Star Wars wayang kulit style

A distinctively Darth Vader-looking silhouette is projected on a screen as designer Chuo Yuan Ping, part of the team behind the Star Wars-inspired wayang kulit production, addresses the audience before a show at Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur.
A distinctively Darth Vader-looking silhouette is projected on a screen as designer Chuo Yuan Ping, part of the team behind the Star Wars-inspired wayang kulit production, addresses the audience before a show at Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Malaysian shadow- puppet masters give traditional art form a new lease of life by incorporating pop culture themes

KUALA LUMPUR•Darth Vader's distinctive helmet-headed silhouette swoops in to seize control of a spaceship, but this is not the movies - instead, his movements are being brought to life by a Malaysian shadow-puppet master behind a back-lit screen.

"Tell me, where are the plans that have been intercepted?" the puppeteer intones in Malay, drawing cheers from hundreds of spectators as they recognise Vader's baritone.

Traditional Indonesian and Malaysian shadow puppetry was once at the centre of South-east Asian art and culture, but it has lost its appeal steadily.

But three Malaysians hope to breathe new life into the art by updating it with Star Wars and other pop culture themes.

Leading the effort is Mr Chuo Yuan Ping, a designer and Star Wars buff who first crafted shadow puppets based on the movie for an art exhibit a few years ago.

His research for the project uncovered concerns about the state of the art, which is known as wayang kulit.

"At first, it was all about Star Wars, but later, I learnt how wayang kulit was a dying art form after speaking to many master puppeteers and I felt sad," said Mr Chuo, 43.

"All of us felt a responsibility to do more for this part of Malaysian culture."

Mr Chuo, his art director friend Teh Take Huat and master puppeteer Muhammad Dain Othman have performed a section of the original 1977 Star Wars film as a shadow play about a dozen times over the past two years.

Star Wars was chosen as the theme due to its near-universal appeal, as evidenced by the frenzy surrounding the December release of the latest big-screen instalment, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

"Even my mum knows Darth Vader," Mr Chuo said.

Traditionally based on Hindu epics, shadow puppetry was introduced to the region in the 15th century and promoted by Java's Hindu rulers.

It seeped throughout Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere as Muslim preachers used it as a way to spread Islam, the region's dominant religion today.

Puppeteers use sticks to orchestrate the movements of elaborately decorated leather puppets on a back-lit cotton screen and voice the characters, backed by a traditional gamelan percussion orchestra.

Wayang kulit is on Unesco's list of "masterpiece" human art forms, but radio, television and, now, digital entertainment increasingly relegate the genre to tourist consumption or the odd cultural show.

Rising Islamism has also led to restrictions on the art in conservative areas of Malaysia, due to its Hindu themes.

At a recent performance in a Kuala Lumpur square, a miked-up, sarong-wearing Muhammad Dain worked his puppets while sitting cross-legged behind the screen.

Behind him, a young sound engineer used a laptop to make the puppeteer's voice more Vader-like, to replicate R2-D2's digital-beep mutterings and to splash the screen with colourful lighting effects.

"We see the audiences happy and their perceptions about wayang kulit are changing, that it has legs," said Mr Chuo, who added that the team has invested more than US$10,000 (S$14,015) of their own money.

Mr Mohammad Sani Sukir, who took his family to watch the show, raved afterwards.

"By combining two things, one old and one new, into one package, this increases the attraction of wayang kulit," he said.

Mr Chuo felt a puppet master was needed to ensure the art form's integrity and aesthetics, and Muhammad Dain, 63, who runs a wayang kulit art gallery in his hometown in the rural northern Malaysian state of Kelantan, needed to be persuaded to do it.

"After months of talking, convincing and using a bit of The Force, he agreed to join and do this," Mr Chuo said with a laugh.

"I had to pass him my Star Wars DVD and let him know who Han Solo was."

Most of the puppets were made from tanned buffalo hide by skilled Kelantan craftsmen.

Government efforts to promote appreciation of wayang kulit have gained little traction, but private groups are forging ahead, said Mr Eddin Khoo, founder of a cultural non-profit group that stages performances of the art.

He called the Star Wars project "helpful" for wayang kulit.

Mr Chuo has expanded the idea by designing Superman, Batman and other superhero shadow puppets for exhibitions and may incorporate them in future shows.

"It's a little thing that I can do for Malaysian culture," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2015, with the headline 'Star Wars wayang kulit style'. Print Edition | Subscribe