Everyone knows wayang kulit, right? Those of us who haven’t had the opportunity to watch it live would have at least learned about it in school, besides, does anyone remember the ubat batuk cap ibu dan anak ad?
Wayang kulit is a traditional shadow puppet show passed down from our moyangs who goyang. It is said that this art came from Java, Indonesia though its origins remain a mystery (some archaeological finds show that it was possibly around in India and China even older than that). Along with silk, spices, and other stuff that migrated from coast to coast, wayang kulit made its way to Malaysia more than 250 years ago, and became part of the culture in Kelantan and the East Coast.
BUT did you know, wayang kulit and other traditional arts were BANNED in Kelantan by PAS?
HUHH! Why did PAS ban something traditional? Got twerking issit?
When we think of PAS banning a concert, we think Miley Cyrus butt twerking…not traditional performing arts! Which is why we were too shocked to nae nae when we found out PAS banned not only wayang kulit, but also other traditional performances, after they took over Kelantan in 1990.
CILISOS spoke to Eddin Khoo, Founder and Director of Pusaka (a traditional arts and culture NGO, which we’ll talk more about later) to find out exactly what they banned and why.
“They banned everything. They tried, but failed to ban the highly popular dikir barat but there was a popular revolt by Rakyat Kelate, who led a march to the state government building. The ban was declared using the most severe language – heretic and polytheist. These have grave resonances in the Islamic tradition.” – Eddin told CILISOS in an email
Going into further detail, PAS had an issue because the storylines are based on Hindu mythology. They had an issue with the element of spiritualism in these arts too. Performances were once conducted for healing purposes and even to summon spirits. One Tok Dalang (wayang kulit troupe leader) known as Pak Dollah said his apprenticeship began with outer knowledge (stories of wayang kulit shows), then he was taught inner knowledge… including how to ‘give life’ to puppets!
According to Eddin, who studied Islamic thought and philosophy in uni, PAS started out with mainly secular goals (alleviating poverty for the Malays and so on). By the 1980s, they began advocating Islamic law and an Islamic state. To push this political agenda, PAS needed to make things “permissible and non-permissible”. That resulted in the banning of wayang kulit and other performing arts. Having said that, Eddin acknowledges the political acumen of former Chief Minister, the late Datuk Nik Aziz:
“He understood that society operates at different levels, so while these traditions were banned, the bans were rarely imposed. In my, and Pusaka’s case, they were never imposed. For me, however, I didn’t bother with the ban itself. It was done in a somewhat gestural manner…more noise than substance.” – Eddin
Whether it was just for show or not (pun intended 😛 ), PAS’s ban was nevertheless oppressive from Eddin’s point of view. Specifically, it oppressed the performers – it was their bread and butter. “I have always loathed bullying of any kind, and I certainly was appalled at the bullying of this kind,” said Eddin.
So Eddin started Pusaka to make sure the old arts NEVER DIES
Pusaka is an NGO that brought Malaysian traditional arts back to life even while it’s banned. They work with seasoned performers to make sure everything is authentic and that the arts get passed on to the next generation – to the young and the urban. Since it was founded in 2002, Pusaka has been researching and documenting performing arts, as well as organising shows and talks around the country.
But one thing… don’t say that Pusaka is “preserving” traditional arts because Eddin feels it’s such an arrogant term. Traditions that are hundreds of years old don’t need us “any one of us minions” to preserve them, he says. What’s important is that we Malaysians build relationships with these traditions coz they inform us of who we are. So we’re not doing this for the sake of tradition…we do this for our own sake!
Anyway, to know more about Pusaka’s work, watch this:
After the ban, many performers either left town or went underground, though PAS allowed wayang shows to go on for tourists, where Pak Dollah (with the ‘living’ dolls) worked. But on the side, Dollah would put on illegal shows in nearby villages with Eddin’s help. To understand why he helped Dollah, we gotta go back to the time Eddin first fell in love with the arts… *Flashback to 1970…
“I was raised in a cultural family. Both my parents are artistic and scholarly. It was also a very interesting time to grow up in – Malaysia of the 1970s – and I realise now that culture is an expression of nationhood. There was an aspiration to create a nation with a cultural sensibility, so you had lots of music and drama everywhere.” – Eddin
Ehhh chup, did Eddin and Dollah KENA TANGKAP or not for putting on shows illegally?
“Not once. I understood that for all the noise brought about by the ban, these traditions were close to the hearts of the Kelantanese. It was possible to work through community to subvert [overturn] edicts.” – Eddin
Eddin explained that there were fines and punishments of that sort, but no one really kena la. However, even though they didn’t impose punishments, it still made the performers like social outcasts.
Eventually though, PAS began to have a mind shift. As a journalist Eddin came to know their politicians quite well, and they began to understand it was a policy in which they had “shot themselves in the foot”.
“Attitudes have changed a great deal in the past 25 years, which would not have happened – and I say this in all modesty – if not for the work Pusaka had done.” – Eddin
So finally, after 20 years, PAS LIFTED THE BAN!
But now traditional arts faces a new threat…modernisation! Dun dun dunn
Some of you might remember when Star Wars wayang kulit came out. It was the brainchild of Fusion Wayang Kulit, that went on to create more characters like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and even Bruce Lee. So modern, right?!
In fact, modernisation is also one of the reasons why PAS lifted the ban.
When the video cassette craze began in the 1980s, one Tok Dalang hung up his puppets because he could attract bigger crowds by showing movies on TV. That’s so sad 🙁 Not everyone deviated that far la, some performers changed stories from the traditional Ramayana Epic, to popular comedies, current issues and secular tales. There are modern elements like building and cars used in wayang kulit. Instead of the Kelantanese dialect, Tok Dalangs use mainstream BM, a few English words and occasionally Bollywood songs.
To Eddin, wayang kulit has always been and will always be innovative, however he doesn’t believe the art should lose its essence, simply because there are calls for it to be modernised.
If you thought young people need some modern twist then only they get interested, well, here’s a statistic to shatter urban middle class prejudices – Pusaka works with 27 different performance communities all around the country. The average age of 75% of their performers is UNDER 30! And their star drummer of wayang kulit, Eshark Abdul Rahman, who is 14 years old.
“When asked why they engage so intensely with tradition, our young simply say, ‘Well, tradition is sexy’. Enough said!” – Eddin
Don’t believe? Go watch them yourselves at their KataKatha Exhibition
KataKatha is a new regional exhibition bringing together 10 cultural figures from around Southeast Asia – Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and of course, Malaysia. Art enthusiasts, aspiring writers, filmmakers and the public will have a chance to engage with them through forums, movie screenings and public readings. Don’t miss the last day, coz poet and painter Latiff Mohidin will be making a special appearance on the closing day.
- When: Ongoing until 28 August 2016
- Where: Balai Seni Maybank
- Who: Free and open to all
You can find more information on their Facebook page.
In the end, whether it is about wayang or anything else, it really is about whether the art works or not. Eddin isn’t a fan of purposely modifying centuries of our legacy into a completely different animal just to pander to the audience.
At the same time, he isn’t worried that Malaysians will stop loving good old wayang kulit. Like everything else, there is an drop and rise in interest, but that is no indication of disinterest or death. If they can overcome a 20-year PAS ban, they will survive!
they will survive, hey hey And that’s what Pusaka will keep on doing. 😉
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