In the heart of Kuala Lumpur, two groups of performers with a single aim did something quite incredible last Saturday night.
Separated by hundreds of cross-legged viewers and facing each other were the new and the old: ACX Productions and Wayang Kulit Sri Warisan Pusaka both entertained throngs of visitors at Medan Pasar with the ancient art of wayang kulit, known to outsiders as shadow puppetry.
Both headliners had different approaches to the art form — ACX Productions went contemporary through its use of physical performers and elaborate masks, while Wayang Kulit Sri Warisan Pusaka boasted a fully-traditional setup conducted by Tok Dalang Nawi, apprentice of the revered tok dalang Dollah Baju Merah.
Put together by ThinkCity and Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL) with help from Lab DNA (helmed by acclaimed architect Nani Kahar) and PUSAKA, Malam Wayang was a free public event in conjunction with the new year, forming part of an effort to rejuvenate this side of Kuala Lumpur.
The night began sharp at 8:30pm with a buka panggung courtesy of Regal Orchestra‘s mastery of the guzheng.
Buka panggung is a long-standing tradition in local theatre — before shows are held, performers must first seek permission from the guardians of the space by means of prayer or ritual.
Rendering traditional Malaysian numbers from “Rasa Sayang” to “Chan Mali Chan” on the traditional Chinese instrument while decked in baju kebayas, the group’s female musicians brought out distinct Asian elements of each song without compromising on melodies immediately recognisable to the rakyat.
Colourful, Contemporary, Commercial
Moments after buka panggung, ACX Productions had crowds mesmerised with its simple and whimsical take on wayang kulit, done wholly in Mandarin.
When forest elf Nana discovers a magic mushroom in Wayang Nan dan Ah Lu, all hell breaks loose. A genuinely creepy moment arrives when the mushroom sings about possessing Nana and destroying all of the forest’s inhabitants, which includes (among many others) Uncle Tiger, King Lion and Mr. Snake, each with their own prismatic faces.
In colourful masks and black leotards against a musical backdrop of original pop songs and gamelan music, performers moved around a tent to give audiences a dynamic experience reminiscent of a cartoon. Those who were curious also had the opportunity to watch behind-the-scenes action as the tent was exposed on either side of the screen.
It doesn’t take long for these mystical folks to band together and destroy the mushroom; spanning thirty-minutes, Wayang Nan dan Ah Lu was a refreshing, highly-commercial take on the wayang kulit genre, pushing boundaries in terms of language, delivery and technical execution.
Further lifted by a memorable villain, it was unfortunately bogged down by incomplete subtitling — those who couldn’t understand Mandarin were out of luck once forest residents realise something was amiss.
In terms of style, it’s worth noting that this version of wayang kulit is not new, having been performed to great success by local theatre company Masakini. Also present at Malam Wayang was head of Masakini herself, Sabera Shaik.
Minutes after Wayang Nan dan Ah Lu, audiences shifted to focus on the screen behind them.
Wayang Kulit Sri Warisan Pusaka began striking classical Malay percussion while a lightbulb behind their screen swayed back and forth, enlarging and shrinking shadows of Ramayana characters Seri Rama and Siti Dewi.
In Bunga Cempaka Kencana Malar Ajaib, Seri Rama and his servant must hunt for a panacea in the form of a cempaka (a relative of the magnolia with scent reminiscent of the ylang ylang) for his sick wife, Siti Dewi.
This flower however belongs to a guardian princess who falls for Seri Rama and will only let him have it in exchange for his hand in marriage.
Performed by the traditional wayang kulit ensemble from Machang, Kelantan in their colourful uniforms and headbands, Bunga Cempaka Kencana Malar Ajaib was a rare treat for city folk and foreign visitors. Practically non-existent in mainstream locations, this northen form of classical theatre originates from Kelantan and as such was performed in the Kelantanese dialect.
Despite its number of performers, all the action visible on screen was the handiwork of one very busy man: Tok Dalang Nawi. His manipulation of flat, intricately-carved puppets was matched only by his vocal ability– Tok Dalang Nawi voiced every character in the performance, as is done in traditional wayang kulit.
Behind the screen, this elder gentleman had his hands embroiled in his microphone and many puppets, on top of using his thigh to strike a wooden contraption which provided sound effects.
Anyone with a camera went wild at the sight of the ensemble. Tok Dalang Nawi was unperturbed throughout, although at one point a look of annoyance flashed across his face, perhaps at an intrusive photographer.
Closing the night were echoing memories of ThinkCity programme director Jia-Ping Lee‘s call for ideas to revive the area of Kuala Lumpur within a one kilometre radius of Masjid Jamek.
ThinkCity is open for grant applications once again until the end of the month, offering funding to those with interest in Kuala Lumpur’s rapidly-forgotten heritage and culture.
In between performances, Jia-Ping informed attendees that the former residence of Kuala Lumpur-founder Yap Ah Loy (in its place at present is Pacific Express Hotel) watches over Medan Pasar.
Once an important market square and potentially the hub of the bustling city, Medan Pasar has since lost its significance in modern Kuala Lumpur.
In between special events hosted by various parties (late last November saw a unique installment of Buy Nothing Day which inadvertently brought immigrant workers closer to locals), the square serves as a meeting point and shortcut between Pasar Seni and Masjid Jamek.
Thankfully however, recent efforts from ThinkCity and DBKL in collaboration with Lab DNA have been pushing the space as a cultural hub, bridging the gap between the arts, social issues and the public.
Look out for Sama Sama Food Festival, held later this month.
Malam Wayang was held on 2 January 2016. Featured image by Dennis Ong.