Just returned today from a trip up to Kelantan, where I saw three performances of wayang kulit at the cultural centre Gelanggang Seni by the Chinese puppeteer Eyo Hock Seng (Sri Campuran, Pasir Parit, P. Mas, Kelantan, tel. 0199984187, 0148256066). I also met with a number of other cultural experts, including Eddin Khoo's informant/collaborator Rahman, who heads a wayang troupe in the area of Machang.
According to Rahman, there are currently about 20 wayang kulit troupes operating in the area of Kelantan, and at least one dedicated puppet maker. A number of the dalang (including, it seems, Eyo Hock Seng) are essentially self-taught, having learned wayang by watching and imitating past masters like Hamzah and Abdullah (aka Dollah Baju Merah). All use jampi but one can get jampi from various sources including from makyong and bomoh, not only dalang.
Wayang was banned in Kelantan for some years by the ruling Islamic party, but now is officially permitted, and ritual dramas including Berjamu, Semah Angin and Main Puteri are practiced - though often covertly.
But interest in wayang has shrunk. One of our taxi drivers said this was not due to Islam but changing habits of work. In the past, most people in Kelantan were farmers and had long periods with little work. Now everyone is working full days all year round. Pejabat will work after hours on projects, coming home, tired, late at night. Rather than going off to a wayang that might end at 1 in the morning, better to stay at home and watch a DVD in the comfort of one's own home, while sipping a cup of Kofi O.
The Kelantan government has a mixed attitude to wayang kulit. They recognise it as a cultural asset, and programme now 8 performances (two series of 4 shows) a month at Gelanggang Seni. Troupes are not well paid- only about 300 to 500 ringgit a night according to one source. And while the Dalang Muda introduction (including various jampi) is allowed, there are no offerings and Ramayana stories seem not to be permitted either due to association with Hindusim.
The performances at Gelanggang Seni were attended nightly by an audience of about 100 locals and perhaps 10-20 foreigner tourists. In the 70s, according to my taxi cab informant Abdullah, there were some 3 or 4 panggung wayang on a Saturday night in Kota Bharu alone.
Wayang is very much a folk art in Kelantan. The palace never seems to have been a big patron of the art, and there is not a strong literary tradition attached to the form. Rahman prided himself as being the only dalang in Kelantan who has read Amin Sweeney's dissertation on the Rama story (via Eddin Khoo's translation). Puppet sets are a match-and-mix affair. While a small number of Rahman's puppets are quite old and elaborately carved (using goat hide for alus characters and buffalo hide for the larger kasar characters like jin), there are many more new ones of quite rough manufacture. Some of these are made of translucent plastic - these take less than a day to make. While looking at the set, one of Rahman's sons took out a faded buffalo-hide puppet and coloured it with magic marker.
Performances are also straight-forward affairs. Puppet movement is simple, and while there is some use of formulaic language (particularly in the Dalang Muda opening), much of the action is dominated by clowns.
Wayang remains a democratic art, open to all. Training is an informal affair. One starts by watching performances while sitting on the panggung and taking over playing when an instrument becomes vacant. Mastering the simple instruments- at least gong and canang- is essential to performing. I was asked to play drum on two occasions (and politely declined). And on my third night of watching Eyo Hock Seng, he asked me before the Dalang Muda section, 'Tidak boleh main?' - indicating that he'd like me to perform the Dalang Muda opening. (To which I responded, 'belum!').
The dialect of Kelantan Malay is hard (for me) to understand, and much of Hock Seng's performance (about a clown who disguises himself as a prince and goes to Java to win the hand of a princess) was impossible for me to follow. But who knows... maybe I will come back to Kelantan again... to study as a dalang muda?