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Shadow Puppetry: The Dying Art

Without culture, who are we at the end of the day? What makes us different from others?

Image via Tourism Malaysia

Sitting cross legged with a bare light bulb suspended between him and the translucent screen, the shadow master (dalang) holds a two-dimensional shadow puppet crafted from goatskins and lightly presses it onto the screen. Holding the puppet by a mere stick held vertically, the light shines brightly behind him.

As he moves the figures, sounds of drums, gongs, and horn rise to the crescendo, bringing to live the art of shadow play. Dancing to the story weaved by the dalang, stories of local and morally linked issues are told. As he goes along, he improvises the story based on the great epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, elegantly displaying eastern philosophies of culture. 

The days of such great storytellers who passed down their great stories of culture are numbered. The spirit of the wind is passing and if we are ignorant enough to let it pass us by we will lose our identity. Struggling to survive in the brink of modernity, it’s a miracle that it has withstood the challenges so far. 

The millennium brought many challenges to traditional Malay art, especially the cherished Wayang Kulit. Its close link to Hinduism and the portrayals of some of its characters caused uproar in the Islamic scene of Malaysia especially in the east coast. In Kelantan, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) pulled the plug on shadow puppetry in 2001, banning performance and rituals of shadow puppetry. 

The emergence of this ban on shadow puppetry rituals like the ‘berjamu’ ceremony caused many shadow masters to stop practicing the art. Interpreted as a direct insult not only to the art they practiced but their profession and principles, they refused to compromise. The refusal to play shadow puppetry under stifling conditions caused the tremendous decline of this art form. 

Higher authorities beyond human powers must have heard the cries of the dalangs and art lovers alike, because in 2003, UNESCO recognised Wayang Kulit as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The title brought deeper meaning in Malaysia, with extensive changes within the country. (The ban on wayang kulit was lifted soon after). 

Gaining new respect, shadow puppetry began getting massive publicity and funding. Wayang kulit troupes from Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (ASK) were sent overseas to promote the beautiful culture of puppetry. Despite these measures the problems of extinction still exist due to the lack of skilled practitioners. The transference of shadow master’s skill to his protégé experiences many difficulties due to communication, geographical location and accessibility. 

Thus we need to preserve the art, by educating the younger generation so that long term benefits can be reaped for the dying art. The contribution of young practitioners in this field is essential to promote and educate youths of its importance. It is very easy to let tradition pass you by without even realising its impact in our lives. 

Wayang kulit not only builds character but also teaches the individual to work in teams and multi-task through its ensemble. According to a young practitioner of shadow puppetry, Hafizah Jaafar, being modern is one thing but forgetting your roots and culture is another story altogether. ‘Knowing who I am in the past and present will help me to know myself better in the future. To be complete, I have to know my own roots and that’s the reason I’m an educator’. 

Realising the importance of traditional art, institutions like Akademi Seni Kebangsaan Malaysia (ASK) and programmes like Teater Muda, Anak-anak kota, Penang Heritage Heboh and others which emphasise on heritage and traditional Malay art have been trying to educate the younger generation to appreciate these forms of art. 

If we don’t take heed, one day we will look back and realise that we have lost all our culture. Without culture, who are we at the end of the day? What makes us different from others? The younger generation need to think beyond the surface, after all, to be modern and to be realistic is one thing, but to be ignorant towards the past is a fatal mistake we do not want to make! 

The struggle continues…

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Cheryl Withaneachi
Written By

Cheryl is an educator, ed-tech enthusiast and partnership builder. She empowers individuals to shape personalised tech integrated programmes to socially engage their audiences. In the past, she has written for Essenze Malaysia and IN Penang and continues to play a pivotal role in the development of young critical minds via Lift as You Rise and as an educator at INTI. Follow her on LinkedIn.

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