Dalang Dollah Baju Merah, 1937 – 2005

The first time I met arwah Pak Dollah Baju Merah was in February this year. It was for the Semarak Seni project, conducted by Pusaka, to document the five main traditional performance genres in Kelantan through photography, audio recording, video footage, and writing. Sadly, that project was to be my first and final encounter with Pak Dollah.

I first learnt of Pak Dollah from my friends at Five Arts Centre. My work with Akshen, the resident youth theatre company at Five Arts, brought me closer to wayang kulit than anything I had work on before. We did several rather crude performances using the wayang style, which we aptly dubbed ‘wayang kadbod’ (we crafted the puppets out of cardboard instead of the more expensive leather). At that point, I was exhilarated with the form, even if we were just playing around.

After some time, I wanted to learn and do much more with wayang kulit… but I just didn’t know where to go.

Where could you go to learn wayang kulit in Kuala Lumpur?

Wayang kulit involved a completely different system of learning, I had discovered, where the relationship between student and teacher grow out of years spent understanding the nuances of each other’s behavior, where lessons are taught over coffee, and live performances are your rehearsals. It definitely doesn’t sound like something you could take an exam in SPM for.

That was when I was pointed to Kelantan, and to Pak Dollah, via his apprentice Eddin Khoo, who is the director of Pusaka.

Eddin and I spent many hours talking about everything under the sun, although most of it gravitated around wayang kulit. I listened to stories about learning wayang kulit that challenged my resolve: Eddin himself had been under Pak Dollah’s guidance for the last half decade – an indicator of how long it takes to learn; it was nearly two years before Pak Dollah even allowed Eddin to handle his puppets. But Eddin felt that the stories in the wayang kulit Siam were not his to perform, and so insisted that he would not undergo full initiation as a dalang wayang kulit Siam.

Yet after listening to all of that and more, my resolve stood its ground and I took up Eddin’s offer to follow Pusaka to Kelantan for the Semarak Seni project. I was entrusted to write a piece on how a young person views the five performance traditions of Main Puteri, Mak Yong, Manora, Dikir Barat, and of course Wayang Kulit, within their respective cultural contexts.

I was nervous, excited.

When Semarak Seni happened and I finally met Pak Dollah, it was as if a mighty wind had struck me, filling my sails. There was nothing I could say. I fell silent and beheld the aging rubber trees that grew outside his wooden home, his main source of subsistence through the years after wayang kulit was banned by the PAS government in Kelantan; I looked at the merbok birds timidly resting in their cages on his verandah; I saw his beautiful puppets, both old and newly made, stacked quietly in a cardboard box and set in a corner of his spacious living room alongside the music instruments.

I barely said anything because I was struck by the sheer gravity of the moment, of Pak Dollah’s presence. He possessed a quiet, diminutive stature that did not impose, with eyes that seemed to gaze solemnly into the future and return to the present without missing a beat. His smile, gentle and wise, quickly put people at ease. In my mind, I thought: Here is the last dalang wayang kulit of his era.

I want to repeat the word gravity once more, because that is what I feel Pak Dollah possessed, a centered-ness of being, gravitas. This is something I witnessed not just in Pak Dollah, but also in other master practitioners I had met in Kelantan.

While I sat in quiet reverence – I now wish I had said more, asked more – Eddin interviewed Pak Dollah for an article in Off The Edge, while other members of the team photographed and video-taped.

I listened to Pak Dollah speak of how, as a child, he angered the late master dalang Dol Sabok, which fatefully led to the latter offering to teach him wayang kulit; how as a dalang budak (protégé dalang) he once won a dozen red t-shirts in a wayang kulit competition, which he then used as his troupe’s uniform –  hence the nickname Dollah Baju Merah; how times were so tough during the early years of the proscription that he went down to Singapore to earn a living as a construction worker, abandoning his practice altogether.

But most of all, I treasured the moments when Pak Dollah took out his puppets to play, to tease us. He brought out two puppets and depicted them in mortal duel, making them dance with daggers in their hands. As the defender sidestepped his attacker, Pak Dollah, with a deft twist of his hand, ended the sequence with a keris plunged in the latter’s back.

Pak Dollah went on to explain, with a mischievous grin, how different he was from other dalangs – that in a battle such as this, some dalangs would simply let the puppets at each other. He, on the other hand, would use that sequence to divulge the nature of people in conflict: humans, and perhaps the Malays particularly, are very able backstabbers.

For me, this small gesture revealed something about the role the dalang plays – that he is the people’s storyteller, the observant commentator of his society, someone who understands the times and the necessity for symbols and stories.

On a different level, it showed me the grace of mind this man possessed; it takes a certain kind of person to lift the banal into metaphor, and Pak Dollah was a man with such a luminous ability. At various times during the interview he would speak, pause briefly in thought, and calmly emerge with the word he was looking for.

On a question from Eddin as to why Pak Dollah did not attend a recent meeting with PAS to negotiate lifting the ban on wayang kulit performances:

“I didn’t feel like [attending the meeting] … I felt if I went, it would be pointless. My language has no place there. Besides, if they were serious about lifting the ban, why don’t they just lift it? What is the need for negotiation and new guidelines?

“Some people were upset with me and they asked me why I didn’t go. My answer was simple – I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to go by car or motorbike, so I simply decided to stay at home.

“Though if I really wanted to go, it wouldn’t have been a problem. Someone could always take me… ”

On our way back, I remarked to Eddin how humble Pak Dollah seemed. After a moment, came his reply: “No, not humble. Self-assured.”

Yet I missed my chance to learn any further. Dalang Abdullah bin Ibrahim passed away on 27th September 2005 at the age of 67.

Now, we are left with broken pieces, splinters of our thoughts, with which to carry on. An entire generation, fumbling in the shadows, bereft of the knowledge, secrets, wisdom that Pak Dollah possessed.

Another great light has withdrawn from the world. Yet is it not true that the night is at its darkest before dawn?


First Published: 06.10.2005 on Kakiseni

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