Located in South East Asia, Malaysia, also known as the Malaysian Federation (Malay: Persekutuan Malaysia), consists of two regions: Peninsula Malaysia, which shares a land and maritime border with Thailand and maritime borders with Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia; and East Malaysia (Malaysian Borneo), which shares land and maritime borders with Brunei and Indonesia and a maritime border with the Philippines. Malaysia achieved independence from Great Britain in 1957 after almost two centuries of British presence in the region.
The major form of puppetry traditionally practised in Malaysia is shadow theatre, the wayang kulit, a term which may come from bayang or “shadow” and kulit or “hide”, “skin”. The origin is unclear, but researchers find it probable that it developed by at least the 18th century under Javanese and Siamese (Thai) cultural influences forming different cultural traits and following different languages according to points of origin. As in all forms of wayang kulit, the dalang is the ritual specialist, manipulator, and narrator. The silhouettes are finely cut from leather of water buffalo or sometimes goat, painted, and projected on a screen of white cotton (kelir). The dalang often has two assistants who are in charge of the set up of the apparatus, passing the puppets used during the performance, and contributing to the sound effects, meanwhile the music of the orchestra plays a fundamental role. The traditional instruments of the Malay wayang ensemble are an oboe/shawm (serunai) with seven holes or sometimes in its place a bowed lute (rebab), three drum types (gendang, gedombak, and geduk), and a variety of gong chime instruments.
In Malaysia there are four specific regional genres: wayang kelantan (earlier called wayang siam), wayang gedek, wayang purwa, and wayang melayu. It is believed that wayang kulit kelantan arrived in the state of Kelantan in the north-west from Thailand, which shares a border with Kelantan with related forms found as far away as Cambodia. One can see Thai influence in the appearance of characters and the music, while texts are Malay versions of the Ramayana. The Indian epic has become Hikyat Seri Rama (Story of Prince Rama) and depicts the hero’s struggle with Maharaja Wana (Ravana), with the dialogue in local Kelantanese dialect. The shadow figures are shown in profile and have a movable arm. The clown characters Pa Dogel and Wak Long are local variations on the god-clown figure found in most wayang genres. Performances have a stock opening in which mantra are read, two dewa panah battle, and a hermit appears. One can compare this to the ritual fight of the two Hanuman (black and white) that opens the Thai-Khmer shadow play.
Two well-known dalang of the recent generation are Hamzah bin Awang Amat (1940-2001), a prodigious artist and director of the troupe Seri Setia who after success in a festival in Kuala Lumpur in 1969 was invited to tour Europe, the United States, Turkey and various Asian countries. His talents went beyond performing, to being a musician, instrument builder, shaman, and puppet maker. His efforts in preserving the ancestral art led to his being awarded the title of Seniman Negara (National Artist) and teaching at the tertiary level. His son currently gives performances in schools as education about cultural tradition and may present to various groups of university students who are exploring heritage forms, but he questions the use of Ramayana tales given the increasing religious conservativism of Kelantan. Dollah Baju Merah (Dollah “Red Shirt”, 1937?-2005) got his name by giving a garment of red to each member of his troupe after he received his first real performance fee. He began at a young age and acquired wide renown, but his performances, too, lessened with the advent of modern entertainments. Questions about non-Islamic elements, rituals, and prayers associated with the performances rose from the 1990s as religious fundamentalism grew and this, along with challenges from modern media, negatively impacted the form which has gone from around 300 active dalang with frequent shows in the late 1960s to only a handful of performers with limited presentations by 2014.
Thai origins are recognizable in figures, movement style, and language of wayang gedek or nang talung, found in the north-east states of Kedah and Perlis. But here the figures are full face (not profile) and dialogue is in the Kedah dialect. Music features the Malay melodic instrument (the serunai) along with drums (gedombak, geduk), a pair of hanging gongs, and a pair of small standing gongs (kerincing).
Both wayang kulit purwa and wayang kulit melayu are Javanese influenced. The first genre is found in the state of Johor on the south-east coast of the Malaysian peninsula. Stories are adaptations of the Indian Mahabharata or the Indonesia Panji cycle played in Javanese or local dialect. Characters are notable for their use of type, recognizable from the size of the figures’ eye(s) and body. The gamelan orchestra is made up of gong chimes including a large hanging gong (gong agung) and ten or more other instruments: gambang (xylophone), suwokan (hanging gongs), gender, kenong, kempul, saron, slentem, peking (saron penerus), and ketok/kompang (all metalophones), rebab (a bowed lute), and a gendang (kendang, drum). Wayang kulit purwa continues to be performed occasionally.
It is primarily in Kelantan and Terengganu on the east coast that wayang melayu is practised. Stories are drawn from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Panji cycle, performed in the local dialect (or Javanese), and figures have two movable arms. The music ensemble has standing gongs (canang), hanging gongs (gong), mong, drums (gendang), and cymbals (kesi). The figures resemble the Javanese prototypes and demonic or strong characters have large staring eyes. Here the famous clowns of the wayang purwa of Java, Semar, Gareng, Petruk, are replaced by their Malay analogues –Pak Dogol and Wak Long. Characters, both benign and villainous, are identified by body type, stance, and headdress. The characters traditionally were easily identifiable by the public. Dalang Hussain of Kelantan who was already retiring in the 1990s is thought to be the last performer of wayang kulit melayu.
Despite differences, the four types represent Malaysian uniqueness. Presentations, having long been used for celebrations in rural and urban life, whether ritual or popular, are now rather rare. The wayang kelantan, due to its ritual and animistic links, was banned except for tourist demonstrations in its home state when the Islamic party (PAS) swept to power in the l990s. While dalang like Hamzah taught it in the National Academy of the Arts (Akadami Seni Kabangsaan, now known as ASWARA) or universities, drawing new students and audiences, his tendency was primarily to teach music rather than actual performance techniques. And so few new dalang are being trained. Contemporary artists in Kuala Lumpur and Penang today sometimes invite dalang to collaborate on experimental works, but traditional performances are seldom. New forms of media and entertainment assume the role wayang once played. Despite sporadic government recognition or international experiments (for example, a wayang based on Star Wars in 2014 spearheaded by animation firm owner Chuo Yuan Ping and shadow play performer from Kelantan, Muhammad Dain Othman, with help from the American embassy), to be a dalang in contemporary Malaysia is seen more as preserving cultural heritage than constructing the future. Some visual artists are exploring the translation of traditional puppetry such as wayang gedek into digital animation, but experiments are relatively short lived.
With immigration from China during the English colonial period, which began in 1824, Chinese puppet genres, whether glove/hand (budaixi), rod puppetry, or string puppetry, were imported. As in China, these performances sometimes had ritual functions and until the l980s one could often see glove puppet performances at temple festivals for ritual purposes. Constraints on Chinese representations began with the new pro-Malay cultural policies after ethnic race riots in 1969, thus the lessening of Chinese traditional puppetry, which can rarely be seen today.
Puppetry may appear in avant-garde productions or be incorporated into performances by or for children. Communities (Malay, Chinese, or Indian) may seek to revivify past puppetry traditions as part of cultural heritage activities, but the lively puppetry of the Malay past is better represented in the scholarly research of figures like Dr Ghulam Sawar – see (http://gsyousof.com/?page_id=7, accessed 22, Feb 2012) – than in everyday life. However, Malaysia under Ghulam Sawar’s leadership has been active in hosting South East Asian puppetry gatherings and ASWARA, the arts academy, is planning to host a major South East Asian puppetry initiative in 2014. Such events can help renew interest in what was a lively heritage of puppetry.