One of the age-old performances that is still being practised today but becoming increasingly rare is the Wayang Kulit.
Imagine a show where music, light, shadow and masterful storytelling come alive under one roof, transporting you back to ancient times, and leaving you, the audience, breathless and delighted in the fact that you may have just witnessed a centuries-old living heritage unfold right before your eyes.
This specialty theatre, a must-watch whenever you are in Malaysia, can be found in Kedah and Kelantan. The Wayang Kulit is a live theatre performance orchestrated by the main puppeteer, Tok Dalang, who controls and breathes life into various puppets as he narrates epic dramas to the accompaniment of live music.
The Wayang Kulit traditionally begins with a loud shrill call made by the instruments – traditionally, this was to call the village people from around to gather for a night of storytelling. The Wayang Kulit stage is a basic setup consisting of an area for the spectators who usually sit on the ground. Another area, separated by a linen cloth which is essentially the screen, is where all the puppets, musicians and Tok Dalang are seated. Normally, this space is small and dark, with everyone cramped together with bulky instruments, but here is where all the action takes place.
Here’s a secret: watching the behind-the-scenes show as the theatre progresses is just as great as being an audience! You will see exactly how everything – the music, the storytelling, the light, the puppets, the narration – falls into place under the genius orchestration of one Tok Dalang. Indeed, it is quite the performance to see the Tok Dalang and the musicians create a perfect symphony of music and storytelling.
To create the shadow play, light from an electrical or oil lamp is projected towards the puppets thus casting shadows on a fabric screen separating the performers and the audience. The Tok Dalang sits behind this screen, ready to conduct the show. It is certainly not an easy task to be a Tok Dalang because he has to manipulate more than 10 puppets during a typical performance that can last several few hours, remember all their characters – some are evil, some are heroic, etc., modulate his voice to suit the characters, and also conduct the orchestra at the same time with 10 to 30 musicians.
The language in Wayang Kulit performances can somehow confuse the audience due to the dialect used, for example the northern Kedahan and the eastern Kelantanese dialect. But rest assure, it is not really hard for you to understand the main storyline guided by the Tok Dalang’s voice tones and simply enjoy the music.
Puppets used in Wayang Kulit originally are made out of water buffalo hide and goat hide, and mounted on bamboo sticks. However, the best puppets are typically made from young female buffalo parchment, cured for up to ten years. Each puppet, a stylized exaggeration of the human shape, is given a distinctive appearance and not unlike its string puppet cousins, has jointed ‘arms’.
Historically, the stories narrated in Wayang Kulit are strongly influenced by Hindu and Javanese cultures. Maharaja Wana (Rawana), Sri Rama (Rama), Siti Dewa (Sita), the Laksamana, and the court clowns, Pak Dogol and Wak Long are some of the main characters in most performances. Hindu Epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata were performed through Wayang Kulit as a means to spread the religion. The Mahabharata is an epic narrative of the Kuruksetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Pandava princes, while Ramayana is an ancient Indian poem which narrates the struggle of the divine Prince Rama to rescue his wife Sita from the Demon King Rawana.
These days, the modern Wayang Kulit emphasizes on stories that are relevant to current times, national or global issues, as well as comedy and entertainment. In fact, an adaptation of Star Wars called “Peperangan Bintang” with puppets made in the likeness of the original characters such as Sangkala Vedah (Darth Vader), Puteri Leia (Princess Leia) and Si P Long (C-3PO) has recently emerged as a variation of Wayang Kulit. These newer versions certainly appeal to a younger audience and those living in the cities and is a great way to reach out to them about a dying art.
There are four main versions of Wayang Kulit in Malaysia: Wayang Kulit Siam (Kelantan), Wayang Kulit Gedek (Kedah), Wayang Kulit Jawa (Selangor and Johor), and Wayang Kulit Melayu (Terengganu). Nowadays, only the first two Wayang Kulit are still being performed. If you are looking forward to watch the Wayang Kulit Gedek, there are various Wayang Kulit associations in Kedah and one of the notable one is Wayang Kulit Sri Asun. Meanwhile for the Wayang Kulit Siam in Kelantan, Wayang Pak Dain is recognized as the authentic Wayang Kulit performer there.
WHERE TO WATCH:
Gelanggang Seni (Culture Centre)
Jalan Mahmood, Bandar Kota Bharu,
15200 Kota Bharu, Kelantan
Tel: +609 748 5534 / 3543
Saturday – 3.30pm-5.30pm
Monday & Wednesday – (3.30 pm – 5.30 pm), (9.00 pm -11.00 pm)
Wayang Pak Dain
Simpang 3 Morak,
Kampung Paloh, Wakaf Bharu,
16040 Tumpat Kelantan
Phone : +60179778929
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Tourism Malaysia
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