A New Hope

 

A New Hope

 
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How a Hindu epic inspired a Malaysian art form that survived attacks by Islamists and learned to love Star Wars.

( Roads & kingdoms / Slate )

 
 
 

The state of Kelantan moves to a different rhythm from the rest of Malaysia. It’s the Islamic heartland of the country, where the weekend starts on Thursday evenings to free up Fridays for prayer congregations. Walking past the Siti Khadijah Central Market, where female traders have traditionally been dominant, I saw a poster warning Muslim women to refrain from wearing “sexy” or “tight” clothing, or risk a fine up to 1,000 ringgit and/or imprisonment for up to six months. “Guard your honor,” it decreed.

Later, I entered a scuffed building and climbed a flight of stairs to a community club hall, where a small crowd had gathered—mostly local university students—with girls and boys sitting in separate sections. Their chatter dropped to a hush as the show began: “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away …”

The words, however, appeared in Malay, projected onto a white, muslin cloth mounted on a metal frame on a stage. A man sat cross-legged behind the cloth and began to speak, preparing to trot out puppet versions of the usual suspects from the first 20 minutes of the 1977 Star Wars film, Episode IV: A New Hope.

This was the Malaysian art of puppet theater, called wayang kulit—literally, “theater of skin,” for the cowhide used to make the puppets—with a twist, and this man was the all-important tok dalang, or master puppeteer. Muhammad Dain Othman, 64, whom everyone calls Pak (“Uncle”) Dain, most enjoys playing the villain. As Darth Vader made a grand entrance, accompanied by the digital distortion of Pak Dain’s voice and the familiar refrain of “The Imperial March,” the nine-man band wielded an assortment of traditional percussion instruments, with the plaintive wail of the double-reed oboe, the serunai, leading the melody.

 
 
 
 Wayang kulit puppet of Princess Leia. (Photo by Teh Take Huat.)

Wayang kulit puppet of Princess Leia. (Photo by Teh Take Huat.)

 Wayang kulit puppet of R2-D2. (Photo by Teh Take Huat.)

Wayang kulit puppet of R2-D2. (Photo by Teh Take Huat.)

 
 
 

Wayang kulit has not always had such a positive reception in Kelantan. In 1990, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which professes a mission to establish an Islamic state in Malaysia, was elected to the state government. It outlawed wayang kulit, which is traditionally based on the Ramayana epic, along with other traditional Malay performance arts, to root out what it sees as un-Islamic influences. Kelantan is located along Peninsular Malaysia's northeastern border with Thailand, and as such, it has always been receptive to outside influences. Many of these traditional performance arts are rooted in Hindu and animist traditions, which held sway over South East Asia before Islam arrived.

The ban seemed nonsensical to most residents, considering the wayang kulit tradition goes back more than 250 years in this region and is primarily practiced by Malays, who make up 95 percent of the state population and who are predominantly Muslim, since Malays are considered to be Muslims under the Malaysian Constitution. In reality, however, culture and religion are not so neatly aligned, and the ban is emblematic of the conflict between Malaysia’s pluralist cultural history and the Islamist political vision that is on the rise, influenced by movements in the Middle East. 

Despite the ban, performances continued because of wayang kulit’s long-established role in the lives of the Kelantanese, though the number of master puppeteers has dwindled to fewer than ten. Pak Dain says that the ban has since—informally, anyway—been relaxed and that performances are permitted as long as they eschew the Ramayana for stories from Malay literature, emphasize morality, and are intended for entertainment purposes only, and as long as they avoid spiritual rituals that traditionally attended shows for important occasions like harvests and births. Still, most master puppeteers tend to stick to the Ramayana epic as it’s synonymous with wayang kulit, and they have nonetheless avoided repercussions. Institutionally approved performances catering primarily to tourists take place at the Cultural Center of Kota Bharu, while the authorities turn a blind eye to shows performed in the outlying villages.

A Star Wars-inspired wayang kulit, then, is safe from the censors. It’s the brainchild of two friends from Kuala Lumpur, “Tintoy” Chuo and Teh Take Huat, a character designer for video games and an art director at an advertising agency. Aside from indulging their geek fandom, they hope to bring more young people to wayang kulit, which has dwindled in the last two decades due to the vagaries of politics, urbanization and modern entertainment. Using Star Wars to popularize, well, anything is a familiar trope, and for good reason: It’s effective. As Tintoy said, “Even my mother knows who Darth Vader is.” It’s why this performance was happening, at the request of a British television crew filming a travel show. And it's partly why I, hitherto ignorant of my own country’s traditional arts, had come to Kelantan.

When Tintoy and Take Huat started, they had two puppet prototypes of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker and not much else, until they found Pak Dain. The most challenging task was getting Pak Dain to watch A New Hope, Take Huat joked. “We would call him and he would say, ‘I’ll watch it next week.’ Then we would call him again, and he would say, ‘OK, next week.’” Considering wayang Kulit's venerable history, Pak Dain waited several months before finally agreeing to a collaboration for a show. Ultimately, he was satisfied that the Star Wars story and the modifications required to tell it—the projector used instead of a bulb for backlighting, the plastic used to make the white Stormtroopers because cowhide was too yellow, the motifs and details added to the Star Wars puppets to localize them—were compatible with wayang kulit, since it’s a form which inherently provides ample room for improvisation. “Pak Dain is a traditional Kelantanese puppeteer, and he wanted to make sure that we were committed to doing it correctly,” Tintoy said.

 
 
 
 Hidden behind the cowhide screen, Pak Nawi performs a "branch story" of the Hikayat Maharaja Wana.

Hidden behind the cowhide screen, Pak Nawi performs a "branch story" of the Hikayat Maharaja Wana.

 
 
 

Eddin Khoo, the founder of an organization based in Kuala Lumpur called Pusaka, which documents and conserves Malaysia’s traditional performance arts, is decidedly skeptical about the Star Wars project, calling it “gimmicky.” He’s bothered by the idea that it might be “reviving” or “modernizing” the art form. “In fact, wayang kulit has never not evolved. It has constantly adapted with the times, and that’s nothing new,” he said.

The Ramayana epic, which would take at least 30 days to perform in its entirety (and that's just the "trunk story") tells of the odyssey of an exiled prince called Rama—known as Seri Rama in the Malay context—on a quest to rescue his beautiful wife, Sita Dewi, from the demon king Ravana—known as Maharaja Wana. When the epic first arrived in Kelantan in the form of wayang kulit, it underwent a process of secularisation. “Wayang kulit is mainly practiced here by Malay-Muslims, and they cannot deify this tradition. So they’ve made the Ramayana epic more human, more like themselves,” Eddin said.

The result is the Hikayat Maharaja Wana, where the focus shifts from Seri Rama, the romantic hero, to Maharaja Wana, the central antagonist. In one part of the story, Seri Rama brutally banishes Siti Dewi after her rescue due to his suspicion that she had been unfaithful to him while in captivity. “Seri Rama is actually despised by many people in Kelantan because he is vain, arrogant, and egotistical,” Eddin said. “On the other hand, Maharaja Wana has great sympathy among the people. He may be a kidnapper and a thug, but his love for Siti Dewi is more sincere and more pure than Seri Rama’s love for her.” Unlike in India, where Ramayana is regarded as a deity, the Malay retelling doesn’t glorify the prince.

Sometime after the ban was instituted, Kelantan saw the rise of “modern” wayang kulit, which Pak Dain and Eddin both credit to the late master puppeteer Dollah Abdullah Ibrahim—known as Dollah Baju Merah ("Red Shirt")—who earned a reputation in Kelantan for his bold innovations before he died in 2005. He continued to work within the framework of the Hikayat Maharaja Wana, but brought in foreign elements, like Bollywood music, as well as integrating political satire and humorous social commentary. Eddin worked with him closely for many years, and describes him affectionately as a dalang samseng—hooligan puppeteer, an anti-authoritarian with a gentle manner. Pak Dain recalled one performance, attended by the local police, in which Dollah Baju Merah mercilessly mocked corrupt policemen, and was shut down mid-show and banned from performing for a year. Another of his more memorable performances apparently featured an imam puppet with a permanent erection. As Eddin said, wayang kulit isn’t just about telling a story. “It can be very subversive, a danger to formal politics.”

It’s not clear who will take on Dollah Baju Merah's mantle. His troupe took three years to recover from his passing before bringing on a new master puppeteer. Today, the troupe is associated with Eddin's Pusaka and is led by 60-year-old Muhammad Noor Hasson, known as Pak Nawi, and the master musician Abdul Rahman, known as Abang ("Brother") Man. To experience a traditional wayang kulit performance, I went to visit them in a Malay village called Machang, a 40-minute drive from Kota Bharu, away from the prying eyes of the state.

The troupe had decided to perform at the last minute, but there was no hurried pow-wow before they opened the show, no talk of what story would be performed, no ironing out of logistics. Instead, we lounged on the verandah of Abang Man's house eating keropok while discussing the virtues and foibles of the characters in the Ramayanic universe. The troupe members knew their repertoire so well they were ready to perform at a moment’s notice. The genius of a master puppeteer is his ability to improvise, to pick a story based on the audience and the mood of the troupe. No two performances—even of the same story—are ever the same.

 
 
 

Pak Nawi and Abang Man shoot the breeze before the performance.

Dinner for Pak Nawi and Abang Man’s troupe before the performance.

 
 
 

Once it was dark out, we moved to an open pavilion in the village reserved for community events. Pak Nawi took his seat on the floor and puffed on what remained of his cigarette, his hat spun impishly backward and his puppets at the ready, while Abang Man and the band sitting behind him launched into the opening score. Men, women, and children had gathered before the pavilion as well as behind it, to better watch Pak Nawi weave his subtle magic as he called upon the full range of his voice, mannerisms, and wit to bring each character to life.

I didn’t detect anything subversive in this particular performance, but perhaps the fact that it was happening at all was enough. Unlike Dollah Baju Merah, Pak Nawi adheres to the traditional school of wayang kulit, which he says emphasizes the narrative over easy laughs, though there was plenty of laughter anyway. He improvised dialogue and poetry, he sang, and when it was called for, he screeched. It was all very informal: the troupe talked and laughed and smoked between acts. The audience came and went, and then came back. Unlike at the community club hall in the city, where the stage was elevated and at a distance, there was an intimacy and immediacy to the performance here that was exhilarating.

Beyond the broad outline of what was happening—a confrontation between Seri Rama and two warriors serving Maharaja Wana—I didn’t understand very much of what was going on. The play was performed in the customary Kelantanese-Pattani dialect of Malay, which is distinct from the formal Malay language I learned at school. But I remembered something Eddin had said.

“Look, wayang kulit is not about understanding, sometimes,” he told me. “It’s a total experience. Liberate your senses from the mind, man.”

 
 
 

Pak Nawi smokes a cigarette just before the show starts.

The youngest of the troupe: Abang Man's talented son plays multiple instruments.

 The backstage attracts almost as large an audience.

The backstage attracts almost as large an audience.