New hope for Star Wars inspired wayang kulit

I can’t help feeling amused when I read the programme of the 12th Johor Baru Arts Festival and learnt that the Star Wars inspired wayang kulit show, Peperangan Bintang, will be staged in the first weekend.  

Sangkala Vedeh (Darth Vader) [Left] and hulubalang
(storm troopers of Galactic Empire) puppets
I decide that it’s a must-see act and as it’s their first appearance at the arts fest, I must find out how a traditional art form like wayang kulit or shadow play, is used to tell the story of futuristic Star Wars adventures.

On Saturday, I’m at the festival village in the Mall at Medini, Nusajaya, to track down the people behind the show and at the secretariat, I’m given a name, Tintoy Chuo, and pointed to the Black Box where the show will be staged.  

In the foyer, my eyes are riveted to a display of wayang kulit puppets with large Do Not Touch signs.  I pause to admire the amazing details on the various puppets and am convinced that this puppet donned in a dark outfit and distinctive helmet, must be Darth Vader!

Star Wars inspired wayang kulit characters, [L to R], Captain
of rebels, droids Si-P Long (C-3PO) and Ah Tuh (R2D2) and
Puteri Lwia (Princess Leia)
I hear loud voices speaking in Malay, heavy with an accent that I safely conclude as Kelantanese and a group of men walk pass me to leave the hall.  I guess they may be the musicians having a break before the workshop and show but there is still someone behind the screen on the stage.  

I edge closer to ask for Tintoy and the man crawling among the traditional musical instruments, turns around and said, “Please give me five minutes to settle this first,” because he must ensure that the puppets and props are all ready for the show.

No Turning Back

Back in the foyer I meet with the Tok Dalang or master puppeteer, Muhammad Daim Othman better known as Pak Daim, 63, and his wife, Fatimah, who tell me about their Wayang Kulit Gallery and guest house in Kota Baru.  Pak Daim, the 13th accredited Tok Dalang of Kelantan traditional Malay shadow play is also the author of “The Kelantan Malay Traditional Shadow Play”, a well-researched record of Malaysian wayang kulit which serves as a valuable reference on this traditional art form.

The dynamic partnership of Tok Dalang
or master puppeteer, Pak Daim [Left] and Tintoy Chuo
Chuo, 43, a graphic designer specialising in character design, and his senior art director friend, Teh Take Huat, are the brains behind the creation of the Star Wars characters into wayang kulit puppets.  When they embarked on this project in May 2012, they designed puppets in the Javanese-style that typically had two movable arms.  He fondly recalls going to Kraftangan Malaysia and finding the book by Pak Daim and adopted it as the blueprint to create more authentic Kelantan style puppets that feature just one movable arm.

“It was a two and a half month’s journey of no return,” said Chuo as he described how they redesigned their Star Wars inspired wayang kulit puppets and gave them a Malaysian identity with names like Perantau Langit (Luke Skywalker) and Sangkala Vedeh (Darth Vader).  Chuo and Teh were thrilled when these puppets received a positive response in an exhibition and wanted to take their puppets to the next level – to be staged in a shadow play by real puppeteers.  Little did they know that someone who saw their Star Wars inspired puppets, had informed the Pak Daim about what these two Chinese boys were doing with fusion wayang kulit puppets!

A Turning Point

When Pak Daim met Chuo, they discovered their similar views about creating a unique way to preserve the Malaysian art of shadow play by blending the traditional art form with futuristic adventures and sci-fi characters.  In Dec 2012, they started collaborating in the fusion wayang kulit project by creating key characters and staging a 25-minute shadow play of scenes from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

The team behind the shadow play of scenes from
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
A typical show involved five layers of slick coordination among the screen controller, the light and sound engineers, the puppets, the puppeteer and musicians.  Chuo cannot forget the overwhelming response they received at their first show staged for a private event in Oct 2013 where some guests even brought their light sabers along!  Needless to say, the audience reaction was very encouraging.

“It proved that there is truly a new hope for wayang kulit,” said Chuo alluding to the Episode IV title, A New Hope, and a revival of this traditional art form among new generations of youths and adults who may have never watched a wayang kulit show before.  Since their first show, they have staged countless shows at various venues and is finally in JB to thrill audiences at two shows in the JB arts fest. 

Full-house Shows

Pak Daim, guiding young participants in the wayang
kulit puppet-making workshop
Participants in the workshop sessions at the arts fest learn the finer points of Kelantan traditional shadow play from a briefing by Pak Daim followed by a hands-on session in tooling the puppets and colouring the figures.  Then Pak Daim and his team demonstrate a traditional performance of the shadow play, complete with dramatic recitations in Kelantanese Malay, banging gongs and screeching horns.

After a preview of the traditional performance, Chuo introduces the key characters of the Star Wars inspired wayang kulit for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.  Using photos of the Star Wars characters, Chuo shows the audience how the fusion-style puppets are created against traditional hero and villain wayang kulit characters while retaining distinctive Star Wars features like costumes, hair-style and head-dress.

The show started with the Star War's signature
scrolling-script but in Malay language!
The audience responds with cheers at the opening scene as the Star Wars inspired wayang kulit, Peperangan Bintang started with its signature scrolling-script and the recitation in Malay: “In a galaxy far, far away…”  While the witty words of droid Si-P Long (C-3PO) amused, Ah Tuh (R2D2)’s robotic squeaks thrilled the audience but the loudest reactions are reserved for Sangkala Vedeh (Darth Vader) when he spoke in a voice laced with his signature heavy breathing!

In the tradition of the Star Wars franchise, the audience is left with a cliff-hanger and a reminder to wait for the next exciting episode to find out what happens to the captured Puteri Leia (Princess Leia).  As they reluctantly file out of the Black Box, I join die-hard fans who are lingering behind for a peep of the backstage and to chat with Chuo and the Tok Dalang.

A scene from Peperangan Bintang that ended with
a typical cliff-hanger!
Chuo and Pak Daim, clearly pleased with the overwhelming response in the full-house shows at their first appearance at the JB arts fest, encouraged fans to support their Peperangan Bintang fusion wayang kulit project by visiting their Facebook page and following them on Instagram.

“Wayang kulit is a dying art and we have to do more to keep it alive,” said Chuo, ever hopeful that they will soon have more funds to sustain the shows and expand the performance into a full-length feature.  There is certainly a new hope for their project with the interest generated among young audiences and Star Wars fans who are looking forward to the release of the much anticipated seventh installment of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, later this year.

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 1 Nov 2015

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