Wayang kulit boldly goes where no one has gone before

PETALING JAYA: The wayang kulit (puppet shadow play) has gone where no one has gone before, having recently featured in the pilot episode of the new Star Trek: Discovery TV series which aired in the United States on Monday.

A wayang kulit puppet appeared as a prop in a scene featuring Malaysia's very own Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh.

Malaysians who watched the episode online were very excited about the bit of Malaysian culture appearing in the science fiction show, especially since Yeoh – who plays a starship captain – also spoke in what seemed to be a Malaysian accent.

But Malaysians may have been celebrating for the wrong reasons, if so.

Cultural organisation Pusaka founder and writer Eddin Khoo said the wayang kulit puppet that featured in the television series actually originated from Java.

"It is a Javanese puppet called Antareja," Khoo told The Star.

He said Antareja is a character from the Javanese wayang kulit tradition and was the son of the great Bhima through his marriage to Naganini.

"He is a realisation of the Javanese imagination," Khoo said, adding that the Javanese wayang kulit should not be described as Indonesian either, since it was not performed outside of Java.

He said there are huge cultural differences between the Malaysian and the Javanese wayang kulit traditions.

"There are differences in the stories, the repertoire that they perform and the whole style and sensibility are different – even the lineage and history is different," he said.

Khoo said that in Malaysia, there were characters such as Seri Rama, Maharaja Wana, Sita Dewi, the great Hanuman brothers, Pak Dogol, and the comics Samad and Said.

He said in terms of characteristics, the Malaysian wayang kulit design was more "raw" and had stronger Khmer-Thai influences.

"They are very strongly of Kelantan-Pattani imagination," he said.

Khoo added that Javanese wayang kulit characters had sharper features, looked less fierce, and were more elongated.

In the new Star Trek TV series which stars Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham, Yeoh plays Captain Philippa Georgiou of the USS Shenzhou.

Yeoh was also commended for delivering her lines in a Malaysian Chinese accent.

In an interview with CBS News, she said that the series producers and director had embraced her accent from the minute they started shooting.

However, she said that her accent was neither American nor British, and was sort of "in-between."

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