Shadow Play

8 01 2021

Growing up at a time when, and in space where my cultural experiences had little to do with the state prescribed definition of my ethnicity, has given me a wonderful set of childhood memories. There was much that I took joy from in a household were the languages used and the food we enjoyed was anything but what one might have expected. Some of my fondest memories were of the interactions with my grandmother. Having come across from the Dutch East Indies before the war and being conversant only in Bahasa Indonesia, she had a penchant for watching reruns of P Ramlee movies on black and white television, doing her shopping at Kampong Jawa (Arab Street) and catching screenings of Kelantanese wayang kulit or shadow puppet performances that aired on Radio Television Malaysia 2 (RTM2 — or Channel 10 as its was then better known as).

Wayang kulit, which has its origins in pre-Islamic Java, is something I still enjoy watching, although what we see now of it in Malaysia and in Singapore seems quite different from the performances that I caught seated next to my grandmother all those years back. That would have been in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the ancient art form — used for generations as a vehicle for the handing down of oral traditions — was still expressed in a manner that was little changed, and featured characters and stories rooted in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. A rise in religious consciousness, particularly in Kelantan where the art form had a particularly large following where a ban was imposed in the wayang kulit performances in the 1990s, saw to a gradual changed to a more modern form that we tend to see today with non-religious and contemporary characters and stories being introduced.

While the tradition has been greatly modified here, it is still very much alive in its spiritual home in Central Java — assisted perhaps by its inscription as one of several forms of Indonesian wayang theatre on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List since 2008. It is not only possible to watch performances there, but also see how the puppets are made from water buffalo hide. The process of making a puppet from a piece of cured hide is a painstaking one and involves carefully cutting the hide to shape, hand-punching patterns and painting each character over a period of up to two months.

The following are some photographs taken at a workshop in Yogyakarta during a visit in 2013, a visit that included a bonus in the form of an impromptu performance put up by a dalang or master puppeteer:

Revisiting the Ramayana

26 03 2010

My introduction to the Ramayana was a brief and uninformed one all those years back when as a five-year old child being cared for by my maternal grandmother I would sit with her through whatever kept her amused her on the television set. Besides the doses of P. Ramlee and Pontianak movies which seemed to be regular features on the few television stations that existed back then. Another programme that would keep her entertained was the Kelantanese shadow puppet play which was based on the tales passed down through the generations based on stories from the Ramayana. It was only later perhaps, when an introduction to the history of Singapore as a primary school student, in which emphasis was placed on the races and religions of Singapore, and in secondary school, where the history of India was taught, that I developed a deeper appreciation for the Ramayana.

Shadow puppets on display at the Peranakan Museum.

The Ramayana as most of us would know, is an epic tale revolving around the universal theme of the triumph of good over evil, that has its roots in Hinduism, which has spread in various forms and interpretations throughout much of Asia. The storyline in itself, revolving around the central characters of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata and the monkey god Hanuman who participate in a struggle against Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, which includes stories of love and conquest, is fascinating enough to keep the audiences enthralled. The message brought by the epic tale has served as a powerful means to impart values onto the societies that have embraced Hinduism and Buddhism at some point in their history, and the tales have kept generations of young and old captivated both through the creative means by which the story is related throughout Asia, puppetry and other forms of live performances being commonly used as a means.

Shadow puppets on display. Shadow puppets are made of cow or buffalo hide.

Travelling through much of South-East Asia, one would come across the many forms – masks and puppets being seen throughout much of Indonesia, where the art was thought to have originated from, and Indochina, where it is believed to have taken root since early Angkorian times. This is still seen in Cambodia where the Sbeik Thom shadow puppet play depicts scenes from the Ramayana, and Sbeik Touch, is used to depict plays on daily village life.

Shadow puppetry as seen in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It is believed that the artform, originating from Indonesia, had existed in Cambodia since early Angkorian times.

Live performances of the Ramayana take place throughout South-East Asia in many forms. Masks and costumes are also used in live plays as seen a a theatre in Siem Reap.

Mask Detail: An exhibit at the Ramayana Revisited Exhibition.

In Thailand, the version of the Ramayana told there, the Ramakien has become an important component of the Siamese culture and is in fact the national epic, is performed in many ways, through dance and other forms of theatre, including puppetry and Nang – one of the first methods used for the performance of the Ramakien. Nang is the Siamese version of shadow puppetry adopted by the Thais, and would have its roots in the Indonesian and Angkor versions. The Ramakien has, along with the traditional cast of characters from the Ramayana, also some of its own, including Maiyarap, the Lord of the Underworld, who features prominently in the rather interesting form of puppet play that is performed by the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre. Various scenes from the Ramakien are enacted daily at a theatre at the Suan Lum area near Lumpini Park in Bangkok. In this, more than one puppeteer manipulates the puppet, standing behind it. The puppeteers are visible to the audience and actually mimic the movement of the puppets throughout the show.

A puppeteer at the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre in Bangkok showing a smaller version of the puppets used at the theatre.

The shadow puppet play, which in this part of the world, Wayang Kulit, that I sat through with my grandmother all those years back is possible the first means by which the story was related in much of South-East Asia, having its origins in the Javanese form that pre-dates the arrival of Hinduism in South-East Asia. In this, puppets made of cow or buffalo hide are used to cast shadows on a white sheet, with the movements and voices of the characters controlled by a master puppeteer, known as the Tok Dalang, accompanied by the captivating music of the Gamelan, used to depict scenes from both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. This was a thriving art form in what is now a muslim Indonesia and Malaysia, despite the Hindu origins of the stories. Much of it has been adapted using the characters from the stories such as Sri Rama and Sita Dewi, and in some versions there is a bit of comic amusement introduced by the characters of court jesters, Pak Dogol and Wak Long.

Kelantanese shadow puppets on display at the Ramayana Revisited exhibition at the Peranakan Museum.

Casting a bright shadow ... shadow puppetry is a simple form of theatre that has kept generations entertained throughout much of South-East Asia.

A scene from Wayang Kulit Siam - a display at the Ramayana Revisited exhibition.

Wayang Kulit has always fascinated me since that early introduction by my grandmother, who having come from the island of Java, had herself been fascinated with the tales of the Ramayana in the form of the dancing shadows, since her childhood. The fascination is one that has also been fed perhaps by my father, who as a scout master, tried his hand at his own version of shadow puppet play using cardboard cut-outs, a kerosene lamp and a white bed sheet, as campfire entertainment. With the Ramayana Revisited exhibition on at the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, which along with the various depictions of the tale from the India, also has displays associated with the many forms that have taken root in South-East Asia, I was glad to have been reminded of this fascination I have had with both the Ramayana and Wayang Kulit, as well as with bringing those wonderful memories of sitting beside my grandmother all those years ago as a five-year old boy back to me.