much noise,” he once confided, “yet, nothing.” 

But there was never despair, enervation, or fatalism to undermine his tenacity, rebelliousness and sense of adventure. “I am Dollah Baju Merah – Red Shirt Dollah!” he would exclaim, then bend over in a burst of laughter.  

At the time of his passing, he was involved in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the wayang screen – a project involving, among others, the British novelist-illustrator, Edward Carey. It was a project conceived at his urging because he “felt like it”. 

(The production, entitled Macbeth in the Shadows and partly supported by the British Council, had been slated to open this year. It has been re-scheduled for early next year.)  

In a final interview this writer conducted with him, this question was posed: “What would you say was your proudest moment?”  

Laughing, Abdullah Ibrahim, the legendary Dalang Dollah Baju Merah, rebel puppeteer, replied simply, “the day my pet cow, Limousine, gave birth to twins”. 

  • Eddin Khoo was among the first journalists to discover and write about the extraordinary Dollah Baju Merah in The Star’s previous Sunday magazine, Sunday Plus. 

    Khoo worked with Abdullah Ibrahim for 15 years, documenting wayang kulit Siam, and, in 2002, set up Pusaka, a non-profit organisation that researches and documents indigenous performance traditions. 

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