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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Wayang Kulit: Surviving Beyond The Shadows

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

It is a journey of self-reflection and the replenishment of semangat.

Comic characters of Wayang Kulit
Comic characters of Wayang Kulit. Courtesy of PUSAKA, photo by Jo Quah.

There were around forty people that night. Some of them, who arrived from the nearby kampung and town, had settled comfortably on the mengkuang mats, scattered within the small plot of land of the rubber estate in Kampung Joh, Kelantan. My father and I stood in the dark, joining those who had come later after the Isyak prayer. The acrid smell of the rubber and gasoline from the portable electric generator that powered the temporary stage in front of us filled the air.

As soon as the siak (caretaker) switched off the light and shut the gate of the nearby surau, the shrill sound of the serunai followed by the clangour of gendang, gedombak, geduk, gong, canang, and kesi reverberated the surrounding, drowning the chattering from the spectators. All eyes were now drawn to the kelir, a stretched linen canvas at the stage, dividing the Tok Dalang (master puppeteer) and the musicians with the audiences. The Wayang Kulit show, organised by a Chinese family to entertain the wandering spirits during the Hungry Ghost Festival, was about to begin.

While the music played, shadows of Wayang Kulit props and characters appeared on the kelir, beginning with the majestic form of the pohon beringin (tree of life). Then: the bent figure of Maharishi, the sage, and a pair of playful Dewa Anak Panah who engage in a cosmic dance. I later learned that this opening ritual was the buka panggung (consecration of the stage).

The Tok Dalang began narrating the story of Seri Rama and Sita Dewi, transporting us to a realm of romance, betrayal, and heroism. Those four nights of performance was my first magical encounter with the Hikayat Maharaja Wana, the Kelantanese Wayang Kulit version based on the Indian epic of Ramayana. What fascinated me was the confluence of many cultures, in both the shadow play as well as the crowd of kampung folk who had gathered for the performance.

Improvisation and Reinterpretation

The ancient Sanskrit epic of Ramayana that narrates the story of Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his beloved wife with the help of a monkey warrior has moved beyond the Indian subcontinent. In Southeast Asia — by means of East and Southern Indian traders and scholars — it travelled by sea particularly into Indonesia, by land into Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, eventually settling down in the state of Kelantan.

Along the way, the epic has constantly been retold and metamorphosed into local contexts, taking on different influences, creating numerous versions and interpretations. In the Malay literary world, it incarnates into the Jawi script Hikayat Seri Rama and the oral Hikayat Maharaja Wana that contains the worldviews of the Kelantan Malays with some influences from the Patani version of the epic. The cerita pokok (trunk story) of the Wayang Kulit Kelantan follows the narrative arc of the Ramayana.

The figure of the Tok Dalang in Wayang Kulit Kelantan is not only a master storyteller and puppeteer, but also a master of improvisation. In the process of adaptation to the local context, improvisation is a vital element in encapsulating and expressing the Kelantanese sensibility. Among Kelantanese Wayang Kulit practitioners, one is not considered a good dalang if he doesn't improvise.

Improvisation is something that thrives in Wayang groups in local communities but eludes more institutionalised forms of Wayang, such as those taught in academies and universities. Wayang Kulit in Kelantan is traditionally a community art form that exists as an oral tradition, passed down from master to student, without being codified in a syllabus and text.

In an organic process of ‘secularisation’ that took place over centuries, the characters of Rama, Sita, Ravana are no longer Hindu deities in the Kelantanese version of the epic. They are beings of kayangan (the celestial realm), delinked from their overtly divine aspects, humanised, and made completely Kelantanese.

When I look back at my first encounter with Wayang in that rubber estate twenty years ago, it now strikes me that the characters that captivated me most are all inventions of Kelantanese genius. Pak Dogol — black, potbellied, with a bald head and protruding nose — is Seri Rama’s pengasuh (guardian), who possesses both worldly wisdom and spiritual powers.

Pak Dogol’s companions, a host of comic characters called Wak Long, Wok Yoh, Samad and Said, were formed from his daki (dirt from the skin). During improvised scenes, these comic characters engage in banter, at times ridiculing the politics of the day and offering commentary on current social issues.

Young boy playing the geduk in a Wayang ensemble.
Young boy playing the geduk in a Wayang ensemble. Courtesy of PUSAKA, photo by Cheryl Hoffmann.

Cultural Politics

Up until 1990, Wayang Kulit flourished in a climate of freedom. When the Islamic party (PAS) took over the state government of Kelantan, they began a programme of cultural purification and “restructured” the arts, cultural, and entertainment activities. Wayang Kulit, along with other forms of Kelantanese art traditions such as Mak Yong, Main Puteri, and Menora, were soon proscribed on grounds that they contained Hindu and pre-Islamic elements. The ban was then codified in 1998 with the Entertainment and Places of Entertainment Enactment.

“We need to purify our local theatre from those alien elements. Fantasy and dance gestures not akin to Islam will not be accepted”, announced the then Kelantan Chief Minister, Nik Aziz Nik Mat, as he addressed local reporters after officiating the state cultural awards night at Hotel Perdana in Kota Bharu in 2006. The state-imposed cultural transformation had now taken place and only approved performances were allowed and held in cultural centers.

Over the past few years, I’ve been engaging with PUSAKA, a Kuala Lumpur-based independent cultural organisation that works closely with Wayang Kulit performers and other traditional arts communities in Kelantan. I mainly wanted to comprehend the aesthetics of Wayang Kulit as well as the cultural politics that has been enveloping Kelantan for three decades. Since the Islamic party assumed control, the numbers of Tok Dalangs and Wayang Kulit groups have been gradually decreasing.

Even though the bans “were rarely imposed” and were done in a “somewhat gestural manner, more noise than substance”, as asserted by Eddin Khoo, Founder-Director of PUSAKA, it pushes Wayang Kulit performers to the margins. Some persist, but others have no choice but to abandon the tradition. Today, only nine to ten Wayang Kulit groups are still active in Kelantan, according to Khairul Sezali, a Kelantanese traditional musician who performs in a Wayang Kulit ensemble.

The obsession to steer the state towards a more Islamic outlook was partly influenced by the need to create a distinct Islamic image from that of its UMNO counterpart that was gaining support in Kelantan. The PAS state government had to position itself at the opposite extreme, by portraying a more conservative, puritan self-image and claiming to propagate the truest version of Islam.

Tok Dalang and Raksasa
Tok Dalang and Raksasa. Courtesy of PUSAKA, photo by TapaOtai

The Movement of Traditional Arts

The diminished freedom in PAS-governed Kelantan, combined with economic pressures, drove many Kelantanese, especially the younger generation, to migrate to cities like Penang and Kuala Lumpur. Some of them brought along cultural traditions such as Dikir Barat, a popular form of Kelantanese community art. The Kelantanese diaspora in Kuala Lumpur gave rise to groups like Arjunasukma, who keep alive a sense of Kelantanese identity and community through the practice of Kelantanese arts.

In the case of Wayang Kulit, a process of nationalisation and institutionalisation took place in the wake of the National Culture Policy of 1971, which proclaimed Wayang Kulit as part of a ‘national Malaysian culture’. Wayang and later Mak Yong were introduced into arts academies and universities and taught according to a codified syllabus. Cleansed of ritual and devoid of the organic spontaneity of oral traditions, these variants of ‘traditional arts’ that are nurtured in government institutions are often oriented towards tourism and cultural commodification.

In cosmopolitan hubs like Penang and Singapore, some traditional arts groups have embraced the Wayang Kulit tradition as their own, in seeking to present Malay culture to urban audiences. In Singapore, for example, the group Sri Setia Pulau Singa performs Kelantanese-style Wayang in standard Malay (bahasa baku). While the earthy intonations of the Kelantanese dialect are absent, their performances allow spectators to glimpse an intriguing aspect of Malay culture.

Similarly in Penang, groups like Wak Long Music and Art Centre offer audiences a range of Malay art forms, including Gamelan, Kuda Kepang, and Wayang Kulit. Their rendition of Wayang Kulit is adapted to their perception of what an international audience wants to see, shaped by Penang’s status as a hub for international arts festivals.

Last year, I had the opportunity to join PUSAKA in a cultural immersion programme with a Mak Yong community in Kuala Besut. I had a conversation with Pauline Fan, Creative Director of PUSAKA, about the vitality of Kelantanese traditional arts and the challenges faced by performers in the local communities. We also spoke of the Wayang Kulit performance that PUSAKA had presented at the George Town Literary Festival in 2016. I had been struck by the captivating play of shadows of Wayang Kulit Kelantan against the resplendent architecture of the Khoo Kongsi.

“Wayang kulit has always been an innovative tradition, marked by uninhibited imagination and improvisation,” Pauline reflected. “However, Wayang Kulit can only truly flourish if it remains rooted in its local community. There are many young Kelantanese who are passionate about Wayang — they are the ones who inherit the legacy of Wayang Kulit and will ensure its continuity.”

Today, ruminating my first encounter with Wayang Kulit Kelantan, watching many versions of Ramayana stories told by different Tok Dalangs, I have come to realise that Wayang Kulit exists beyond the shadows we see on the kelir. It is a journey of self-reflection and the replenishment of semangat.

*This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, July 2021.


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