An art of light and shadow

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Shadows are a common optical phenomenon that have long inspired the imagination. Shadows are also commonly used for entertainment. They can capture perfect silhouettes of anything in the world while eliminating specific texture. They can depict happiness and sadness, courage and timidity, good and evil. People often find a piece of themselves in the shadows. Figures crafted from animal hides, alongside a light source, a white screen, and some music, can open the door to a wonderful black-and-white world.

Shadow plays are one of the oldest forms of drama in China and an ancient folk tradition and art that originated in Huaxian County, Shaanxi Province. According to historical records, shadow plays were born in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and flourished in the Tang (618-907) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. In the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), the art was introduced to West Asia and Europe. With a long history and strong appeal, this form of art is still popular among Chinese people. However, most don't realize that this ancient form of Chinese art was introduced to Southeast Asia in the 13th Century and took root there.

Malaysian shadow plays originated in Kelantan and spread to other regions of the country including Melayu, Gedek, and Purwa. This art has been preserved to this day as an important artistic and cultural representative of Malaysian culture. A typical Kelantan shadow play consists of cut-out puppets for gods, humans, demons, apes, and lesser creatures made from animal hides. A light source is placed behind a white cloth screen between two banana trees, and the show is accompanied by a mini band of drums, clarinets, and gongs. The puppeteer sits behind the screen and tells traditional folk stories, while the audience watches from the other side.

Evolution of Kelantan Shadow Play

The Kelantan shadow play is the most traditional and popular among the regional variants of puppet plays in Malaysia, with its own unique style and features in historical origin, storytelling, and performance. Indirectly influenced by Chinese shadow puppetry, the Kelantan shadow play was also profoundly influenced by Thai and Indonesian cultures due to the region's geographical proximity to Thailand and Indonesia. Javanese and Thai elements have been fused into its vocabulary and characters. For example, it employs Javanese vocabulary such as wayang (shadow puppet show), panggung (stage), kelir (screen) and Tok Dalang (shadow play performer). Many characters include distinct Thai features such as pagoda crowns, round noses, and single-joint swing arms.

In Malaysia, opinions on the origin of the Kelantan shadow play differ. But most experts throughout Southeast Asia agree that shadow puppet shows began as religious rituals.

In ancient Java, people believed that one's roh (soul) would continue living in the world after death. People would offer sacrifices to Hyang (souls or ghosts) to be protected and blessed. Sacrificial ceremonies, usually presided over by elders at midnight, would consist of incense burning, scripture chanting, and worshiping, followed by projection of shadow puppets in the image of their ancestors and ancestors' favorite utensils on white cloth to communicate with the deceased. Today, shadow puppet plays are also performed at night during the Kelantan Kite Festival at the end of May.

Over its history of more than 400 years, the Malaysian shadow puppet play has been integrated with Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic elements. Two famous ancient Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, have become important sources for storytelling in the Kelantan shadow play.

Rama's story has been told for centuries in Southeast Asia and is loved by millions. Even after the introduction of Islam, Malays continued to celebrate the magical story of Rama. The plot of Maharaja Wana, a lively Kelantan shadow puppet show, roughly follows the plot of the Malay version of Ramayana. The show tells the story of the joys and sorrows of Rama, a prince of the Kingdom of Ayutthay, and his wife Sita, the princess of the Kingdom of Mithila, who is kidnapped by Ravana, the demon king of ancient India.

Kelantan shadow play stories have been passed down across generations verbally without written documentation. Performances vary depending on the artists and sometimes blend stories of Javanese classical literature. The script is constantly rewritten with new content. This process causes the stories to gradually become localized to the aesthetical standards of Malays. For example, Rama and Ravana look more like the locals with a more delicate mouth, nose, and a curve from the nose to the forehead. However, performing artists insist that the main plots of the stories remain sacred and intact.

Precisely due to such colorful innovative practices, the Kelantan shadow play has acquired profoundly unique features.


A Kelantan shadow play performance consists of a prologue and a main show. The prologue is usually 50 minutes long for ceremonial purposes and as a warm-up for the main show. A musician and an apprentice perform some music and chant scripture to prepare the audience for Prince Rama. It takes three to four hours to perform an episode, and two months to perform a whole play. Because of the fast pace of modern life, it's difficult to witness the entire play. More often than not, people watch highly condensed versions of classic plays. The condensed versions are usually divided into three or four sections to pull in the audience.

The performers are clearly the soul of shadow puppet plays. Since the art was introduced into Malaysia from Java in 1834, artists have been known as "Tok Dalang" to locals. In a play, the Tok Dalang has to narrate as well as speak and sing for 10 different characters while projecting the shadows of up to 45 puppets and conducting the band. Artists must be highly sensitive to sound and very familiar with the characters and plots of the plays.

Performers are also responsible for making the puppets. Smaller puppets are usually made from sheepskin, which takes a whole day, while larger puppets are usually made from ox or buffalo hide, which takes two or three days. The meticulous and tedious process captures their dedication to the cultural heritage. Many puppets are family treasures passed down for generations, engraved with the spirit of accumulation and inheritance.

The Kelantan shadow play is performed in the Malay dialect of Pantai, a region in northern Kelantan. But it is slightly different from the local daily spoken language because the performing artists use the language of classical Malay literature, which is less familiar to the audience, to add color to the different characters.

A performance consists of two parts: the spoken part and the acted part. The general rule is that when a character speaks, the accompanying music stops. When the puppets are doing more than minor body movements, they should stop speaking. For example, when a fairy speaks to a clown, her mouth should move very quickly, and the accompanying music should catch up with her. The music and action are inseparable. The movements of the shadow puppets must match the rhythm of the music, and the tune of music must conform to the type of character in the play.

Preserved Cultural Heritage

"All living things should flourish without harming each other; all ways of life should thrive without hindering each other," goes an ancient Chinese saying. Although the cultures of different countries are similar in some ways and different in others, they will always integrate through communication and collision.

The kinship between China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand in the art of shadow puppetry shows that culture knows no boundaries. Shadow puppet plays not only tell stories, but also keep a record of the storytellers behind the scenes who have devoted their lives to the art.

Shadow puppet plays are far from a static painting of dry ink on the wall. It is a living art and a cultural bridge between different countries and between past and present. While enhancing confidence in national culture, people should also be more open and inclusive to promote equality, mutual learning, dialogue, and mutual accommodation between civilizations.

In recent years, many other stories have been adapted for the Kelantan shadow puppet shows, even some from modern movies. However, the main characters are still dressed in traditional costumes while secondary characters are often dressed in modern gear like military uniforms for soldiers and high heels for ladies. Alongside the clowns, other characters also play funny scenes. Some plays have even tried to include hot issues of modern society.  

The Kelantan shadow puppetry is still popular in local villages. It has constantly drawn on the richness of many cultures to innovate with local features. Unfortunately, the local features have prevented it from being spread to other parts of the world. Although UNESCO designated it a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003, this form of art is gradually disappearing from the world stage. Although there are fewer and fewer opportunities to perform traditional shows these days, performers are constantly seeking new ways to carry forward this art of light and shadow. 

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