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Shadow Puppet Theatre

With the introduction of modern forms of entertainment such as the Internet, television and radio, traditional performances have taken a backseat in today’s modern lifestyle. Although less common these days, traditional shows are still nevertheless strong expression of a particular culture. Some have withstood the test of time and are still going strong today.

Wayang Kulit is one such activity which holds great prominence in many South East Asian cultures (including Malaysia), having entertained a great number of people since its introduction to the region around two thousand years ago. It is currently still practiced in Malaysia, particularly in the states of Kelantan, Kedah, Perlis and Terengganu. Wayang Kulit usually becomes one of the cultural highlight when travelling to Kelantan, Malaysia.

Wayang Kulit or Shadow Puppet is a traditional theatre presentation shown during major festivals in Malaysia. Wayang Kulit is an old cultural entertainment using a shadow puppet theater—puppeteers control elaborate puppets behind a screen, while a source of light casts the puppets’ shadows on the screen. By moving the shadows around the screen while accompanied by a musical ensemble, the dalang (the master puppeteer and conductor) narrates the story and presents an intriguing performance.

The puppets of Wayang Kulit are usually made from leather, and the detailed props typically require weeks of careful work to produce. After drawing the rough outline on leather, the puppets are then carefully inspected, cut and prepared by a skilful craftsman. The puppets are then painted and lastly fitted with moving parts and sticks so that they can be manipulated during a performance.

Puppet shows in South East Asia is believed to have started in Indonesia around first century AD, introduced by traders from India as a form of cultural entertainment performed in festivals. For a time, the puppet shows featured Hindu classics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and was instrumental in spreading Hinduism across the Malay Archipelago. The puppet shows are believed to have eventually spread into Malaysia.

 

Wayang Kulit in Malaysia typically shows either local tales or ancient stories such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. 4 kinds of wayang kulit can be found in Malaysia, amongst them are Wayang Kulit Kelantan (oldest and most well-known kind of Wayang Kulit in Malaysia), Wayang Kulit Melayu (developed in the 19th and 20th centuries under the patronage of Malay aristocracy and royalty), Wayang Kulit Gedek (a Thai-inspired version and usually performed with a mix of Malay and Thai language) and the Wayang Kulit Purwa (meaning Ancient Puppet Play, it retains many of the features of the Indonesian Wayang Kulit).

 

Today, Wayang Kulit is commonly included in various large events and cultural festivals, such as handicraft exhibitions, city hall parades, Penang George Town Festival and others. The practice is also often featured at cultural centres and temples, where interest in this cultural heritage is still going strong.