Before Macbeth, however, before even Shakespeare, was Ramayana. Widely acknowledged as one of the most epic of epics, it tells the story of King Dasaratha of the kingdom of Ayodhya, a man who is childless and heirless, despite having three wives of his own. Praying to the gods, his wives eventually become pregnant with four princes: Raama, Lakshmana, Shathrugna and Bharata. Growing up, the princes were trained in the arts of war, becoming the best of friends to each other.
One day, they travel to the kingdom of Videha, ruled by Janaka. As it happens, Janaka is ready to wed off his daughter, Seetha, with the winner of a series of contest being her husband. Raama wins the contest, and returns home with his bride. With all the elements in place, their father is ready to pronounce them as rulers of Ayodhya. However, Bharata’s mother, Kaikeyi, implored the king to pick her son as the ruler instead. Having once saved his life, he had promised to grant her two wishes of her choice. Pulling out all the stops, Bharatha becomes king instead, and Raama is banished from the kingdom for 14 years (the second of her wishes). He is followed by Seetha and Lakshmana. Grieving at the loss of the three, King Dasaratha dies. As Bharatha learns of the true nature of his ascension, he goes into the forest to persuade Raama to come back. Raama, however, refuses to do so, and remains in the forest with Seetha and Lakshmana.
Encountering demons and creatures of other kinds on a regular basis in the woods, the trio constantly fought to protect their own lives. One of the demons manages to escape, and reported to his lord demon, Raavana, the demon king of Lanka, of the trio. She specifically talks of Seetha, and how beautiful she is. Raavana eventually desires her, and sets a trap for the princes in order to kidnap her. Realising the ruse, the princes rushes back to their home in the woods, but finds Seetha gone. The brothers searches for Raavana. With the help of Sugriva, the king of the monkeys, they travel to Lanka (now known as Sri Lanka) and defeated the demon king to save Seetha.
With the end of the battle comes the end of the 14 year exile. Raama returns to Ayudhya, where Bharatha gladly makes way for him to be crowned as king. He rules as a just king, but the same couldn’t be said of the treatment of his wife. He banished her when he doubted her faithfulness to him. Seetha, who is carrying Raama’s twins, is looked after by Vaalmiki, one of the seven sages in Hindu mythology. In his home, the children, Lava and Kusha, are born and bred.
Raama, as an emperor, performs the Ashwamedha Yagna to enlarge his empire. It is a ritual where an emperor sends one of his own horses to wanter. The king of the area the horse wanders into can allow it to wander, meaning that his willing to be annexed into Raama’s kingdom, or to tie it up, showing a defiance to such actions. Raama’s twins comes across the horse, and ties it up without knowing its significance. Hearing upon this, Raama decides to venture beyond his own kingdom, and meets his sons for the first time. They, along with their mother, are allowed to return to Ayodhya, and they all live happily ever after.
The Mahabharata tale also tells of similar stories. It focuses mainly on the Pandava brothers, and their rivalry with Kaurava. Both sets of brothers are related, and hold legitimate claims to the throne of Hastinapura. It could be said that the Pandavas are not on a level playing field; while there are five of them (Yudhistira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva, the Kaurava number a hundred, with the eldest being Duryodhana.
The Kauravas are constantly planning to get rid of the Pandava brothers from Hastinapura. They even made a palace from flammable materials. Though the Pandavas were lured into the trap, they managed to escape, with the bodies of others mistakenly identified as theirs. While in hiding, Arjuna manages to win the hand of Princess Draupadi of Pancala. Returning home, their mother declared (without knowing what they had won) that the prize must be shared equally amongst them. Thus, Draupadi was married to the brothers in a lavish ceremony.
After the ceremony, the family elders arranged for the Pandava brothers to have their own territory within the kingdom. Settled at Indraprastha, the Kauravas are invited over. Though they weren’t initially enamoured with the Pandavas, and they agreed to come, and it is fortunate that they did. In a dice game duel, Yudhishtira loses all his wealth to Duryodhana. Seeking to win back his losses, he raised the stakes, gambling his kingdom, his brothers, himself and even his wife into the game. He lost it all, and the Pandavas were once again exiled from the kingdom.
After spending the agreed twelve years in exile in the forest, they decided to battle against the Kauravas for the kingdom of Hastinapura. Rounding up their allies, the two groups of brothers eventually met in the battle at Kurukshetra. It is a battle from which the Pandavas emerged victorious, but it came at a high price. Gandhari, who bore all of the Kauravas, cursed Krishna to have the same befall upon him. Despite not taking sides in the battle, Krishna agreed that he could have stopped the war through his divine powers, and accepted the curse.
After their victory, they ruled their kingdom, but soon decided to renounce everything that they had won. Eventually, they make their way to the Himalaya, symbolic of their journey towards heaven, accompanied by a stray dog. One by one, the Pandavas and Draupadi fell by the wayside for their respective sins. Only Yudhishitra, along with the dog, survived the journey to the end, as he was the most virtuous of them all. The dog then reveals himself to be the god Yama. He takes Yudhishitra down to hell, to expose him for the one lie he told during his whole life. After learning that his siblings would join in heaven later, he ascends to the heavens, ending the story.
The versions mentioned above are actually more of a skimp through the actual stories, presenting merely the basic facts of the plot. We cans see several similar patterns in both stories: tales of princes, vast empires, demon kings, forest exiles, true love, and notions of brotherhood permeates both stories. At times, I felt as if I am reading through an Indian version of JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ epic. Not unlike Tolkien’s tome, both of these stories are long and tedious (Ramayana itself is contained in seven different books). It is not surprising that the local adaptations are far shorter, focusing on the more dramatic of the segments. For example, Hikayat Seri Rama tells mainly of the story of Seri Rama’s (Raama) exiled years in the forest. It focuses on the abduction of Siti Dewi (a local Seetha, if you will), the final fight between her husband and the demon king, and eventual rescue. It is interesting to note, then, that even then, the tok dalangs of the day knew how to hold and maintain the audience’s attention by focusing only on the most interesting and universal parts. Unfortunately, it is far short of what’s needed to keep it alive.
No matter its epic value, the spiritual value is certainly one aspect that is unique to the art. As such, a clash with the rise of Islamic fundamentalist in the Malay archipelago would seem to be inevitable. It is only recently that the actual banning of wayang kulit in its most fertile ground, Kelantan, put paid to its popularity. “Kelantan society includes Indians, Chinese and Muslims, but Islamic customs differ from those of the Chinese and the Indians,” said Pak Hamzah of the banning of wayang kulit. “I think that the Malaysian Islamic customs, based on the teachings of Islam, are very strict.” Hikayat Seri Rama’s Hindu-Buddhist origins probably didn’t help its case much, with many also reading it as a tale of Lord Vishnu’s seventh reincarnation. A modern day dalang, Kamrulbahri Hussin, puts it best. “When I was growing up in Kelantan, people who didn’t understand what main puteri and wayang kulit are about said these were forms of worshipping demons or gods,” he said in an interview with the website of Asika, a traditional performing arts group. “They just didn’t know about these traditional forms.”
It’s probably not just a matter of being non-Islamic, but also of being anti-Islamic in nature. Pak Dollah certainly expounds this in his wayang kulit performances, and Pak Hamzah certainly believes this to be a factor. “In a performance of shadow play I don’t criticise the government or other entities and I don’t take up political elements. I don’t want to combine the two,” he started. “But there are times when I raise issues that go against the teachings of religion. This is the Malaysian wayang kulit.”
However, such a conclusion, that Islam killed wayang kulit, is too simple an ending to reach. After all, the popularity of wayang kulit performances was already on the wane. A change in society should also be looked at, for there are now other forms of entertainment being more readily available for people to turn to. During the time when such choices were rather limited, wayang kulit shows were being performed on a regular basis. You could conduct a tour of all the different villages at any given week and enjoy almost a week’s worth of performances to last you a while. This certainly was the case for the rural areas of Kelantan, Kedah, and Terengganu.
The popular rise of television and films took away a significant portion of the target audience for wayang kulit performances. Not that every home has a TV at the time (at least, not yet), but the local coffee shops certainly do. More interestingly, outdoor cinemas were also popular at the time. Akin to the American drive-in theatre experience (and, more recently, Nokia’s Starlight Cinema), a big screen, generally consisting of a big piece of cloth, would be set up in an open field. People then paid to sit down and get their fix of Hindi and Indonesian films, in addition to local productions.
Some sources also point to the modernisation of infrastructure as a contributing factor. Wayang kulit performances used to have the advantage of being held a stone’s throw away from your house. It moves from village to village, from town to town, much like a rock band on tour. Such easy access makes it an easy choice for many of the villagers to stay put and watch it. It is also a communal experience, and one that people are generally free to come and go from whenever they please. Going out to the cinema means most cost, more hassle, and more time spent travelling. However, with the improvement of roads, availability of modes of transportations (such as cars and bikes), and the ‘cool’ factor of watching movies, the city is easier to reach. It contributes to people varying their activities and do other things.
Nevertheless, perhaps the biggest factor in the downfall of wayang kulit’s popularity can be summed up in several simple sentences: many just don’t care. Interest by urbanites in wayang kulit is low, at best. Books are written, plays are performed, and courses are conducted, but such activities remains on the fringes of general society’s consciousness. Not many KLites know about it, less have seen it performed, and even fewer have the desire to change this. ‘Transformers’, rather than the Mahabharata, is the weapon of choice for many.
Whether it is the cause or the effect, it didn’t help that such performances were also becoming rarer. It is not an easy art to perform, certainly not one that can be put on with the click of a finger. It costs money. With the lack of support from sponsors, it is perhaps inevitable that such a fate would befall it. It wouldn’t be alone in lying down; many of Malaysia’s traditional arts, such as the bangsawan, boria, mak yong and main puteri, amongst others, share the same deathbed. “If the original culture disappears, a new culture will probably arise; the culture of choice of the government in power will arise,” said Pak Hamzah.
Is it, however, dead? Though there is evidence that wayang kulit died an untimely death (despite its very advanced years), it has to be said that there are encouraging efforts being made to preserve it. Modern day groups such as the Kelana-Phoenix Company and Asika do performs shows both locally and abroad. For those who wanted a more academic path into the field, they’ll be heartened to discover that local universities such as ASWARA and UiTM, in following USM’s lead, are also making headways in the study of wayang kulit. And that’s not forgetting wayang kulit’s ‘home’ in Indonesia; the art is still relatively vibrant in Indonesia, and similar academic ventures are also plentiful. Much like the dalangs of the past, perhaps it would be a good idea to ‘reboot the franchise’ and learn the arts again. “There are so many cultures available now,” Pak Hamzah concluded. “There are those that are good and those that are bad. Observe slowly and carefully and choose that which is good, which is suitable for the time and which is necessary for you.”
Making films about it might be a good start…
The second part of ‘Origin’ is the first chapter from the as-yet-unpublished book, ‘Kelir Kaku: Behind the Seen of Wayang’ by Fikri Jermadi. You can read the first part here. Click here for a pictorial look at the film, while Fikri referenced his experiences extensively in his write up on university films.