Star Wars meets Malaysia’s arts renaissance

Malay artists revitalise the art of puppeteering by fusing tradition with modern characters such as Darth Vader.

A Kuda Kepang performer - Malaysia's traditional arts are enjoying a renaissance [Kate Mayberry]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – In the darkness of a Kuala Lumpur park, light glows softly through a white screen and a traditional orchestra takes its place behind the stage. As the musicians strike their first note, the puppeteer, who brings the performance to life, gets ready for another chapter in the eternal battle between good and evil.

But it’s not the Ramayana, the Hindu epic that usually provides the storyline for the shadow puppetry of Malaysia and Indonesia.

It’s the iconic 1977 film Star Wars, adapted to the Wayang Kulit style in Malaysia’s northeastern state of Kelantan, and dubbed Peperangan Bintang.

Darth Vader is crafted from cowhide and renamed Sangkala Vedeh, with a set of sharply fanged teeth, claw-like hands, and the distinct markings of Wayang Kulit’s less savoury characters. He’s still instantly recognisable as the film’s Dark Lord though, and thanks to voice modulation, even sounds similar.

‘Even my mum knows who Darth Vader is’

Traditional arts are enjoying something of a renaissance in modern-day Malaysia [Reuters]

“I had this fusion idea,” character designer Tintoy Chuo told Al Jazeera at his studio in Kuala Lumpur. “Combine something modern, science fiction with something traditional. I loved Star Wars as a kid and Star Wars is easy to recognise. Even my mum knows who Darth Vader is.”

The traditional arts are enjoying something of a renaissance in modern-day Malaysia. City-dwelling Malaysians such as Chuo, a character designer during the day, are working with the master craftsmen who are the custodians of traditional culture to bring their work to a more diverse audience. Social media is helping to connect the contemporary with the past, and the young with the old.

A friend request on Facebook put Chuo in touch with master puppeteer Muhammad Dain Othman, one of just 13 masters of the Kelantanese style, who had seen Chuo’s early efforts and wanted to see how the two could work together. “I feel good working with Pak Dain,” said Chuo, using the affectionate name for the man he calls a “sifu” or teacher. “Whatever we do, we know that it’s correct. We don’t want to be messing about.”

Eddin Khoo has spent more than two decades cataloguing Malaysia’s myriad cultural traditions, travelling the length of the Malay peninsula and across Borneo to document the unique cultural art forms of this multi-ethnic nation for his organisation, Pusaka. Only now are his efforts beginning to pay off.

“After 12 years of the organisation, 23 years of my own dedication, pulling my hair, stamping my foot and saying ‘this matters’, our work is starting to resonate,” Khoo, a writer, told Al Jazeera.

Darth Vader was renamed Sangkala Vedeh [Kate Mayberry]

This month, Pusaka organised two days of performances in Kuala Lumpur by more than 20 different groups from across the country, including Teochew puppetry, Kelantanese Wayang Kulit and Kuda Kepang – a hugely popular dance and ritual brought to Malaysia by Javanese migrants who settled in the southern state of Johor.

‘Part of my heritage’

Staged by a group of sarong-clad young men, sitting astride “horses” woven from bamboo, the Kuda Kepang is a compelling fusion of mysticism and power.

Amid the faint scent of the offering, drifting through the humid afternoon air, the performers gradually entered a trance-like state, mimicking the movement of horses as a senior member of the troupe cracked his whip to keep them under control. As the repetitive sounds of the gamelan accelerated, the dance intensified and the young men whirled and pranced, striking their whips against the grass. In longer shows, they’ve been known to tear at the grass and rip apart coconut husks with their teeth.

There's a sense of worldliness and a sense of pride that these village traditions suddenly have large audiences.

by - Eddin Khoo, writer

“I’ve been doing this since I was six,” said 29-year-old Casper Anwar as he wound down at the end of the show. He learned the dance from his father, who’d learned from his father. His skin bore no trace of the lashes he’d received during the course of the performance. “It’s part of my heritage,” he said.

The heritage of Malaysia’s ethnic Malays, who are Muslim, has been under pressure since the Iranian revolution 40-years ago reverberated across the Islamic world. A series of fatwas that began in the 1990s has banned many traditions as un-Islamic for their Hindu and animist influences, including Mak Yong, a dance-drama from the northeastern state of Kelantan, shadow puppetry and the Kuda Kepang. Although the fatwas are rarely enforced, they’ve proven to be an effective deterrent.

Khoo is critical of the way culture has been politicised, but he’s also encouraged by the manner in which traditions have endured. Many of the people performing in Malaysia’s rural villages are young at an average age of 25, he said.

“There’s a sense of worldliness and a sense of pride that these village traditions suddenly have large audiences,” Khoo said. Pusaka has taken its groups on tours around the country as well as throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. A one-month tour of the US is planned for 2015, when Pusaka also aims to release its Cultural Map of Malaysia, an archive of the country’s culture.

In a world without television, films or the internet, Wayang Kulit was a way for communities to come together, be entertained and informed; an early form of the newsreel, perhaps. Other performances served similar purposes. But Malaysian cultural traditions have always been closely attuned to the contemporary mood, and it’s that capacity to adapt that has helped them survive.

The gamelan – an ensemble of bronze gongs and metallophones that originated in Java in the 12th century and has just five notes in the scale of B-flat – is usually reserved for official functions, celebrations and as an accompaniment to Wayang Kulit and other performances.

Sharmini Ratnasingam, a professional trombonist, still remembers how moved she was when she first heard it. “It had such a beautiful sound,” she told Al Jazeera. “I could feel it travelling through the floor and up to my heart. It was an amazing feeling.”

 Students watch ‘wayang kulit’, or shadow puppetry [Reuters]

She joined gamelan group Rhythm in Bronze in 1997, and the ensemble, which specialises in a more contemporary sound, is preparing for their next performance in November.

Popularising the gamelan

They’re also trying to introduce the gamelan to Malaysian children. Some 150 kids auditioned for a role in a specially commissioned show with just 25 parts available. Only two of them knew what the gamelan was.

The instrument is “difficult technically, but it’s very approachable”, Ratnasingam said. “It’s a journey for the children. At the beginning it was a big game, but then they clicked. It’s like they can all talk one language. They have that special bond.”

Peperangan Bintang has created a strong bond between Pak Dain and Tintoy Chuo as well. The puppets are all made in Pak Dain’s studio in Kelantan. Each one takes about three days. While Chuo sketches out the design concept, 62-year-old Pak Dain ensures both puppets and performance are rooted firmly in the traditions of Wayang Kulit.

As the 20-minute show came to an end, the words, “Akan Bersambang…” or “To be continued…” appeared on the screen. It’s a nod to Star Wars, but also to the longevity of the ancient tradition of shadow puppetry, and the two men’s dream to develop more characters and stage a full one-hour performance.

Pak Dain said he feels immensely proud when he takes up his position behind the screen. “People start opening their eyes. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘they can do that?’ People get excited. They want to watch. Me, a traditional artist in shadow puppets, would like to thank Tintoy very much.”

Follow Kate Mayberry on Twitter: @Kate_Mayberry

Source: Al Jazeera