Engaging with the young is essential in keeping wayang kulit relevant


  • Focus
  • Friday, 18 Nov 2016

Pak Cu working his magic as the tok dalang (puppeteer or puppet master) as he entertains guests with a wayang kulit Kelantan show. The tok dalang manipulates the puppets against a lit screen while narrating the story and giving life to the characters. — Photos: P. NATHAN

CUSTOMS and culture expert Siri Neng Buah believes that adaptation or experimental works to modernise wayang kulit shows are one way of making the art relatable in a modern setting.

“Adapting wayang kulit performances by changing its theme, setting or language to make it appeal to a wider audience is one way of keeping this traditional art alive,” said Siri, who hails from a Siamese family in Terengganu.

“For example, one can create Pokemon characters for a show for children, or have live performers act out part of the story.

“Another approach is to create shorter wayang kulit shows that are targeted at tourists, such as having a 10-minute Japanese performance with characters dressed up in kimonos for the Japanese crowd,” he said, adding that the sky was the limit when innovation and creativity were combined.

Siri said he enjoyed Peperangan Bintang, a Star Wars-themed wayang kulit show, noting how he was impressed by the elements used to create an impactful performance.

However, the tokoh warisan negara (national living heritage) stressed that the traditional wayang kulit must also be preserved to retain its authenticity and customs.

In Malaysia, wayang kulit puppets are traditionally made from cow hide. However, some modern shows play with the use of other materials and colours to make their performance more engaging.
In Malaysia, wayang kulit puppets are traditionally made from cow hide. However, some modern shows play with the use of other materials and colours to make their performance more engaging.

Wayang kulit (shadow puppet) is a form of theatre or traditional art using light and shadow.

Wayang kulit should be kept pure in its form, although shadow puppetry offers different ways of telling stories,” said Siri, himself a tok dalang (puppeteer or puppet master).

“To make wayang kulit appealing to the younger generation, we should not only get them to watch a performance.

“We can engage them in the behind-the-scenes process, such as having workshops and interactive sessions, on how to play the different instruments in a wayang kulit show and how to make and animate the puppets.

“In Indonesia, some of the audience watch the show from behind the screen where the dalang and musicians are performing, instead of the front,” said the multi-talented personality who hoped that Malaysian wayang kulit would be placed in Unesco’s Intangible Heritage list.

Indonesian wayang kulit was designated by Unesco as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003.

A wayang kulit performance typically comprises a tok dalang, who manipulates the puppets against a lit screen while narrating the story and giving life to the characters, as well as the musicians who back him up with background music and sound effects.
A wayang kulit performance typically comprises a 'tok dalang', who manipulates the puppets against a lit screen while narrating the story and giving life to the characters, as well as the musicians who back him up with background music and sound effects.

In Malaysia, only the Mak Yong tradition has been recognised in Unesco’s Intangible Heritage list.

Md Shukri Edrus, who is the Malaysian representative of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette (International Puppetry Association), said what the wayang kulit community needs was a permanent theatre.

“The permanent theatre will serve as a place where the community can work and meet, as well as hold performances and workshops for locals and tourists.

“It will also serve as a place to inculcate and build interest in wayang kulit among children and tourists,” said Md Shukri, who believes there is great potential is such a venue.

The former librarian, who is also an author and children’s book illustrator, is confident that wayang kulit and its traditions will be preserved.

“It is a natural process for people in developed countries to want to trace their roots and heritage,” said Md Shukri, who likened the process to a plant weaving in and out of the soil in search of sunlight.

“Although people are moving forward, there will always be a way to preserve culture and tradition, even if it means having artefacts preserved in a different country,” he said, citing as an example Greek artefacts that are housed in the British Museum.

According to the experts, of the four types of wayang kulit found throughout Malaysia, only the Wayang Kulit Kelantan can be seen these days.
According to the experts, of the four types of wayang kulit found throughout Malaysia, only the Wayang Kulit Kelantan can be seen these days.

Md Shukri noted that the younger generation has no interest in wayang kulit as there is no material or spiritual gain from it.

“In the age of instant gratification, they feel that they would not get anything from traditional arts,” he said.

“So parents, teachers, artists and museums must play their part in imparting knowledge and encouraging their interest.”

Md Shukri said it was one teacher’s act of taking him to a performance during his school days that led to a lifelong passion and interest in wayang kulit.

Siri and Md Shukri were among the featured speakers at the Seminar Memartabatkan Seni Wayang Kulit: Cabaran dan Masa Depan (Elevating the Art of Shadow Puppet: Challenges and the Future Seminar).

The seminar served as the opening for the three-month Pameran Wayang Kulit Nusantara: Simbolisme Disebalik Layar (Malay Archipelago Shadow Puppets: Symbolism Behind The Screen Exhibition) organised by the Department of Museums Malaysia (JMM).

The other speakers included Aswara (Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan or Malaysian Academy of Arts Culture and Heritage) lecturer Kamarul Baisah Hussin, Pusaka creative director Pauline Fan, and National Department for Culture and Arts (JKKN) senior assistant director Baharuddin Baharin Ramli, while Datuk Prof Emeritus Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin from Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of the Arts was the moderator.

Pak Cu with some of the wayang kulit puppets he uses for his shows.
Pak Cu with some of the wayang kulit puppets he uses for his shows.

The highlight of the seminar was a wayang kulit performance led by Eyo Hock Seng, himself another tokoh warisan negara (national living heritage).

Better known as Pak Cu, the tok dalang and his troupe from Kampung Pasir Parit, Pasir Mas, staged a traditional performance in their local Kelantanese dialect.

Keynote speaker and Aswara rector Prof Dr Hatta Azad Khan touched on the four types of wayang kulit found throughout Malaysia, its history, the similarities and differences between wayang kulit and animation, and what needed to be done to make it relevant.

“While the characteristics and format of wayang kulit can be retained, what is likely needed is an adaptation or shift to make it relevant in current times,” said Prof Hatta, citing changes in lifestyle, behaviour, environment and socio-economy as well as having too many choices as the reasons for the shift.

“The patung (puppets), kelir (screen), music and tok dalang can be retained as those are the essence of wayang kulit.

“But other elements can be changed, such as by using a rainbow of colours or a variety of materials to create different effects for the puppets and setting.”

Dr Hatta shared that wayang kulit was also a traditional art in countries such as Cambodia, China, France, Greece, India, Nepal, Thailand and Turkey.

On the exhibition, JMM director-general Kamarul Baharin A. Kasim said it showcases the evolution of wayang kulit from Malaysia and Indonesia.

“We have more than 150 pieces of wayang kulit artefacts from the department’s collection.

“Some of the artefacts are more than 100 years old.

“There are also exhibits on the musical instruments and protocol observed in the performances.

“We used some newer display techniques to make the exhibition more interactive,” he said, adding the exhibits will be displayed in Bahasa Malaysia and English.

Activities lined up include performances, wayang kulit puppet-making demonstrations and sale of craft products related to wayang kulit.

“We are also able to host guided tours, depending on demand,” said Kamarul Baisah.

Pameran Wayang Kulit Nusantara: Simbolisme Disebalik Layar (Malay Archipelago Shadow Puppets: Symbolism Behind The Screen Exhibition) is ongoing until mid-February 2017 at Gallery 3, National Museum, Kuala Lumpur.

It is open daily from 9am to 6pm. Admission is free.

For details, visit www.facebook.com/JabatanMuziumMalaysia or call 03-2267 1000.


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