Wayang Kulit, also known as shadow puppetry is an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment using flat two-dimensional puppets which have been painstakingly hand carved out of cow or buffalo hide, then hand-painted.
Each puppet has been designed and created in a human shape and given a distinctive appearance and not unlike its string puppet cousins with joints.
Its true origin is somewhat a mystery, though it has a strong Javanese and Hindu influence.
Nowadays, however, you can practically find it spread out, in different styles and forms cross Asia, even up to Turkey and China.
Here in Malaysia, 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.
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.
One man is responsible for breathing life into this array of characters: the master puppeteer and storyteller known as the Tok Dalang.
During a typical performance, which can last for a 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.
The Tok Dalang is believed to go into a trance just before his performance to have the ability to use different voices for each character.
And while we know wayang kulit characters are beautifully crafted, the audience is only able to see the shadows of each one as they are manipulated by the skilful Tok Dalang.
So as you can imagine, it can be equally fascinating to watch the shadows and follow the story, as well as watch how the performance is done behind the screen.
The wayang kulit performance can be accompanied by a gamelan orchestra, and consist from anywhere between 10 to 30 musicians.
Back in 1990, when the conservative political party PAS came into power in Kelantan, the staging of Wayang Kulit was banned due to its un-Islamic elements.
However, the practitioners of this dying art form have adapted to try to keep the wayang kulit alive…
And so instead of the traditional tale of Hikayat Sri Rama, the stories currently are told are based on local folklore, history, popular comedies, current issues and secular tales.
Performances nowadays occur for a few reasons: to entertain, educate, and/or commemorate a special occasion. Because of this “modernisation” of the Wayang Kulit, the Kelantan State Government has since lifted the ban.
References to current events, pop-culture and even politics are added to performances. Modern day performances are abbreviated versions; traditionally performances lasted throughout the night.
The puppets have also evolved to take up any role unlike the original puppets which are fixed characters. You can also find buildings and cars incorporated.
What amused those of us from the #AboutKL FAM trip when we went to check out this exhibition at the National Museum was that we found puppets made in the likeness of the superhero characters Wonder Woman , Superman , and Batman, hand made by Malaysian artist Tintoy Chuo being exhibited at the Shadow Puppet Exhibition there… as well as famous characters from Star Wars….
The Wayang Kulit exhibition will continue at the National Museum until February 2017. You can check out and be mesmerized by the more than 150 pieces of wayang kulit artefacts some which are said to be more than 100 years old.
There are also exhibits on the musical instruments and protocol observed in the performances and the exhibits will be displayed in both Bahasa Malaysia and English.
Be sure not to miss some of the interesting activities lined up, which include performances, wayang kulit puppet-making demonstrations and sale of craft products related to wayang kulit.
The ‘Simbolisme Pameran Wayang Kulit Nusantara Disebalik Layar’ (Malay Archipelago Shadow Puppets: Symbolism Behind The Screen Exhibition) is ongoing until end of February 2017 at Gallery 3, National Museum, Kuala Lumpur.
How to get there – From KL Sentral Station, take RapidKL Bus No. 115 or KL Hop-In-Hop-Off bus No. 12 or you can also walk 0.5 km to the National Museum (Muzium Negara) using the path and signage provided from KL Sentral Station
It is open daily from 9am to 6pm. Admission is free.
For details, visit www.facebook.com/JabatanMuziumMalaysia or call 03-2267 1000.
Address – Jabatan Muzium Malaysia, Jalan Damansara, Tasik Perdana, 50566 Kuala Lumpur