force of fusion

intergalactic forces meet traditional shadow puppetry in peperangan bintang, part of an initiative to revive interest in the twilight art of wayang kulit through the infusion of pop culture.

peperangan bintang photos courtesy of arthur pang and teh take huat additional photos thisbunnyhops

for a full 20 minutes, the audience stayed seated cross-legged on the floor, their focus on the rectangular screen that glowed a gradient orange. a cacophony of gamelan music reverberated around the room, the rhythmic thumps of the gendang and lilting harmony of the seruling in perfect tandem with the on-screen action. sangkala vedeh appeared to the tune of the imperial march while tuan puteri leia was trapped in the clutches of the hulubalang empayar.

the characters and storyline are instantly recognisable – darth vader, princess leia and the stormtroopers, respectively, in a scene from star wars episode iv: a new hope – even if the names are distinctly malay and the dialogues are delivered in the kelantanese patois. in fact, the entire setting is a striking departure from lucas films’ usual presentations but it is with their approval that this unique star wars-inspired shadow puppet became a reality for its creators, multimedia designer tintoy chuo and advertising art director teh take huat. it’s the first project under their initiative, fusion wayang kulit, which aims to bridge the divide between malaysian heritage and a contemporary audience.

“i want to kill the word ‘dying’ in what has been termed a dying art,” says tintoy, who birthed the concept three years ago when he was invited to exhibit at publika kuala lumpur’s designer week. in deciding which of malaysia’s traditional art forms to reinvent, his background as a character designer made wayang kulit an obvious choice. star wars was an easy decision as well, given that tintoy and take huat are both sci-fi fans. the saga’s strong and lasting hold across generations made it an ideal vehicle to drive their message across.

i want to kill the word ‘dying’ in what has been termed a dying art

one major obstacle stood in the way: neither tintoy nor take huat had ever watched a wayang kulit performance, and knew next to nothing about it. their research led them to a book that documents malaysian wayang kulit characters and with that as a key reference, the duo came up with their first two puppets. instead of cowhide as is the norm for traditional wayang kulit, they experimented with different types of plastic and sent them off to a printer for the design to be laser cut, modifying and improving details as they went along. it was the third prototype that they deemed fit to be exhibited and during the debut showcase, the next phase of the project began to take shape.

“we had envisioned that the puppets would be used in an actual wayang kulit performance, but had difficulty finding a tok dalang (puppeteer) we could communicate well and work with,” says tintoy. if that was a mountain that needed to be scaled, for once mohammed got to it.

specifically, it was muhammad dain othman who contacted them via peperangan bintang’s facebook page. the tok dalang, the 13th accredited master puppeteer in kelantan who leads a wayang kulit troupe and also owns a puppet gallery, he had heard about the project through a friend. dedicated not only to preserving the art that flows through his veins but also to ensuring that any endeavours in the genre are done correctly, he asked to visit the exhibit. “we didn’t realise it then but it was basically a spot check!” tintoy recalls of that initial meeting with pak dain. “he wanted to see if we had done justice to it. to our relief, he approved of what we did.”

in a flash of synchronicity, it turned out that many of the puppets featured in the book that tintoy and take huat studied were pak dain’s creations. naturally, conversation turned to the idea of the trio teaming up to take peperangan bintang from a still exhibition to the wayang kulit screen. just as its creators drew a blank slate when it came to the traditional art form, pak dain had never watched a single star wars movie.

the first lesson was for both parties to familiarise themselves with the subject matters, while tintoy asked writer azrai ahmad to translate and adapt the script. work on the puppets – they have completed 12 to date – took almost a year, with tintoy and take huat taking on the design work (sketched, then traced digitally) while pak daim and his team brought them to fruition by hand, the cut-outs that embellish each character punched out with chisel, nails and a variety of other tools as is the authentic way. precision is of utmost importance to ensure no details are lost. the puppets are then painted on with ink and when dried, fixed onto wire frames.

the trio took much care in ensuring that the puppets not only portrayed the star wars icons accurately but also stayed true to elements that are characteristic of malaysian wayang kulit. tuan puteri leia, for example, maintains the buns in her crowning glory while clad in a kebaya-style outfit with a floral batik print. for perantau langit (luke skywalker), they referenced a puppet that sports a pair of feathers around the knees, which to tintoy represents its moniker quite literally.

si p-long (c-3po) was modelled after a humorous character called wak long, identifiable by his protruding belly and bulbous nose. for r2-d2, they drew inspiration from an unlikely source – the domed design of the bangunan sultan abdul samad – and named him ah tuh. where wayang kulit puppets typically stand on mythical creatures, sangkala vedeh perches on a starship with minangkabau architectural details while perantau langit balances on a landspeeder.

pb puppet making
pb androids
pb knocking puppet

all of the puppets are made of cowhide, with the exception of the stormtroopers which are carved of a specially selected plastic as they need to be white, something they couldn’t achieve with the leather as it is opaque with a yellow tint. given the intricacy of details that adorn the puppets, it took up to two weeks to produce one. tintoy would fly from kuala lumpur to kota bharu on weekends, spending all two days at pak dain’s workshop. he and take huat also created multimedia features to lend an intergalactic feel that’s essential to the storyline, such as animated backgrounds and sangkala vedeh’s robotic tone.

the time, labour and attention to detail that have been lavished on the project are obvious from the final results, and underlie the most important ingredient that has fuelled it from idea to implementation: passion. “we believe in the importance of keeping the art of wayang kulit alive,” says tintoy, admitting that the last three years has been tiring, not to mention draining on their finances as he and take huat are funding it out of their own pockets. “the whole process has been very challenging. once pak dain and his troupe got on board, the project was no longer just about personal interest but one of responsibility.”

pak dain’s role is no small matter; besides technical advisory and puppet production (he waived his fees on several of them), he singlehandedly executes each entire performance, animating and voicing the various characters while accompanied by live music from his gamelan musicians. pak dain has to memorise the script, though sometimes modifies it to suit the occasion or audience. “there’s usually a bit of a surprise in each show,” tintoy reveals. “pak dain may decide to bring an additional character into a scene, or amp up the humour in the dialogues if there are more children present.”

their ultimate aim is to perform peperangan bintang as a full-length play of 90 minutes but to do that would require a full cast of 40 puppets, at a cost of approximately rm300,000. funding has been hard to come by despite the publicity the project has received, including exposure in the wall street journal and time capsule malaysia, a documentary that aired on the history channel. add to that a requirement set by lucas films in granting their approval on using the star wars theme – that the project is not for profit, so no admission fees are to be charged for the performances.

all peperangan bintang shows to date were made possible through sponsorships and by invitation. it debuted in october 2013 at a brand geeks event organised by jaringan usahawan nusantara sedunia (juns) in kuala lumpur, and has performed to packed audiences in sabah and penang, under the auspices of jabatan kebudayaan dan kesenian negara (jkkn). last october, they were also invited to showcase at the malay heritage centre in singapore.

the response has been most encouraging. at the jkkn show in penang, several hundred people packed the auditorium and there was a line outside hoping to get in. it is such feedback that keeps tintoy, take huat and pak dain going in the face of limitations. as with any new takes on tradition, theirs was not without trepidation. tintoy admits that they were worried about how people would take to this contemporised form of wayang kulit, especially in kelantan, where malaysian wayang kulit is deeply entrenched and is a weekly event. indeed, some have questioned the appropriateness of such a modern theme over the usual ramayana storylines and also at pak dain’s involvement. the tok dalang’s answer is to invite them for a chat and come to a mutual understanding.

besides peperangan bintang, the trio has also created puppets for other occasions. last christmas, they produced a tok santa (santa claus) and this lunar new year, sheep puppets to coincide with the chinese zodiac sign. their latest is a bruce lee puppet, complete with a moveable nanchaku, done in support of an exhibition about the late kung fu star that will commence this month. proceeds from that will be channelled to those who were affected by floods in kelantan last december so in that, the project will come full circle.

while it remains a dream to extend peperangan bintang beyond its current 20-minute version, the unique shadow play has already reached its objective as observed from its audience demographics: it’s not just the regular culture vulture who has been taking up seats at their shows but also families with young children. parents have commented how they were surprised that their little ones didn’t wander off during the performances but were completely taken in by the puppetry.

tintoy shares his favourite scene from a peperangan bintang show: pak dain on one side of the screen, representing heritage and tradition while on the other, fresh and curious faces encountering wayang kulit for the very first time. all attention is focused on the screen that separates the puppeteer from his audience, yet it is those futuristic puppets in the former’s hands that are bringing the old and young together.

follow fusion wayang kulit on facebook for updates on their performances and other projects; the bruce lee puppet will be displayed as part of the ‘75 years of bruce lee exhibition & art charity’ event, starting 29 may at ict digital mall, komtar, penang.


this story first appeared in the edge review