An increasing number of people are traveling to different places in the world to experience what might be the last glimpse of a natural or cultural phenomenon, or endangered species before it disappears for ever. Malaysia’s Kelantan state is home to a number of cultural marvels that were once widespread, but have now dwindled down to a last few examples. They are here today, but will they be here tomorrow?
Not knowing the answer for sure, it could well be a good time to organise a tour to the region to get a close-up view of these wonders while one still can.
The last of the puppeteers?
While UNESCO designated wayang kulit (Malaysian shadow puppetry) as world cultural heritage in 2003, it may well not be around much longer, as only a handful of master puppeteers remain… around 10 in fact – in the Wayang Kulit Melayu Traditional Kelantan (WKMTK).
Kelantan state government regulations on public performances have meant that Tok Dalangs (master puppeteers) can only perform at the Kota Bharu cultural centre – for foreign tourists. With one show a week, this has meant that the Tok Dalangs can only perform once every two months. Pak Daim (Muhammad Dain Othman) is however able to perform in his Wayang Kulit gallery in Kampung Morak, Kelantan, as it is under the sponsorship of the Federal Ministry of Tourism and Culture.
Originally based on Hindu epics, shadow puppetry was introduced to Southeast Asia in the 15th century and promoted by Java’s Hindu rulers. For some centuries, and up to about 50 years ago, this was the only form of entertainment for Malaysia’s east coast villagers, before they could afford to go to the cinema, and before the arrival of TV. Compared to the better known Indonesian version, Malaysian wayang kulit has rounder, partly transparent figures, with colours shining through the silhouettes.
“I came to think that one day, maybe in ten years’ time, the art of shadow play will be no more,” cautions Pak Daim.
“I felt I was responsible to restore the art of shadow play in one place, so I built up this gallery with my own money in 2008. Most of Malaysia’s famous shadow puppeteers came from this area. I saw many master puppeteers performing in the past. They were famous and respected throughout Kelantan and Malaysia, and after I learned the art of being a master puppeteer in the 1980’s, it was around 2000, that I could see the art was dying. That’s why I created this place.”
Daim receives around a thousand visitors at the gallery every year. 40% are domestic and 60% are foreign.
“Groups of up to six people are able to come to stay here for three days and two nights – in homestay – to learn the art of shadow play. Foreigners love this programme. I also have a one day programme, where in eight hours, visitors can learn how to make simple puppets. Japanese, Koreans and western tourists often come for this. I receive a lot of Australian visitors as well,” says Daim.
The leather puppets are chiselled with fine tools and supported by frames made of buffalo horns, with bamboo sticks to control movement. Traditionally, the story lines have been taken from Hindu epics like the Ramayana or other folk takes, and traditional puppet designs have changed little in 300 years. The language used in wayang kulit is the classical Malay Kelantese dialect. The shadow play thus tended to decline in popularity among young people because the language was harder to understand.
Today, the traditional figures have made way – in one instance – to those of… wait for it… Star Wars. “If we, the puppeteers, didn’t change ourselves, the art of shadow play would not be popular anymore,” says Daim. “That is why, with my team, we created these new figures following an agreement with Lucas Film, based on an original idea by Tintoy Chuo.”
The new play, entitled Peperangan Bintan features Star Wars characters in a storyline taken from the traditional art of storytelling and shadow play.
“In no way does this mean that the tradition of shadow play will be lost,” says Daim. “It is a new era – two elements joining together to grow the art. It’s just adding new characters to the shadow play puppets. We had to do something to make shadow play come alive again or at least to open the interest to the younger generation.”
The breath-taking beauty of the Songket
The Songket is Malaysia’s traditional ceremonial dress. In the early days, only “nobles” would be able to wear Songket, but today many people wear them for weddings. Officials wear the Songket once a year for state assembly meetings or awards ceremonies. High ranking people also wear the head-dress.
Songket is a handwoven piece of fabric with embossed metallic silver or gold patterns.
No one is quite sure of its origins, but it is believed that the art of weaving Songket may have been brought to Kelantan through inter-marriages between royal families in the Malay archipelago and Indo-China. North eastern Malaysia is reported to have the highest concentration of Songket weavers in the country.
“Handicraft like this is a dying art. Sadly, young people today do not find this kind of activity very interesting,” Kamel Hussein of Cik Minah Songket Pantas Batik in Khota Bharu explains. “Previously we had more than a hundred people working here. Now there are less than 20, because the younger generation is not interested in working in handicrafts. My son is studying the arts, but he is working on filming and editing.”
Hussein’s business is one of the most renowned in the region, and it is possible to watch the weavers at work, working intricate patterns into the material. For the batik and Songkit business, the good years were the 1990s, says Hussein. That’s when people could afford to “splash out”. Now it’s less and less the case.
Just like the batik, a piece of Songket consists of a kepala, badan and kaki. The kepala, which literally translates to “head”, is a wide panel of motifs that runs through the width of the fabric. Another set of motifs run across the length of the fabric, and is known as the kaki, or “feet”. The rest of the fabric is known as the badan, or “body”. The Malay songket is not embroidered. It utilises an intricate supplementary weft technique where gold threads are woven in between the longitudinal silk threads of the background cloth. The symbolism of thread colours to signify the status and title of the Court has been in use since the period of the Melaka Sultanate during the reign of Sultan Muhammad Shah (1426 – 1446, Sejarah Melayu). White gold thread was the colour of the ruler, yellow for the crown prince, blue or violet for the prime minister and so on.
There is a wide range of Songket, with different quality and patterns. Some are made from cotton, and the more expensive ones are from silk.
It generally takes two weeks to complete one single Songket, or sometimes much more (even months), depending on the intricacy of the design. Songket is distinguished by metallic embossed motifs, mostly inspired by flora and fauna.
Keep it spinning!
In Kelantan and Terangganu, the traditional pastime of gasing – or top-spinning — is still in evidence, but the art of producing the gasing is one that is mastered by an increasingly small number of people.
Gasing competitions continue to be held regularly in Kelantan and Terengganu, and are very serious affairs. Players train long and hard to defend the reputation of their village. The competitions are taken so seriously that a traditional “medicine man” is sometimes summoned to perform rites on the gasing and the venue before a match is played.
Especially amongst the villagers in the State of Kelantan and Melaka, each season after the rice harvest, villagers come together to challenge each other in an ultimate test of skill. The villagers believed that the spinning tops would help bring good harvest.
These competitions usually include both individuals and teams who compete in two main types of matches: Spinning match (gasing uri) and Striking match (gasing pangkah).
While the gasing is a spinning top unique to Singapore and Malaysia, tops have been played in countries all around the world for centuries. Tops have turned up in many archaeological sites, proving that they have been in existence since ancient times.
The aim of gasing uri is to keep one’s top spinning for the longest period of time. Some players launch it from their shoulder like a shot put, while others fling it like a frisbee. Regardless of style, a good throw is one that sets the gasing upright and spinning for a long time. After the gasing is launched, a wooden paddle is able to be used to transfer it to a stand to allow it to spin undisturbed. A champion top spinner in Kelantan is reported to have set a gasing spinning continuously for 1 hour, 40 minutes and 20 seconds. The aim of gasing pangkah is to knock an opponent’s gasing out of a circle or to make it lose its balance and topple over.
Giant top spinning is no child’s game. Each top is around 20 cm in diameter and weighs four or five kilograms. The sport requires at least five years’ training before one is considered ready for competition in which local pride is the only reward. So, the sport calls for strength, coordination, and skill, as well as a great deal of dedication.
In the past, this kind of game was as popular as football is today. But new generation attractions such as TV, the Internet and video games have taken its limelight away.
To spin a top in a round of gasing uri, a string is first tightly wound around the top. With the player holding on to one end of the string, the gasing is “launched” to set it spinning, then a “scooper” catches it on a small wooden paddle just centimetres wide. Scooping is said to be the most difficult job.
To make a gasing, one starts with a carved wooden centre. Most gasings are made of local hardwood, with craftsmen carefully selecting timber that is free of holes, cracks or imperfections. To make a gasing, a cube of wood is first sawn off. This cube is then turned on a lathe and shaped into a cone using special tools. A spike is then embedded at its peg.
A heavy rim is added by pouring molten tin into a mould around the wood, as the extra weight prolongs the spin. In our visit to Ismail Mohamad’s gasing “plant”, the remnants of discarded batteries were molten down to create the metal parts of the top.
All the elements are spun on a foot-propelled wheel – chiselled down to an immaculate smoothness, a process that takes at least two days.
It is still possible today to visit a gasing-maker and watch how the tops are made… while attending a competition is a highly memorable occurrence.