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!!

Radical self-expression, cake & spirituality: Larry Harvey sketches Burning Man 2017 in Penang’s famous patisserie

Every year, thousands of people head to the Nevada desert in the US to watch a giant effigy burn spectacularly with fireworks and pyrotechnics, a reenactment of a winter solstice burning ritual much like Indians burning effigies of Ravana on Dusshera.

While Dusshera celebrates the victory of good over evil, the Burning Man Festival is an iconic arts event, believed to be the world’s largest interactive art exhibition, where thousands of people make and experience art while surviving in the harsh desert conditions with their own supplies and the charity of fellow ‘Burners’.

A temporary city, Black Rock City, comes up in the desert for the duration of the festival and disappears completely soon after the event. Looking for an experience of a lifetime, about 70,000 ‘Burners’, as the festivalgoers are called, participate to enjoy the 10 Burning Man principles at play – radical self-expression, radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.

No commerce is allowed, and Burners ‘gift’ each other art, food and other necessities to survive. The festival attracts everyone from hippies to Silicon Valley magnates and its phenomenal success is evident from its ticket sales this year – 30,000 tickets for the main shows were sold out within 30 minutes of going online. For a taste of what it’s really like, check this out.

I got a wonderful opportunity to meet the co-founder of the festival, Larry Harvey, when he was in Penang to attend the George Town Festival – a month-long arts & culture festival that celebrates community and heritage along with mind-blowing international cultural performances.


Rithy Panh, GTF director Joe Sidek and Larry Harvey at GTF 2016

Larry was a part of a talk titled ‘Stories, Humanity and What About the Arts?’ along with renowned Cambodian director Rithy Panh. The talk was a revelation, in terms of how two different personalities from vastly different worlds use human figures to give out seemingly different messages. Check out Rithy Panh’s work here.

I didn’t get to speak with Larry then, but was lucky enough to catch him at an unguarded moment at ChinaHouse – Penang’s most famous patisserie. ChinaHouse serves some of the yummiest cakes on the island and encourages visitors to explore the artist within while they satisfy their sugar cravings. Giant drawing sheets cover the tables and crayons are handy to doodle your favourite superhero or cat.


Patrons at ChinaHouse

The best drawings go up on display!

Patrons’ artwork on display at ChinaHouse

When I met Larry, he had just put down a green-coloured crayon and picked up his coffee mug.  Guess what he was drawing? The Burning Man 2017 effigy of course! “This place invites radical self-expression,” he remarked the moment I sat down. “That is one of Burning Man’s 10 principles!”

Munching on some chocolate cake, he added, “I’m already thinking of what I want next year’s Burning Man to look like. I was waiting for my food and I sketched a design that I thought might embody our theme. It’s going to be about spirituality and rituals next year.”
Sketch of the effigy that will be burnt at Burning Man Festival in 2017

“It won’t be anything supernatural, because we don’t pretend to be a religion. So, it won’t be about some supreme being, but it will very much be about the idea that being should be supreme,” he told me, showing me the first draft of the effigy that will be burnt in the Man Pavilion in 2017. Honestly, I felt a frisson of thrill when I saw it, like I was privy to something that others were dying to know about. This was back in August, when GTF was still in full swing. If you go to the website now, you can see a slight variation of this sketch on the site. I was also quite amazed that a five-day festival requires year-long, painstaking effort, from multiple actors.

Larry agreed, adding that building the effigy and the pavilion supporting it – called the Man Pavilion – itself requires a massive collaborative effort. And this would be just one among the many other interactive art works on display. “Many talents and many hands would be employed in creating the final design of the effigy,” he added. The Man Pavilion is located at the geographical centre of the Black Rock City and is the major attraction at the festival.

Larry’s enthusiasm about the festival, which turned 30 this year, is unwavering and infectious. The idea of community participating in art is still dear to him. “Burning Man is premised on the idea that we have to merge art with daily life and that it should require a community for its creation, a community participating in it in some fashion for it to be complete. It should also generate a community beyond the scope of the original artwork whenever it’s possible.”

Speaking about community transcending art, there are plans afoot to run the festival year-long at a separate location in Nevada. That’s excellent news for people complaining about tickets running out every year!

The Burning Man co-founder also had some interesting things to say about Penang and the George Town Festival. “GTF is diverse, just as Penang is. Even more so, since it draws people from around the world. It is certainly creative. I have met some very interesting artists while I was here and it seems to be growing. It brings thousands and thousands of people.”

Well, that is a meeting I won’t quite forget in a hurry. Now, let me log on and check if Burning Man 2017 tickets are available. Ciao!