Sunday, September 6, 2009

Wayang in Malaysia, again

Another week for this Indonesian performance-goer in Malaysia. This week, in addition to watching a workshop production of a new dance piece by the English contemporary dance group Evolving Motion (at the Kuala Lumpur Performaing Arts Centre in Sentul Park), I looked at three very different sorts of wayang.

After making a post on facebook that I was looking to see a Chinese opera (known as wayang Cina here in Malaysia) during this Hungry Ghost Festival, I got a call from my colleague Aris that a friend of a friend had told him that there was a wayang going on in Melaka and do I want to go. The next day (1 September) a group of us met up and went down to Melaka in two cars. After driving around the city a bit, trying to find a stage, we called a reporter friend and found out that the wayang was in a temple next to a graveyard on the outskirs of a town.

We arrived at said temple after 10 at night, travelling down a dark, unpaved road. The temple was crowded with thousands of pilgrims. This was the fifth day of a five day celebration- each night with an opera performance by a small Hokien language troupe from Johor (keyboard on one side of the stage, all-purpose Chinese percussion kit onthe other). This was a ritual performance. In front of the stage were empty stools for the ghosts, and behind this a long line of 'believers' who were being blessed by a priest and symbolically whipped. Huge piles of offerings were at the sides of the temple. The opera was supposed to go on until 1am in the morning, but we weren't able to stay to the conclusion of the ceremony - when the believers marched barefoot around the temple.

Next time I'm in Malaysia I'd like to plan a visit to Melaka around this 5-day event, which happens annually during the 7th lunar month.

On Thursday (3 September) I met up at last with Fahmi Fadzil, a Malaysian puppeteer who has been creating wayang variants (wayang cardboard, wayang buku, wayang rakyat, wayang lampu etc) over the last 9 years. Fahmi is a marketing person for a graphic design firm, with a BA in chemical engineering for Purdue. He is also a member of 5 Arts, and is very articulate about his experimental work, using the language of performance studies (picked up from Krishen and attendance at the PSi conference in Singapore). He presented a number of interesting leads for me to follow up on. More research to do....

Finally, today (6 September), I went to The Curve, one of KL's many shopping malls, to see a young Kelantanese puppeteer named Baisah do a short wayang Siam performance. This was actually advertised as a 'wayang rakyat' (a term invented by Fahmi for his shopping plaza shows). But it was a very orthodox (if short) Kelantanese wayang I saw. Basiah studied wayang at Aswara with Nasir, and the musicians were all Aswara folk as well.

The play was a branch story called Bagong Kelimunan that the puppeteer learned from Nasir. Baisah has only been performing for a year, so his puppet movement was just fair and his stock of verbal formulae was limited. The MC for the event said he couldn't follow the story - this was not just because of the language (Kelantanese Malay) but also because he couldn't understand the symbolic meanings, such as the perang scene.

I was surprised to see a wayang in a mall during bulan puasa. But there is in fact a whole series of traditional performances going on in the Curve and elsewhere around KL. Right after the wayang, the same group did a short gamelan concert. This, the MC could appreciate - the music he said was very relaxing. A way to draw the shoppers in during Ramadhan, I suppose.

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