Exhibition sheds light on an ancient artform

Checking it out: PJ Museum curator Alif Adam Ahmad looks at the details on Seri Rama, the eldest son of Sultan Sirat Maharaja and Tuan Puteri Cahaya Bulan who is the main character in the Javanese reign.

IN AN effort to raise awareness of wayang kulit, a traditional form of shadow play, the Petaling Jaya Museum is currently hosting an exhibition themed “The Shadow Play: Malay Traditional Theatre”.

PJ Museum assistant curator Bonny Eddy said the puppets were made of cow or goat hide (kulit) that has been stretched and dried before the patterns were carved out. The puppets are then hand painted and held up with strips of buffalo horns.

Bonny explained that the origins of wayang kulit remain unknown, though it appeared to have strong Javanese and Hindu influences.

He said good characters would appear from the right of the stage while evil characters entered from the left.

“Behind the screen, backlit by a flickering oil lamp or light bulb, the Tok Dalang (puppet master) will weave his tale, bringing to life the shadow play. Moral values are easier to absorb in the form of fables, which is why wayang kulit flourished in the kampung,” he said.

He added that the task of the Tok Dalang required immense skill and endurance, for not only does he control the movements of the puppets, he also has to provide each one with a distinguishable voice, and, at times, to sing, all while “conducting” the accompanying traditional music ensemble by tapping a rattle (known as the kechrek) with his feet.

Bonny said during a typical performance, which can last a few hours, the Tok Dalang sits behind a semi-transparent white cloth which acts as a screen. The puppet figures are silhouetted onto the screen with an oil lamp or light bulb as the light source.

“Shadow play brings together the playfulness of a puppet show, and a charming simplicity that leaves locals and tourists mesmerised,” he said.

Wayang kulit is spread out, in various forms, across Asia — from Turkey and China to Indonesia and, of course, Malaysia.

“It is most popular in the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, particularly in Kelantan, the heartland of wayang kulit, where it took root more than 250 years ago. However, urbanisation and modern entertainment have led to a decline in its popularity,” he said.

Bonny added there used to be four main varieties of the artform in this country — Wayang Kulit Siam in Kelantan; Wayang Gedek performed by the Thai communities in Kedah and Perlis; Wayang Kulit Jawa, performed by the Javanese communities in Selangor and Johor; and Wayang Kulit Melayu, performed by the Javanese communities in Terengganu.

However, he added that only the first two had survived.

“Each puppet has an elaborate exaggeration of the human shape and is given a distinctive appearance and, like its string puppet cousins, has jointed “arms”.

“There may be as many as 40 puppet characters, all with different traits and mannerisms, in a performance,” said Bonny.

According to Bonny, the stories of the wayang kulit are traditionally based on Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabha-rata.

In fact, in 1990, the Islamist political party PAS, which rules Kelantan, prohibited the staging of wayang kulit altogether for what it deemed its “unIslamic elements”.

However, the practitioners of this dying art form have adapted, ensuring its continuous survival.

Today, a new brand of wayang kulit has emerged. Instead of the traditional tale of Hikayat Sri Rama — the Malay adaptation of the Hindu epic Ramayana — the stories now are based on local folklore, history, popular comedies, current issues and secular tales.

“Even the traditional forms of the puppets have evolved,” said Bonny. The exhibition will end on Oct 21.

The PJ Museum is open every day except Friday. For details call: 03 7954 8122.

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