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Wayang kulit puppeteers used to be judged by their talent for mimicry and ability to remember every single detail of the story. PIX BY ALAN TEH LEAM SENG

KELANTAN’S recent decision to lift the 28-year-old ban on mak yong has caused so much excitement among members of a prominent heritage-themed WhatsApp group that my phone kept on giving off new message alerts well into the night on the day the curb was rescinded.

Many just could not believe their eyes when the news broke and began seeking confirmation about its authenticity. Their scepticism is understandable as, after such a long hiatus, many had practically given up hope for its revival.

The uncertainty was, however, put to rest when someone verified that the announcement came from none other than the Kelantan deputy menteri besar himself, Datuk Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah.

Our unbridled euphoria was not dampened even a bit when another group member cautioned that the lifting came with strict conditions.

Figures used today reflect current values in society.

For most of us, the green light was a step in the right direction towards the revival of traditional folk entertainment in the northern state, considered as the birthplace of many important and culturally-rich performing arts in our country.

The exchange of thoughts in the frenzied group goes up a notch when the conversation included calls for a similar official endorsement to be accorded to the seldom seen shadow play performances or wayang kulit.

CHANCE FOR REVIVAL

My interest is piqued when a thought-provoking comment flashed on my phone screen: “If mak yong can be revived in the name of preserving the arts and promoting Kelantan’s tourism, surely this as good a time as any for the authorities to bring the other traditional performances back.”

The words ring true. It is definitely better for traditional arts to see the light of day with certain curbs put in place to ensure that they comply with syariah requirements, rather than to just let them fade into oblivion.

Within a matter of minutes, attention in the group shifts completely towards wayang kulit.

The flurry of comments and references in my study soon capture my imagination as they start painting a vivid picture of what this once popular form of rural folk entertainment was like in the past.

It has long been acknowledged that the shadow play is one of the most ancient forms of theatre in many parts of Southeast Asia.

In existence in Cambodia for more than a millennia, and in Thailand and Laos for more than half that duration, wayang kulit has been performed in the Malay peninsula for several hundred years.

Despite its deep entrenchment and long history, this performing art is interestingly absent in several countries like Vietnam, Brunei, Myanmar and parts of the Indonesian archipelago like Sumatra, even though the island of Java is said to be the place where it all began.

CLOSE NORTHERN LINKS

Several highly respected works on wayang kulit by Tan Sri Dr Abdul Mubin Sheppard debunked the belief that the Malay shadow play had its origins in Java.

The renowned Malaysian historian and academician came to that conclusion after realising that many branches of Malay decorative arts shared closer and clearly discernible links with Cambodia and Thailand.

Sheppard hypothesised that Khmer prince Jayavarman II could have witnessed the shadow play during his time in Java in the 8th century before returning to unify Cambodia.

He could have devised a form of the theatrical performance, totally different in presentation and design, and that, in turn, served as the embryo for Thai and Malay shadow plays centuries later.

By the 19th century, Malay shadow plays were performed with high regularity in Pattani, Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Perak, with performing troupes travelling as far down the peninsula as Selangor, Pahang, Negri Sembilan and the east coast of Johor.

It was such an important form of entertainment in Malaya then that the Kuala Langat district officer Walter William Skeat made the decision to purchase 149 shadow play figures from a travelling Kelantan puppeteer, or Tok Dalang, after witnessing a performance in 1897 that thrilled him to no end.

Eventually, the set was presented in its entirety to Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, where they can still be seen until this day.

Since the early days, Malay shadow plays have always been presented in a specially-erected structure that was set apart from other permanent dwelling houses in the village or town where they were performed.

The shadow play performance is accompanied by a traditional orchestra.

ROYAL PATRONAGE

Although it enjoyed royal patronage in the northern states, just like the mak yong during the 19th century, Sheppard was certain that there was not a single instance that the wayang kulit actually graced the audience halls of the Malay rulers.

The theatre building was usually constructed of shaped timber, or jungle poles and bamboo that had a raised wooden platform as a stage. Planks or leaf thatch walls covered both sides and the rear section, while a white cotton screen covered the front from end to end, and from the floor to a height slightly more than two metres.

Two freshly-cut banana trunks were pegged in position just behind the base of the screen. Although it was claimed that anyone overstepping them would be struck down by mysterious illnesses, Sheppard believed that the superstition was likely to have been invented to discourage inquisitive village lads from wreaking havoc on the theatre and its contents when they were left unattended during the day.

Before the start of the performance, the Tok Dalang would take out a large-plaited rattan folder containing his collection of figures, and carefully retrieve the ones that he was most likely to use during that evening.

Arranged according to their sequence of appearance, the figures were placed flat near the banana trunks, with the ones representing good characters on the right and demons on the opposing side from where the puppeteer sat.

Whenever characters were required to stand and converse, the Tok Dalang simply picked them up and plunged each pointed bamboo spine base, which extended from the head to about a foot below the feet, into the soft banana trunk.

USEFUL TRUNKS

Puppeteers favoured banana trunks as they were easy to penetrate and could hold the bamboo spines firmly. Furthermore, the hole would close by itself as soon as the spine was removed, allowing for repeated usage without fear of compromised grip.

Each banana trunk could be used for up to four nights.

As custom disapproved of replacements during the course of the puppeteer’s engagement with a particular patron, several layers of freshly-cut outer skin from another newly-harvested plant were wrapped around the original stem when the performance duration extended beyond that period.

Performances usually began about half-past eight in the evening after isyak. They were preceded by 15 minutes of stirring overtures of drums and gongs, which poured compelling summons to all who lived within the radius.

As the music petered out, one of the musicians, who has studied the art of the puppeteer for a number of years, but was not sufficiently skilled to give a full performance, entertained the growing audience with the prologue — and a parade of the main figures for the night.

After that, the seat behind the screen was vacated for the puppeteer to begin the story in earnest. A complete epic could occupy as many as 30 nights, and the Tok Dalang would tailor selected episodes to fill the period of his visit, which could be up to three consecutive nights.

The Malay shadow play was almost always presented entirely in the form of dialogues, interspersed with cries of anger or derision, and a musical accompaniment to lend weight to the various vigorous movements.

Wayang kulit performances in the past enjoyed a strong following.

MASTER STORYTELLER

In the past, puppeteers were judged by their talent for mimicry and ability to remember every single detail of the story.

Skilled Tok Dalang were able to handle the figures deftly while moving their mobile right arms and, in the case of comedians making jokes, their mobile lower jaws as well.

Through years of experience, the Tok Dalang had gained the ability to judge the precise distance between the lamp and the screen, at which puppets had to be positioned or moved to achieve the desired effect.

The figures created shadows with sharper outlines when held closer to the cloth, while effects of slow motion could be achieved by rocking the lamp backwards and forwards while figures were held motionless.

Several photos of the wayang kulit performed at a recent George Town Festival posted in the group chat catch my attention. In keeping with progress, the modern Tok Dalang has employed the use of a fluorescent lamp as his source of lighting.

Although this modern innovation is brighter and more consistent, many experts, including Sheppard, were of the opinion that the soft light and occasional flicker of the traditional oil lamp created a much greater atmosphere of mystery and suspense.

Until the first few decades of the 20th century, illumination was provided by a slow burning wick of raw cotton, about half a foot in length, most of which was submerged in a porcelain bowl filled with coconut oil.

In the years that followed, these were replaced in sequence by oil and kerosene lamps until the introduction of electricity in rural areas of Malaya during the days leading up to World War 2.

CHANGING VALUES

Upon close inspection, the colourful photos also reveal subtle but yet distinct additions to the collection of figures which, in the past, consisted primarily of ogres, demons and a plethora of heroes and heroines.

The presence of figures complete with songkok and head-scarves gives an indication that the modern-day puppeteer is more than willing to conform to regulations set by the authorities, and is versatile enough to make changes to the age-old storylines, while incorporating these new characters into his play.

Like in the past, shadow play figures today are made from cow or buffalo hide, which is carefully dried and scraped clean until it is as smooth as silk.

The thickness of locally made figures sets them apart from those used by the Cambodians, Thais and Javanese.

During the process, the outline of each character and its decorative details are traced on a piece of paper using an older figure of fine workmanship as a master stencil. Once completed, the outline is cut out and pasted onto the processed hide, which is, in turn, cut into shape using two or more small but very sharp chisels.

Then, the figures are individually hand coloured with oil paints, which have a little kuing oil added to help the pigments adhere permanently onto the hide.

While the costumes of the leading figures are more elaborately decorated, each piece, regardless of its importance in the play, is an exquisite work of art.

In the olden days, the royal characters wore Khmer or Siamese-tiered crowns, and had ornate armlets on their upper limbs. Their clothes, which included decorative belts and curved wings, were reminiscent of those worn by the raja and prince in the mak yong.

With each passing generation, however, the design of shadow play figures has gradually evolved to suit changing values of society.

END OF AN ERA

The introduction of the motion picture and the proliferation of cinemas all over Malaya in the 1950s led to a significant decline in demand for wayang kulit. By the second-half of the 20th century, this performing art only managed to find a ready audience in Kelantan alone.

In 1969, Sheppard reported that there were 300 active puppeteers, who were capable of presenting elaborate performances that lasted days. They usually performed at ceremonies celebrating circumcisions, marriages or fulfilment of vows.

Unfortunately, only a handful of practitioners are left today as the younger generation make a beeline for better and more stable job opportunities.

Up to today, however, the older generation in Kelantan, especially those living along the coast, believe that a long cavalcade of near-human shapes can still be seen in silhouette lining the horizon every day at dawn and just before sunset.

They call this phenomenon Perangkatan, a royal procession. The cloud-figures are never exactly the same as those in the shadow play, but to those who have witnessed this natural occurrence, the resemblance is unmistakable.

Perhaps this daily reminder is nature’s way of telling that the wayang kulit has a permanent place in our society, and with the recent accommodative overtures seen on the part of the Kelantan authorities, this notion may yet be true after all.

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