Life in Shadows

TRADITION & EVOLUTION

LIFE IN SHADOWS

By Constantine Korsovitis

10 May 2019

The art of Wayang or Shadow theater goes back a long way and has remained untouched for centuries, until a Malaysian puppet master recently gave it
a new Force and a modern appeal.

There is no definite evidence on where and when shadow theater  originated first, as there are many varieties throughout SE Asia, India, China and the Middle East, but in Javanese literature it is already mentioned around 1,000 AD as a well-known performance.

While each nation in SE Asia has its own distinct culture, they share common cultural, religious and racial characteristics, as a result of complex relationships that go back for more than 1,000 years. There is much richness in these diverse cultures, with shadow theater being the singular voice throughout the region and a true testament to India’s cultural influence in the area.

For the traders, it was a way of sharing the rich culture of their homeland and for the priests an easy vehicle to spread their faith. It captures the strength and fluidity of these relationships, as well as expressing the past and potential of the region.

Far from being just entertainment, the wayang has been used in significant events such as births, marriages, funerals, protection of crops or as offerings to a god. Its use of the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata has transformed a theater tradition into a ritual. Saturated with meaning, along with personal and universal narratives. It integrates topics ranging from nature, to sensitive cultural, social and religious issues, and the examination of conflict between characters is extremely complex.

Shadow theater has been significant in the development of culture and values in SE Asia, both philosophical and moral. It is one of the most spiritually significant art forms of the region. Its simple message of good versus evil, light and darkness made it enjoyable and simple to understand. It was easy to assimilate it onto the local culture and religion. Influences include Islamic teachings, Javanese Animism, Hindu Mythology and local folklore. It is one of the oldest traditions of storytelling in the world, with UNESCO in 2003 declaring it as a masterpiece of oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Puppets

An oil lamp is used onto a cotton screen, the puppets are two- dimensional, traditionally made from buffalo hide and painted in beautiful colors. Every element of the Wayang has symbolic meaning as well as its practical use. The screen (Kelir) symbolizes the universe, the light source is the sun, the banana log where the puppets are kept symbolizes the earth to which man is eternally connected to. The puppet master himself (Dalang) is the medium between gods and humans, the manipulator of fate. The shadows he creates are the fragile and ephemeral existence of human nature. The performance begins after sundown with a long introduction from the orchestra, around 9pm. The puppets on the right side represent the good guys and the left the bad. The play is broken into three stages. The first sets out where the story has taken place, usually in a palace. The characters are introduced and a conflict of interest develops. A problem to be solved. The second phase, which begins around midnight, deals with counter plots, battles and confusion reigns. The hero of the story does battle with all his enemies, and having surpassed every obstacle, the third stage is a celebration, with great rejoicing, music and dance. The performance finishes around sunrise and the tree of life returns to the center of the stage. With the Universe back in balance, the story finishes.

While nothing has changed since the 16th century, preserving the art form faces many challenges. Many of the masters make their own puppets, play all the traditional instruments, learn long texts in ancient languages, sing, study movement and rhythm, as well as performing for long periods of time. It is important to understand the level of skill and dedication that is required to become a master Dalang. Most of them struggle to make a living from their chosen art form. They are teachers, farmers, factory workers by day and humble artists by night. The journey ahead faced by these artists is uncertain and a long one. In a life consumed by urbanization and pop culture, the loss of faith in the traditional is a fact. The lack of use of modern language makes shadow theater look outdated and part of a past that has long gone. Competing with other forms of entertainment has proven difficult.

Shadow Movie 5 PakDain © Constantine Korsovitis
Shadow Movie 4 PakDain © Constantine Korsovitis

May the Force be with Wayang

While many puppet masters have added some modern language and technology to their performances, most of them stick to traditional stories and language. One puppet master has dared to go against the grain and has created a new storyline and approach to shadow theater on an original idea from KL-based designer, Tintoy Chuo, who decided to combine Malaysian culture and science fiction. His name is Pak Daim and he is from Tumpat, in Malaysia.

Together with art director Take Huat, they created the first show, Peperangan Bintang. His love for shadow theater and Star Wars appealed to Pak Daim, who is the 13th accredited master puppeteer of the Kelantan traditional Malay shadow play. After initial conversations they decided to work together on such a project. They called it Fusion Wayang Kulit. With permission from Lucasfilm in Oct 2013, they had their first performance.

It took about three months to create the first character, after much research on design, colors, and tradition. Pak Daim was adamant that all puppets must be created according to traditional methods in Kelantan. We must pay respect to the old in order to move forward. Fifty years ago, Wayang Kulit was the only form of theatrical entertainment. The idea was to make it more relevant to a younger audience, while still holding clear the principal philosophy and beliefs of shadow theater. Taking the classic setting and giving it a futuristic edge. The performance will come to include, sound design, lighting, animation and music.

With over 30 years of experience in shadow theater Pak Daim expected a backlash to their performances but the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The younger members loved the show and knew all the characters. Both parents and the academics enjoyed the experience. Even the traditional puppet masters, despite their misgivings, congratulated him on his new venture, followed by other performances with super heroes, including Batman, the latest being Shazam, which teasers has just been out. Asked what his main focus of the performance is, Pak Daim mentioned that innovation and challenging the spirit were on top of his list. To transform cultures in order to bring our lives closer. To share our stories.

So where does shadow theater sit in the broad spectrum of life, in a rapidly changing world? With a wave of divergent cultures and art forms to compete with, is it the truth or an imagined spirituality? This has been their cinema since the time of Javas Hindu Kingdoms. The soft light lends itself to the ability of the Dalang to make us dream. Local characters appear next to
gods and heroes. There is magic in the art form, sophistication, sensitivity and a keen sense of storytelling. Its natural adaptability to modern times and its educational and cultural values has helped it survive, and it proves still relevant and a source of pleasure for millions of people in Southeast Asia.