Chatter among the small crowd in the museum dies down as the semi-transparent white screen on the stage begins to illuminate. Shadowy puppet figures begin to dance across the screen in tune to a background orchestra that combines traditional percussion instruments, dialogue and poetry.
A wayang kulit show is a mesmerizing interplay between techniques of light and shadow with the manipulation of puppetry, literature and music to bring to life folklore and historical tales. Like many Asian art forms, the traditional puppet theatre derives its influences from various cultures, though in Malaysia, a strong Javanese and Hindu influence dominates. Urbanisation and modern entertainment have led to a decline in its popularity, a trend Mohd Jufry Yusoff hopes to reverse.
Descending from a lineage of wayang kulit practitioners in Bachok, Kelantan, dubbed the heartland of wayang kulit, 56-year-old Jufry has much skin in the game. His grandfather is Mamat Semail, an acclaimed tok dalang or master puppeteer who was immortalized by Anglo-Irish author Amin Sweeney in books about wayang kulit. The only one among his siblings who showed avid interest in the art form, Jufry recalls playing the “mong” instrument during grandpa’s performances at weddings, births and circumcision ceremonies. He was only six.
Noticing the little boy’s keen interest, Jufry’s father made him a set of paper characters to practice with. Says Jufry, “Dad was an expert puppet carver who cured his own goat skin.” The term wayang kulit itself is derived largely from the material that the puppets are made of: leather from a four-year-old male goat is deemed ideal in terms of texture and strength. After the skin is stretched on a frame, tanned, and scraped, the puppet design is traced onto the leather, carved and perforated before bamboo sticks are attached to facilitate movement. The construction has to be done meticulously, for each puppet, a stylised exaggeration of the human shape, has special identifying features.
The person responsible for breathing life into this array of characters is the Tok Dalang. “The tok dalang’s responsibility is heavy,” explains Jufry, “for not only does he control the movements of the puppets, he also has to provide each one with a distinguishable voice. For instance, the gruff-voiced demon king Maharaja Wana moves aggressively, while the court jesters scratch their heads and speak in shrill voices. Also, the tok dalang has to conduct the music ensemble and improvise the story based on the audience – all while singing and manipulating up to 40 puppet characters!” In the old days, ancient rituals calling forth spirits were staged before each show, believed to imbue the tok dalang with great powers, though these are no longer in practice.
It explains why Jufry, while more than adept at tok dalang duties, is more focused on grooming others. In the early 80s, he accepted a job as a cultural artist with Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, where he contributed to developing the traditional arts department in the university’s museum and co-curriculum component.
Following his recent retirement, Jufry set up his own arts academy, tentatively named Waklong Music Centre, to develop traditional arts practitioners, using a more structured syllabus. He accedes, “In the old days, everything we learn is orally. We didn’t use any scores for the music. But now, the abundance of art forms coming from abroad has made us think about finding innovative and more permanent means to protect and preserve the art form.”
To ensure its survival, wayang kulit practitioners have adapted to the times. Instead of the traditional tale of Hikayat Sri Rama – the Malay adaptation of the Hindu epic Ramayana – Jufry’s performances may draw from current issues and secular tales. In some of his shows, mainstream Bahasa Malaysia, English words and even popular songs are used to appeal to the mass audience who are unfamiliar with the more traditional texts. And whilst in the past, tok dalangs were the purview of men, these days you also have female ones; his twentysomething daughter Fara Diana shows promise.
“Right now, there is demand for wayang kulit but not enough supply. Our job is to find new blood who can take wayang kulit onto a global platform without sacrificing its essential identity. Whether it achieve its bygone glory remains to be seen, but as custodians, we must try our best.”