The Wayang Kulit is a traditional theatre form that brings together the playfulness of a puppet show, and the elusive quality and charming simplicity of a shadow play.
Its origin remains a mystery, though it appears to have a strong Javanese and Hindu influence. Today, it is spread out, in various forms and guises, across Asia - from Turkey and China to Indonesia and of course, Malaysia.
Here, 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. Today, however, urbanisation and modern entertainment have led to a decline in its popularity.
There used to be four main varieties of the form in this country: the Wayang Kulit Siam of Kelantan; the Wayang Gedek, performed by the Thai communities of Kedah and Perlis; the Wayang Kulit Jawa, performed by the Javanese communities in Selangor and Johor; and the Wayang Kulit Melayu, performed by the Javanese communities of Terengganu. Today, only the first two are performed.
All of the varieties of this unique theatre form employ the principle of light and shadow to bring to life its characters, depicted by intricately carved puppets. The flat two-dimensional puppets are carved out of cow or buffalo hide, then painted, all by hand.
Each puppet, a stylised exaggeration of the human shape, is given a distinctive appearance and not unlike 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.
One man is responsible for breathing life into this array of characters: the master puppeteer and storyteller known as the Tok Dalang.
The task of the Tok Dalang requires 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.
During a typical performance, which can last several 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/light bulb as the light source.
The stories of the wayang kulit are traditionally based on the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Usually, the Tok Dalang begins by introducing the main characters; first the puppet storyteller, followed by Maharaja Wana (Rawana), Sri Rama (Rama), Siti Dewa (Sita), the Laksamana and the court jesters, Pak Dogol and Wak Long.
Then he tells the story by moderating his voice, and controlling the varied movements, to suit each and every character. For instance, the gruff-voiced demon king Maharaja Wana moves erratically and aggressively, while the court jesters scratch their heads and speak in shrill voices.
The shadow play is invariably accompanied by a gamelan orchestra, one that consists of about 10 to 30 musicians.
Traditionally, the Wayang Kulit is staged during religious festivals and important occasions, such as weddings, births and circumcision. Primarily, it was taken as an entertainment medium. However, it also served to impart moral values, as well as to pass down folklore and historical tales.
Like many other art forms in Malaysia, it was believed to have strong ties to the spirit world. It used to be customary to make food offerings to the spirits during and after a performance, but this practice is now frowned upon.
In fact, in 1990, when the conservative political party Parti SeIslam Malaysia (PAS) came into power in Kelantan, the staging of Wayang Kulit was prohibited altogether, for its un-Islamic 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. The new puppets can take up any role unlike the original puppets which are fixed characters. Also, modern elements such as buildings and cars have been incorporated.
To keep up with the times, today's Tok Dalangs do not only use the Kelantanese dialect but also mainstream Bahasa Malaysia, a few English words, the occasional Bollywood song, and even familiar tunes from TV serials to spice up their performance. The best thing is they always improvise as they perform, so audiences don't get a fixed dialogue or narration with every show.
All their efforts have not gone to waste. The "modernisation" of the Wayang Kulit has since changed the minds of the Kelantan State Government which has since lifted the ban. The art form is slowly picking up again but whether it would achieve the same kind of recognition as in days gone by remains to be seen.
Video: Wayang Kulit