Puppetmistress, I admire thee!

As I float back to Planet Penang from the heavenly Luang Prabang, I remember that this blog is called Penang Diaries. So, let’s get back to telling stories of Penang! Today is World Puppetry Day!


Having experienced a myriad of puppetry forms in the short two years that I have come to Penang, I can’t help but join the artists celebrating this day! In fact, it takes me back to a very cool puppet show that I had the pleasure of watching recently. It was a unique collaboration of puppetry forms from ASEAN countries and Japan, organised by the ASEAN Puppet Exchange or APEX. The venue was the historic MBPP Townhall in George Town, a century-old colonial era structure that has showcased many cultural events over the decades.


For an art form that has evolved over 4,000 years, this seemed to be the perfect venue. However, the show was in no way steeped in rigid tradition. The organisers cleverly brought together seasoned artists, weaved in contemporary characters, and also brought in contemporary musicians! The hour-long show featured Sbek Thom (Cambodia), Teochew Iron Rod puppets (Penang), Yoke The (Myanmar), fish puppets, Japanese puppets, Naga and many other forms, accompanied by live music on the guitar and traditional instruments.

What’s more, early visitors were treated to a meet-and-greet with the stars themselves – the puppets! The puppeteers introduced us to their ‘friends’, teasing us in turn, or handing over the puppets to visitors to get a feel of what it’s like to be a puppet-master. Some of the puppets had highly intricate features and costumes, and needed more than 1 puppeteer to bring it to life!

puppet1With this delightful introduction to the puppets, we headed to auditorium for the main show. The 26 artists performed together for the first time, incorporating elements of Malaysian/ Indonesian wayang kulit – shadow puppetry. The puppetmasters and puppetmistresses performed with all the enthusiasm of five-year-olds, and all the skills of wizened storytellers. It was truly a joy to behold.

The method of showcase was simple, yet genius – different puppetry forms were used to narrate and dramatise various parts of a heart-warming story about a child who inherits puppet-making skills from his parents. However, as the boy enters his teens, he gets lured in by the bright city life and abandons puppetry. He soon gets commercial success, but realises that true happiness cannot be found with money alone.puppet2All the artists came together on the stage for the final celebration. The integration was so seamless that I only realised the ingenuity of what I had seen after the puppeteers took a bow. The show made me marvel about the genesis of this seemingly simple art form and its spread to various parts of the world. An earlier version of the APEX website mentioned:

Puppetry has existed in Asia for approximately 4000 years and continues to thrive in South-east Asia in many forms and for various purposes. The art form’s resilience and versatility allows artists to educate and entertain audiences of all ages in numerous environments such as schools, hospitals, villages, and theatres, by re-engineering and presenting natural or upcycled materials in an imaginative and engaging way. Puppetry employs skills such as craftsmanship, visual art, staging, literature, song, and performance, and therefore appeals to many people of various interests and aptitudes.

I was suprised to know that quite a few puppetry forms have been listed as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ by UNESCO, including wayang theater. With its stories passed over many generations and its history as a traditional form of entertainment (especially in some rural areas of Southeast Asia), I wholeheartedly agree that it is, indeed, our shared heritage.

Like the APEX website mentions, puppetry seems simple, but is actually quite complex. From my interactions with puppeteers, I can tell you that it is a fine art to ensure the puppet’s movements are smooth and coordinated. I can only imagine the skill it takes to do it for a full-length show, that, too, with voiceovers and in some cases, acting.

I also found it fascinating that there are actually puppetry forms in which the puppeteer is on display, as much as the puppet itself. Traditionally, the art form distances the puppet from the puppetmaster, probably to create a more immersive experience. This is done either by creating a small stage, where the puppeteer can hide out of sight, like in Potehi, or traditional Rajasthan puppetry, or putting up a large curtain (wayang kulit) or with the puppeteer hiding inside enormous costumes (Snuff Puppets). The puppeteer(s), in every case, is hidden from view.

But in puppetry forms I have come across more recently, the artist is as much a part of the performance as the puppet. For instance, in the APEX performance, the Japanese artist used a white bundle of cloth as a puppet depicting a baby. Her movements depicting the miracle of birth made her as much a part of the performance as the puppet. George Town Festival 2017, the flagship cultural showcase of Penang, showcased The Cell (this video at 00:34) with a similar concept.What I found really fascinating was the mix of old and new that is being used to rejuvenate this art form. Several puppetry forms use ancient tales like the Ramayana for wayang kulit, and the Journey of the Monk and the Monkey King for Potehi, that have been handed down over many generations. But, with changing times, stories too evolve, as do their creators and patrons. In a bid to appeal to more contemporary audiences, puppeteers are shortening stories, adding new characters and injecting drama and humour into their tales. For instance,  Star Wars and Justice League characters have been incorporated in various recent showcases.

It is heartening to note that though the artform seems to be on a decline, with general interest in traditional artforms waning, there is a concerted effort being made by many, keen on reconnecting with their culture, to actively promote and even experiment commercially with puppetry to ensure its survival.

The APEX website also mentions:

…puppetry remains an important and sustainable art form in South-east Asia, as a presentation of its peoples’ heritages, an experimental platform for contemporary cultures and stories, and for the personal and social development of its communities.
Intrigued about their lifestyles and livelihood, I spoke to then APEX Lead Coordinator Terence Tan. Contrary to my assumption, he told me that all the performers in this show were dependent on puppetry as their main source of income. He said some of them held down several jobs, but were involved in different aspects of puppetry, theatre and education. Their sources of income were primarily from tickets and grants, which he said needed to be improved.
The APEX orchestra
When I asked Terence if puppetry was limited to traditions and children’s entertainment, he begged to differ. In fact, he said that the Hollywood industry was still dependent on puppetry for smaller productions and directors who prefer practical effects. The Lion King musical and War horse are two successful theatre productions that used puppetry as a tool for animation. Terence added:
Puppetry is both basic and simple storytelling, yet traditional and avant garde with historicity and room for modern technology all at once.
He said there are many challenges facing the artform, but these are the same as any cultural form – limited space and resources, competition with other modes of entertainment, time required to create a good piece of theatre work,  and propensity of leaders and corporates to choose quick returns over long-term investments and human development. More funds and recognition would go a long way in sustaining and bettering the artform and those who earn their livelihoods from it.


So, I’ve decided to check my local spaces for live performances before I book a movie ticket for the weekend. I believe my life is much the richer for it!

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: commons.wikimedia.org

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!!