Wayang Kulit: Surviving Beyond the Shadows

By Izzuddin Ramli

July 2021 FEATURE
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Tok Dalang and Wayang Musicians. Photo: PUSAKA (Cheryl Hoffmann)

THERE WERE AROUND 40 people that night. Some of them had arrived from the nearby kampung and the town, and had settled comfortably on the mengkuang mats scattered on the small plot of rubber estate land in Kampung Joh, Kelantan. My father and I stood in the dark, among those who had come slightly later, after the Isyak prayer.

As soon as the siak (caretaker) switched off the light and shut the gate of the nearby surau, the shrill sound of the serunai filled the air, followed by the clangour of gendang, gedombak, geduk, gong, canang and kesi, drowning out chatter from spectators.

Comic characters of Wayang Kulit. Photo: PUSAKA (Jo Quah)

All eyes were now drawn to the kelir, a stretched linen canvas on stage, dividing the Tok Dalang (master puppeteer) and the musicians from the audience. The Wayang Kulit show, organised by a Chinese family to entertain the wandering spirits during the Hungry Ghost Festival, was about to begin.

As 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). The bent figure of the sage Maharishi then appeared, and a pair of playful Dewa Anak Panah locked in a cosmic dance. This opening ritual was the buka panggung (consecration of the stage). Now the Tok Dalang began telling the story of Seri Rama and Sita Dewi, transporting us into a realm of romance, betrayal and heroism...

Buka panggung. Photo: PUSAKA (Cheryl Hoffmann)

Those four nights of performance were my first magical encounter with the Hikayat Maharaja Wana, the Kelantanese version of Wayang Kulit based on the Indian epic, Ramayana. What fascinated me was the confluence of diverse cultures, in both the shadow play as well as the crowd of kampung folk who gathered to watch.

Improvisation and Reinterpretation

The ancient Sanskrit epic of Ramayana narrates Prince Rama's quest to rescue his beloved wife Sita from the demon Ravana, said to possess 10 heads and 10 pairs of hands. This epic travelled from the Indian subcontinent to Southeast Asia where it was retold by East and Southern Indian traders and scholars who had sailed the ocean to Indonesia and crossed land to Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia... and to Kelantan.

The absorption of local influences layers the epic with many interpretations. In the Malay literary world, for instance, it is incarnated in the Jawi-scripted Hikayat Seri Rama and the oral Hikayat Maharaja Wana and contains the worldviews of Kelantanese Malays, with some influence from neighbouring Patani. The cerita pokok (trunk story) of the Wayang Kulit Kelantan follows the narrative arc of the Ramayana.

Tok Dalang behind a row of Wayang puppets. Photo: PUSAKA (Cheryl Hoffmann)

In Wayang Kulit Kelantan, not only is the Tok Dalang a master storyteller and puppeteer, but an expert improviser as well. This is a vital assimilation tool. He is not considered a good dalang if he does not improvise, or if he, during his improvisations, does not portray and express Kelantanese sensibilities.

Unfortunately, this skill eludes the more institutionalised forms of Wayang taught at academies and national universities especially. The use of syllabus and text runs contrary to how the art form is traditionally practised, as an oral tradition passed down from master to student.

Following an organic process of secularisation that took place over centuries, in the Kelantanese version of the epic, the characters of Rama, Sita and Ravana are no longer Hindu deities. Instead, 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 20 years ago, it occurs to me that the characters that captivated me most are all inventions of Kelantanese genius. For example, Pak Dogol — darkened and potbellied with a bald head and protruding nose — is Seri Rama's pengasuh (guardian). He possesses both worldly wisdom and spiritual powers. Pak Dogols companions, the host of comic characters named Wak Long, Wok Yoh, Samad and Said, were formed from his daki (dirt from the skin). During improvised scenes, these personages engage in banter, at times ridiculing the politics of the day and offering commentary on current social issues.

Cultural Politics

Until 1990, Wayang Kulit flourished in Kelantan. But when the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) took over the state government there, a programme was created for cultural purification to "restructure" 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 the grounds that they contained Hindu and pre-Islamic elements. The ban became codified in 1998 with the Entertainment Control and Places of Entertainment Enactment.

During the officiation of the state cultural awards night in 2006, then-Kelantan Chief Minister Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat was quoted as saying, "We need to purify our local theatre of those alien elements. Fantasy and dance gestures not akin to Islam will not be accepted."

State-imposed transformation of culture had begun; from then on, only approved performances were allowed to be held at cultural centres.

A young boy plays the geduk in a Wayang ensemble. Photo: PUSAKA (Cheryl Hoffmann)

Over the past few years, I have been engaging with PUSAKA, the KL-based independent cultural organisation that works closely with Wayang Kulit performers and other traditional arts communities in Kelantan. I wanted mainly to comprehend the aesthetics of Wayang Kulit as well as the cultural politics that for three decades had grayed Kelantans vibrant performing arts scene, and which had resulted in the dwindling number of Tok Dalangs and Wayang Kulit groups.

Even though the bans were rarely imposed and were done in a "somewhat gestural manner, more noise than substance," says Eddin Khoo, the founder-director of PUSAKA, Wayang Kulit performers have been pushed to the margins. Some still persist, but others have had to abandon the tradition altogether. Today, only about 10 Wayang Kulit groups remain 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 political need to create an Islamic image distinct from that of UMNO, which was steadily corralling support in Kelantan. By projecting a more conservative and puritan party self-image, PAS hoped to propagate what it considers the truest form of Islam.

The Movement of Traditional Arts

Diminished cultural freedom in PAS-governed Kelantan, when combined with economic pressures, has driven many Kelantanese, especially the young, to migrate to cities like Penang and KL. Some brought with them cultural traditions such as Dikir Barat, a popular form of Kelantanese community art. The Kelantanese diaspora in KL has given rise to groups such as Arjunasukma, and the practice of Kelantanese arts is helping to keep alive a sense of identity and community.

In the case of Wayang Kulit, a process of nationalisation and institutionalisation began in the wake of the National Culture Policy of 1971, which proclaimed Wayang Kulit as part of Malaysia's national culture. Wayang and later Mak Yong were introduced and taught through a codified syllabus at arts academies and national universities. Cleansed of ritual and devoid of the organic spontaneity of oral traditions, these variants of traditional art nurtured at government institutions are often oriented towards tourism and cultural commodification.

Seri Rama and Hanuman. Photo: PUSAKA (Eddin Khoo)

In cosmopolitan hubs such as Penang and Singapore, some traditional arts groups have embraced the Wayang Kulit tradition as their own. 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 catch a glimpse of 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 shaped by Penang's appeal as a hub for international arts festivals, which is taken to mean what an international audience would want to see.

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 was 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, it 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 over my first encounter with Wayang Kulit Kelantan, watching many versions of the Ramayana epic as 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 a replenishment of semangat.

Izzuddin Ramli

is a Kelantanese-born analyst at Penang Institute. He is a writer who seeks refuge in Penang, and agrees with Rumi that the Earth is not our home, we are just passing through.