The Puppetmistress

In the age of Netflix and an unending stream of good-quality shows, who has the time for a childish pastime like puppetry? Or so I thought, until I happened to catch a showcase of wayang kulit – a traditional Malaysian puppetry show – in George Town. That show turned out to be my first tryst with Southeast Asian puppetry and I have seen many more forms, from puppets the size of my hand (Potehi) to puppets two times taller than me over the one year I have lived in Penang. Apparently, it’s not just for kids!

Any artform is a veritable window into the local culture of a place and wayang kulit, literally, shadow play, is no exception. More popular in Kelantan state of Malaysia, wayang kulit can be understood as wayang, meaning “theater,” and kulit, meaning “skin,” referring to the leather puppets used to portray shadows on a white screen. The puppeteer, or tok dalang, sits behind a screen and presses the intricately carved leather puppets onto it, creating shadow play. Here’s the amazing part: in every showcase, a single puppeteer animates ALL the puppets and voices ALL of them! There could be around 40 characters in a play, but the tok dalang will single-handedly manage all the puppets and animate them!

Music is a big part of the performance; the tok dalang is always be accompanied by traditional musicians who perform the opening song, in-between melodies and background score. They usually sit on mats behind the master puppeteer and play accompanying music with traditional Malay percussion and wind instruments, like barrel drums, gongs, cymbals and a traditional oboe. The performance often starts with a tree of life motif (with two giant leaves being pressed repeatedly onto the screen) and the troupe playing a traditional song.

Tok dalang animates leather puppets behind the curtain. Source:

From what I understood, wayang kulit is most popular in the villages of Kelantan state if Malaysia, where interestingly, there is wayang kulit festival held every year. In fact, even the performance I saw was by a troupe from Kelantan. Interestingly, the wayang kulit of Kelantan most often tells stories of the Hikayat Maharaja Wana, an oral epic poem derived from Ramayana.  The main story is about two brothers, Seri Rama and Laksmana, who are the sons of a king. Instead of either one becoming the next king, both brothers along with Rama’s wife, Sita Dewi, are banished from the kingdom. Maharaja Wana (Ravan) then kidnaps Sita Dewi and takes her to Langkapuri (Lanka), from where Seri Ram, along with the help of the brave monkey warrior Hanuman, must rescue her.

Sounds familiar? Well, if you are imagining a Ramleela type of unfolding of events, you are sorely mistaken! Wayang kulit has taken inspiration from Ramayana but adapted it completely to the local context. The dialogues, for instance, are in Kelantanese and the supporting cast often includes local characters like monks or court jesters. What’s more, to attract Gen Y, puppeteers have started introducing minions, Star Wars characters and Mickey Mouse! Talk about adaptations!

The puppets are also painted in various hues, adding another layer of creativity and dynamism to the ancient art form.

Wayang kulit has an interesting performance tradition. In the rural villages of Kelantan, the puppet show often starts in the evening as a form of entertainment and perhaps goes on the entire night! The audiences sit on both sides of the screen, chat amongst themselves, step out to buy some essentials, have a meal and mill around – becoming an active part of the performance, instead of a mere passive audience. The puppetry show acts as a communal activity, wherein the audience isn’t expected to merely sit and listen, but move about, and perhaps even interact with some of the cast members as the performance goes on.

The performance I saw was held at the Hock Teik Sein Chin temple in UNESCO World Heritage Site George Town. The temple has a square courtyard and a stage where the troupe Wayang Kulit Seri Warisan Pusaka performed that night with members aged between 13 and 70; five among them were from a single family. Like many traditional art forms, the skills have been passed on from generation to generation within families.

What I really found interesting was how the puppetry show was a communal activity (even in its modern avatar). The concept of a ‘moving audience’ intrigued me. As it is, every person experiences art differently, and to add another dimension to that experience by encouraging audiences to move about, get different perspectives and go backstage, made the experience richer in my opinion.
And this is just one experience! I have many more to share with you. Like I said, puppetry – who knew!!

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