A Terengganu wayang kulit troupe was invited to perform in Europe in 1971.

Recalling his visit to a shadow play in the past, the writer takes a look at this once popular form of entertainment in the Malay heartlands of Kelantan and Terengganu

RAMAYANA is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most famous of all Hindu epics in world literature. This ancient story tells of Dasharatha, the King of Ayodhya, who had three sons. Due to succession pressure from his second consort, Dasharatha was forced to make their son Bharata crown prince and in the process, bypasses his first born, Rama.

In this tale, Rama is portrayed as the epitome of virtue. He obeys his father‘s command and relinquishes his right to the throne before going into exile for fourteen years, accompanied by his faithful wife, Sita. Realising his folly, Dasharatha pines for his first born and dies heartbroken after Rama leaves the palace.

Buffalo hide puppets were deemed unexciting when audiences had better entertainment options.

Rama and Sita subsequently made the forest their home. There, he battles and kills the demon Raksasa. This act angers the evil demon ruler, Ravana, who exacts revenge by spiriting Sita off to his island home of Sri Lanka.

It takes the ingenuity of Hanuman, the Monkey-God to help Rama locate his abducted wife. The duo, together with a large army, cross the sea to Sri Lanka using a bridge miraculously built by Hanuman‘s primate subjects in less than a day.

An epic battle lasting several gueling years soon ensues. At the end Ravana is slain by Sita. Rama and Sita return to Ayodhya to claim the throne and live happily ever after.

The silent crowd all around me suddenly erupts into thunderous applause and gives the beaming To‘ Dalang (master of ceremony) and his team a standing ovation that lasts well over a minute.

With the wayang kulit virtually extinct now in Malaysia, I thank my lucky stars for having the golden opportunity to witness that classic performance many, many years ago while visiting a classmate living in Kota Bahru.

Earlier that evening, without giving me any prior warning, he drove me to the venue. It was only after we arrived that he looked me right in the eyes and said: “You better enjoy this as this may very well be the last shadow play performance you’ll witness in this life time.“ He was right.

There were usually five or six musicians playing during the performance.

Remembering the Wayang

I vividly recall how the crowd sat in a semi-circle around the To‘ Dalang‘s panggung (stage) which was made of bamboo poles lashed together with thin rattan strips. To improve visibility, especially for those right at the back, an open scaffolding was used to elevate the panggung to about a metre above the ground. The roof eaves projected slightly forward so that the white canvas screen which forms the front wall, could tilt downwards to the spectators below.

Then, just as the show was about to start, the To‘ Dalang and his muscial troupe accessed the panggung via a short ladder and a small door at one of the side walls. Once inside, the To‘ Dalang positioned himself in the centre, which was slightly more than a metre from the screen in front of him.

His puppets, either multicoloured or monochrome figures cut out from buffalo hide, braced with bamboo struts and fitted with long handles, stood against the walls on either side of him, ready to be called upon at a moment‘s notice.

Hanging directly above the To‘ Dalang‘s head was the single source of illumination — an oil-lamp fitted with a reflector. Towards the late 1960s and early 1970s, this traditional contraption slowly gave way to the brighter and more consistent motorcar headlamp which hung from the roof by a wire connected to a 12 volt battery nearby.

A small orchestra made up of between five to six players sat at the back of the stage and accentuated the puppets‘ movements with their performance on drums, a gong, a flageolet and sometimes a Malay violin.

Up until the early 1970s, it was common to see wayang kulit performances at important social occasions like weddings, births and circumcisions especially in the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu. During these events, it was very rare for the To‘ Dalang to complete his story in a single night. Epic tales like the Ramayana and Mahabharata were always presented serially and the performance generally lasted three nights unless the host was a person of considerable means.

The traditional way of holding the wayang kulit in the past was that one man, a family or even the entire village would shoulder the expenses incurred. This method was generally known as main peri (free performance for the audience), Occasionally, main peri would be held by a group of persons wishing to sell refreshments. As a result, they pooled their resources to fund the show.

The To‘ Dalang performing a crowd scene.

The business of Wayang

Towards the dying days of the shadow play, like the one I saw, there was a growing trend for it to be organised as a business enterprise. The mechanics involved an entrepreneur renting a plot of land, fencing it off and at the same time inviting a To‘ Dalang and his troupe to perform. The agreement would perhaps be for a fixed period of time like a week or 10 days or alternatively, for an indefinite period, as long as there was still profit to be made.

This way a popular To‘ Dalang may hold court in a permanent location for as long as several months. Back in the 1970s, deals struck in this manner could yield the troupe a guaranteed nightly performance fee of up to RM70, depending on the distance from the To‘ Dalang‘s home and the duration of the performance. Thus, at an area near home, a fee of RM100 for three nights was considered normal.

The businessman would then sell one-price tickets at the gate, costing between 10 to 30 sen each. Revenue could also be collected from refreshment sellers who wished to participate in the venture. This was a win-win situation for everyone especially if a famous To‘ Dalang was performing. A nightly attendance of around 800 people in this instance wouldn’t be surprising.

A good To‘ Dalang would often attempt to assess his audience and their wishes. Through experience, he knows that the older people attend with the hope of hearing a good story while the younger generation generally preferred romantic tales. Children, however, enjoyed themes that revolved around comedy and battle. The To‘ Dalang or his assistant would conduct a last minute survey of the people present and only at that point of time would decide upon the tale to tell. Depending on the situation, versatile story tellers would also able to alter existing tales or even invent a new one on the spot.

Despite the occasional sell out crowd, very few To‘ Dalangs, even those from the top echelon, were able to live solely on their income from their performances as there’d often be quite a long lull during the prolonged monsoon season. As a result, they’d hold secondary occupations, generally referred to as kerja kampung (village work), which would often involve tending to their padi fields and livestock including water buffaloes. Others willingly took up work as labourers and trishaw-peddlers just to eke out a living for themselves and their families.

The gong featured prominently in the wayang kulit sound effects.

Modern entertainment

A harbinger of things to come was said to have occurred soon after the British returned to Malaya in 1945. A wayang kulit performance was in full swing at a padang in Kuala Terengganu when the government Public Relations cinema van happened to pull up a short distance away and began screening films about coal-mining, deep-sea fishing and the 1937 Royal Wedding. A large majority of the people watching the shadow play gradually got up and migrated across the field, despite having already paid for their admission earlier. Obviously when given a choice motion pictures were more appealing!

A typical wayang kulit panggung in Kelantan back in the 1950s.

The proliferation of cinemas throughout the country coupled with the introduction of affordable television sets in the 1960s rang the death knell for the wayang kulit industry. These modern forms of entertainment with livelier actors and actresses, better narration and musical scores appeared to be better options compared to the relatively monotonous shadow play puppets. Slowly but surely, the wayang kulit audiences began trading their grassy patch out in open for a seat in the cool comfort of a Shaw cinema.

Audiences soon began their love affair with famous silver screen idols like P. Ramlee, Latifah Omar, Mahmood June, Saadiah and Jins Shamsudin. The introduction of glossy entertainment magazines like Majallah Filem and Berita Filem soon gave fans easy access to the latest news and gossip in the film industry, helping them relate better to their actors and actresses compared to the epic struggles of the Panji against mythical demons and divine heroes.

Today, wayang kulit performances have all but faded into Malaysian history. As our world continues to progress, the fickle demands of society continue to change. People are naturally attracted to new things that more exciting and can provide that instantaneous gratification. Like many things in the past, the creative To‘ Dalang and his musically talented troupe have lost out in the fight to captivate the minds and imagination of their once loyal audiences.

Aspiring young To‘ Dalangs setup their own panggung to practice.

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