A short time ago (in 2012 to be exact) in our very own galaxy… there lived a man called Tintoy Chuo in a multi-racial country called Malaysia, situated in Southeast Asia. The then 39-year-old was asked by the organiser of an art exhibition to come up with something unique – and being a massive fan of the Star Wars franchise, he decided to reference it.
Chuo, who is a multi-award-winning multi-media designer (with a passion for comics and character creation) also wanted to infuse his design with elements from local heritage and culture. He settled on wayang kulit – of which, loosely translated from the Malay language, means shadow puppetry.
“It was a way to combine something traditional with something very futuristic,” explains Chuo in an interview. His traditional puppet designs with a sci-fi cinematic twist proved to be a big hit and were a precursor to what came next.
The World Of Shadows
With the great response to his exhibits, Chuo felt he had to do more. He aimed to not only revitalise a fading artform but make it contemporary and popular again. He needed help though, as bringing his vision to life was not an easy task.
For the design process, he teamed up with Teh Take Huat, and they founded Fusion Wayang Kulit (FWK) in 2013. They started designing based on the Javanese-style of wayang kulit. This was later revised to the Kelantan style for a Malaysian context. Kelantan is one of the states situated in the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. It’s run by a conservative Islamic government.
Wayang kulit as an artform has been designated by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible History of Humanity” in 2003. The first record noting a performance of it was in 930 CE.
Caption: Traditional puppets used in Wayang Kulit in Malaysia.
It is believed that before Hinduism arrived in Southeast Asia sometime in the first century CE, wayang kulit had not existed. The main plays or performances, and even now in most countries or regions that have shadow puppetry, were based on stories from the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabhrata and other Hindu tales. The most popular being the tale of Rama from Ramayana and his quest to recover his bride Sita, who has been kidnapped by a demon.
It was popular in Java and spread to Bali, and to other Indonesian regions before spreading even further to the rest of Southeast Asia and even as far as to China, India, Turkey and Greece, where it exists in different forms.
The puppets are handmade from buffalo skin or cowhide (and sometimes these days from plastic) with intricate designs in bright colours, with one movable arm. The master puppeteer, locally known as tok dalang, performs (often alone, but sometimes with an assistant) at behind a backlit white cotton screen.
The performance is accompanied by the music of a gamelan (a percussion type ensemble made of brass) and with a spoken commentary in the local dialect.
Back To The Future
The FWK duo knew nothing about performing the wayang kulit, however, and needed to find a master puppeteer to work with. This proved difficult as it was a dying art, partly due to the lure of modern entertainment options. The practice was not entirely encouraged too, as it leaned heavily on Hindu traditions.
Nevertheless, they managed to connect with one of the few tok dalang in Kelantan, Muhammad Dain Othman or more popularly known as Pak Dain. The 68-year-old learned his craft in 1980 from three masters.
“For a simple design, it might take under two weeks to complete the one figure, while for more complicate ones it can take from three weeks to a month. We send the design to Pak Dain for his input before proceeding,” notes Chuo.
And for their first performance, Chuo went back to the Jedi and the Force and decided to use wayang kulit to tell an adapted 20-minute tale inspired by Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. After all, the traditional tales of wayang kulit were all about the battle between good and evil.
Caption: Sangkala Vedeh looking menacing as he should.
The first puppet they made was of Sangkalah Vedeh, the Darth Vader-inspired character but also inspired by the demon from Ramayana. Followed on by more characters inspired by both our modern cinematic epic and the Hindu one – Perantau Langit (Luke Skywalker); Tuan Puteri Leia (Princess Leia); Si P-Long (C3PO); Ah Tuh (R2D2); and of course, the Stormtroopers who now look like a skeletal army.
Chuo explains that while Pak Dain knew of Star Wars, he had never actually watched it, so he was sent a DVD as his introductory primer.
“I made the storyboard for the performance, and I have a good friend, Azrai Ahmad who converted it into a script, which is more in keeping with a traditional performance,” says Chuo.
He adds, “Other than the 32 tracks of traditional music in wayang kulit Kelantan, whenever we need special music for a special character, we will do it. We did it for the Darth Vader-inspired character where we created a melody inspired by the Imperial March, whenever the character makes an entrance.”
They also used special effects to complement the shadow puppetry on the white screen. Their first performance, called “Peperangan Bintang” (the literal Malay translation of Star Wars) brought out many of the younger crowd thanks to the pull of the George Lucas epics.
It was a resounding success. Chuo says for him, his best experience was having an outdoor performance at the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, where fans came all dressed up as the characters and with lightsabers in tow.
Caption: Pak Dain in an actual performance with the puppets held behind the cotton screen.
To Infinity And Beyond
Since then, they have held many performances locally and overseas in countries such as Germany, Austria and Thailand. They employed the usage of English subtitles, so everyone gets to understand the performance, which is done using the Kelantanese Malay dialect.
Caption: At a workshop in Germany where participants had a chance to handle both the modern and the traditional puppets.
However, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has put paid some of their scheduled overseas performances. They did attract some global attention yet again (they have been featured in many foreign publications and television programmes) when Mark Hamill in January this year inadvertently used a Malaysian flag instead of the US one he wanted to use (the flags of the two countries are quite similar) in a tweet.
His mistake led him to discover that he had a legion of fans in Malaysia, which of course, included Chuo himself. Hamill was later made aware of the existence of FWK and expressed admiration for the Luke Skywalker-inspired puppet. Chuo excitedly lets on that they are preparing a puppet to be sent over to Hamill.
Caption: Tintoy Chuo with Perantau Langit (inspired by Luke Skywalker).
FWK was soon roped in for other projects, including one inspired by the DC-characters from the Justice League (for an event to launch the film here), for Batman’s 80thanniversary in May last year, Japanese mecha robots inspired by the Macross anime series, Marvel-inspired characters like Iron Man and Thanos and even a puppet of Lucio from video game Overwatch, among others.
Caption: The Batman-inspired wayang kulit puppet.
Another highlight for FWK was the commission by Warner Music Malaysia to fashion a puppet of musician Ed Sheeran for a video to promote the song Happier. Chuo cheekily mentions he enjoyed “shaping it” and it was presented to Sheeran when he came back to Kuala Lumpur for his second concert in April last year. Was he happier after the presentation? Certainly, seemed like it.
FWK even has a gallery in Kuala Lumpur that displays their puppets and also traditional ones.
And what of wayang kulit itself? There are only fewer than 12 troupes in Malaysia currently, but Pak Dain now has an apprentice who is learning to take over from him. And interest and reception to this ancient performing art have certainly picked up.
So may the Force be with them!
Writer | S. S. Yoga
Yoga is a freelance editor/writer/media consultant who does not like to be limited in his interests and hence occasionally gets TMI-infections. That does not stop him, though, from exploring many rabbit holes all over the world. He loves the challenge of organising data and experiences.