Wayang Kulit in Kelantan

Wayang Kulit in Kelantan

Wayang Kulit in Kelantan, Malaysia was one of the cultural highlights during a trip made in early 2011 and it was an experience to be remembered for a very long time. Never before I had witnessed such a unique and traditional performance by seasoned veterans who still manage to keep this dying trade alive.

During my trip, I visited this place in Kota Baharu town called Gelanggang Seni (Cultural Center) which is the cultural development center of Kelantan. It is located in the city center so getting here is pretty easy. If you have never witnessed this in real time, I would suggest you try to do so as this centuries old trade is slowly fading away. Read on to find out more about this traditional entertainment called Wayang Kulit.

Tok Dalang Photo
Tok Dalang (Puppet Master) gets ready for the show

The term Wayang Kulit translates as Shadow Play where a puppet master known as a Tok Dalang sits and controls the handmade colourful puppets behind a white screen. To become a Tok Dalang or puppet master, it takes many years of skill to handle these puppets with both hands while singing, narrating and tapping the kechrek (rattle) with his leg to signal the musicians.

The dalang also has to master the change the tone in his voice to suit the various characters played. This includes the evil laughter sounds and also the soothing voices of males and female.

Wayang Kulit Siam in Kelantan
Wayang Kulit Siam in Kelantan

The Tok Dalang also has to master the numerous stories by heart. These stories are drawn from the odysseys of the Ramayana and Mahabharata which are part and parcel of the fundamental writings of Hinduism and Indian civilization. Usually the stories presented are mythical and morality tales.

When I sat there throughout the show, I was fascinated on how the master could change his voice so many times to suit the various characters throughout his story.

Kelantan Tok Dalang
Tok Dalang in action

Wayang Kulit Show in Kelantan
Wayang Kulit Show in Kelantan

The colourful puppets are made of cow or buffalo leather which has been stretched and then dried. The intricate patterns are then carved out manually, hand painted and fitted on banana stems. Rods are also connected to the elbows and knees of the puppets giving them 'life' when moved.

Good characters will appear on the right side of the stage while evil characters would be on the left. Behind the screen, traditionally back lit by a flickering oil lamp, the dalang will weave his tale, bringing to live the shadow play aided by a troop of traditional musicians in the back. These days, energy saving bulbs have since replaced the oil but are still fitted into the traditional oil lamp which is hung just above the master.  

Wayang Kulit Musicians Kelantan
Wayang Kulit Musicians

The Wayang Kulit musicians usually comprise of about 10 people playing various instruments like various gamelan gongs, gendang drums and serunai flutes which are all traditional Malay instruments. They would be seated behind the Tok Dalang (Dhalang) and awaiting his instructions by knocking his knee with the kechrek (rattle).

This would signal them to start and throughout the performance, the dalang would knock many times changing the tone of the music. These talented musicians have years of experience therefore knowing what and when to play.

Serunai flute
Serunai flute (Malay Traditional Flute) played

photo of Serunai 
A veteran passionately playing the Serunai Flute

As I sat back stage observing the entire music troop, I could not help notice that all of the musicians were well over fifty years of age and looked wise and experienced.

They knew exactly when to play what while looking very cool and totally undisturbed by the fact that I was there moving around taking pictures. But I did it quietly tip toeing around the backstage.

Tok Dalang Wayang Kulit
Puppet Master at work

Musicians take a break during the show

During the show, the Tok Dalang would then tell various stories through his mic which was taped around his neck the old fashioned way. During some parts, he would be be talking in a very harsh tone and then changing to a sweet ladies tone. The musicians would take cue to stop playing while they waited for his signal before they changed to a different music to suite the play.

Wayang Kulit Photo
In between the screen and the backstage area

Tok Dalang ending the Wayang Kulit show

Finally after about 30 minutes, the story comes to an end with multiple puppet characters being used throughout. Some big, some small and some even evil looking. The strong colors projected by a modern kerosene lamp with an energy saving bulb display brightly against the plain white sheet.

Spectators on the outside then clap to the performance while it is just another day for the troop here. Word has it that it is quite difficult to catch a performance like this around the state and once needs to really ask around to actually see it performed in the local villages.

Malaysia Wayang Kulit
Wayang Kulit Malaysia

I have to say that this traditional show was an eye opener for me as being a Malaysian, I have never witnessed something like this happening live in front of my eyes. I have only seen it on televisions and in books so it was a bit of a cultural shock for me.

The sad fact is that there used to be four main varieties of Wayang Kulit in Malaysia where only the first two are still being performed. They are;
  • Wayang Kulit Siam of Kelantan
  • Wayang Gedek which is performed by the Thai communities of Kedah and Perlis
  • Wayang Kulit Jawa, performed by the Javanese communities of Selangor and Johor
  • Wayang Kulit Melayu, performed by the Javanese communities of Terengganu
If you thought there would be nothing much to do in Kelantan, I would easily reconsider that statement. There are many places to visit and things to do around here.

I visited the largest Sitting Buddha Statue in Kelantan and also the famous Siti Khadijah Market among some of the popular places here. I also stayed at the Tune Hotels in Kota Baharu as it was convenient for me to move around due to the strategic location in the main town area.

If you are visiting Kota Baharu in Kelantan, I highly recommend you to explore the many places, food, cultures and traditions available here and most of all, if you have the chance, go to the cultural centre to watch some traditional Wayang Kulit in Kelantan which is a hard performance to catch.


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