Shadow Runners

Over a year ago, my classmates and I watched a Wayang Kulit performance as part of our Traditional Asian Theatre course, alongside a seven-day crash course on Mak Yong. Despite being half-Kelantanese (as my father reminds me from time to time), I found myself unable to comprehend most of the text, due to the thick dialect. I was not alone, however; my classmates were just as lost as I was. One of them had the excuse of being foreign, at least.

We turned to actor / writer Fahmi Fadzil, who had accompanied us on this study tour. He tried to watch, listen, enjoy and translate the story for us, all at the same time. I recalled watching his face as he explained the performance, with a sort of energetic enthusiasm. The following is a result of a recent email interview I conducted with Fahmi (who recently won the BOH Cameronian Arts Award for Most Promising Artist) about his next production, “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari”, a docu-performance of various inspirations. In his thoughts on Wayang Kulit, naughtiness and youth, I think it’s clear that his enthusiasm has survived.


The Apprentice

Tell us about yourself. How did a chemical engineering student become a Wayang Kulit enthusiast? Who did you train under, and for how long? What was the experience like?

Entah lah, I wonder about it all the time. I think it’s probably my “angin” — but, more coherently, in the last three or so years that I’ve been in love with Wayang. I suppose I was absolutely just fascinated by the symbols, systems and structures — as only a structuralist engineer can be fascinated — that Wayang engaged in, as well as the performance and roles of the dalang in all of it.

I’m not trained as a dalang, yet — but I’m not so sure if we can really see this process sama macam nak pergi universiti, take however many credit hours, and then you graduate. Lain sikit, actually. What little I’ve learnt has taken place in all sorts of environments: in classes and in coffee shop conversations. And from talking to people and reading biographies (for “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari”, specifically). I guess it’s just one of those things where you’re continuously learning, uncovering, and having new things revealed to you at all times.

Tell us a more about Wayang Kulit. What do you think are its strengths and weaknesses? The form, as I’ve been taught, was influenced by Hindu culture and is practised mostly in Kelantan and Terengganu. Where is Wayang’s place in current Malaysian society?

Wah, susah nak jawab ni! But I think the thing we forget a lot about — and hence should talk more about — is the regional experience of Wayang. Wayang does not exist in a vacuum, and the fact that the cerita pokok of Wayang Kulit Siam is a localised adaptation — or syncretisation; big word, I know — of the Ramayana from India, says it has this relationship with the other Wayang forms in the region. We forget this bit a lot because of our more recent (within the last century, I mean) political milieu — the creation of national and political boundaries.

I love Wayang most for its spontaneity and its earthy humour. But its resolved metaphysics is also worth examining, in our zaman porak-peranda ni. Its ability to situate itself firmly within a larger spiritual discourse (articulated, though it was, by Islamic terms) is a reminder that another kind of Malay / Muslim is possible, and this enunciation is more and more necessary in this day and age, I feel — what with the chauvinistic ethnic pride and other keris-waving nonsense we see today.

Today, we’ve gone and dumped Wayang (and Mak Yong, Manorah, Dabus, etc) in the bakul sampah, for a whole slew of reasons. It is rather heartbreaking, but it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing, my friends and I, because talk alone saves nothing.


In December 2006 you put on a “Malam Pembuka” — with musicians Azmyl Yunor and Aziz Ali — for Projek Wayang, an endeavour that would eventually lead to “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari”. Are you carrying over any of the concepts explored in “Malam Pembuka”? Can we expect “Wayang Kadbod” and “Wayang Tangan”?

The one thing we learnt from “Malam Pembuka” was that an attempt to learn and engage with Wayang involved, to a large degree, a process of fun-learning — our assumptions, biases, etc — and to find another “way of seeing”. This was important for us because for that one-year (“Malam Pembuka” was a milestone of a longer, ongoing process, Projek Wayang), we struggled with what Wayang meant for us.

Questions about form and function arose, as well as of contexts. What does it mean to perform Wayang Kulit in Kuala Lumpur? Are we resolved to only having wayang gambar as our Wayang (seeing, as it is, that only a certain kind of wayang gambar –­ structurally Ameri-centric, I would suppose — is favoured by Malaysian audiences)? What about the other Wayang possibilities and permutations that exist? What kinds of stories and performance experiences can these possibilities and permutations unveil / reveal for KL?

In a sense, “Malam Pembuka” proved to us that it was worthwhile creating a methodology with which we could not only work with Wayang in KL — but also bring along more friends to work with Wayang. To this point in time, we have had a dozen or more people working on the project: being exposed to some aspects of Wayang Kulit, and taking a certain amount of ownership of this work. Which is a wonderful success, in a way. And this “way of seeing” partly informs the way we work in “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari”, where we cross paths and merge with the docu­theatre framework of Mark Teh’s recent projects.

But no, there’ll be no Wayang Kadbod or Wayang Tangan in this production. But there’ll be lots of naughtiness.

Playing With Other Kids

You are working with actor Lim Chung Wei, visual artist Wong Tay Sy, director Mark Teh, experimental musician Aziz Ali and graphic artist Fahmi Reza in “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari”. What is it like, with so much varied input? Have there been instances where the “many cooks + broth” maxim apply? Tell us about the process.

Our relationships with each other go back four or five (and for some, even more) years. For this project, the chemistry has been so rich — which has definitely helped the process, because we have come to know what we can each contribute to the creation of this performance. We know when to take a step back, when to lunge ahead, when to say: “Dah, cukup lah tu.” So, I don’t think that maxim applies so much. In fact, I think it’s a matter of “bergotong-royong satu kampung to kacau dodol”!

How did the concept of “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” come to be? How would you describe the performance? We know that it was originally called “Operasi Dalang”. What happened? It’s like “Mission Impossible” became “The Running Man” …

“Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” started out pretty much as an idea to engage and deal with Wayang and contemporary Malaysian society; how something so old yet so tremendously popular lost its appeal; and what it means to aggrandise someone over another (oh, award ceremonies!). But, more than anything else, we just wanted to work with each other!

We felt that “Operasi Dalang”, as a name, didn’t fully reflect what we had explored and found, up until that point — since it does connote a certain orchestrated political tragedy, what with similarities to “Operasi Lalang”. We wanted it to reflect a cheekier sense of things. I suppose if you wanted to put a label on this performance, it would be Wayang Nakal — hence that “kanak-kanak” allusion.

Pak Dollah and Pak Hamzah

We understand that part of “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” will explore on the rivalries between Dalang Dollah Baju Merah and Dalang Hamzah Awang Mat. Can you elaborate more on this? How does this figure into the devising of the performance?

Actually, we’re beginning to rethink the term “rivalry” in this instance; maybe they were just two sides of the same coin?

Arwah Pak Hamzah bin Awang Amat and arwah Pak Abdullah bin Ibrahim (or Pak Dollah Baju Merah) began their formal careers in Wayang at about the same time. Because of Pak Dollah’s father’s unwillingness to part with his only son, the equally formidable Pak Hamzah was subsequently selected to tour various countries — and, later in life, was eventually elevated as a Seniman Negara; he helped to formalise certain aspects of Wayang Kulit, to the point that it can now be taught in institutions like ASWARA.

In contrast to this, Pak Dollah remained in Kelantan almost his entire life — but enjoyed an immense and singular popularity at home. It was these contrasts, choices and missed opportunities that we wanted to explore.

What’s happened over the rehearsal period — oh dear, has it been 5 months already? –­ has been an acclimatisation with what wayang kulit is, who these two dalangs were, and what they meant to contemporary wayang practice — things like that. We sift through research materials and select pieces before throwing everything on the floor and see what works (not just structurally, but also according to what our guts say).

You know, standard devised theatre process, with room left for spontaneity.

The Monster and the Dalang

“Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” is partly based on the “Betara Kala”, a story about a monster chasing a man who seeks refuge in a Wayang Kulit performance. As it sits down to watch it, the monster responds to, and has a conversation with, the dalang. Tell us more about it. Why did you choose this particular Wayang Kulit tale to inform the work?

Banyak jugak soalan-soalan ni!

The tale of “Betara Kala”, from what we have learnt, connects Wayang Kulit Siam to its southern cousin-of-sorts, Wayang Purwa, in some ways (though, for Wayang Kulit Siam, it only appears in the sembah guru ritual performance). More interestingly, this story references itself in a — watch out, now — meta-textual manner, where the dalang in the story names the various symbols in Wayang to an immensely inquisitive “Betara Kala”, and thus gives meanings to the Wayang form.

From a textual level, we were keen to explore authorship (and aggrandisement of the author) — and, hence, the lack of an author (as the story is an oral narrative).

Questions about how this tale came to come to Kelantan perked us up. We were also interested in structured improvisation (recalling the ”tikam-tikam” works of Leow Puay Tin), and felt that this story could provide some sense of that.

It’s all a bit gila.

Bringing Wayang To People

Like last year’s “Baling (membaling)”, “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” is running a gauntlet of colleges and the Central Market Annexe. Why take theatre to students? What do you hope to achieve? How do you think they’d take to Wayang?

Theatre can be very mahal. That is one of the factors contributing to why orang tak nak tengok. Why spend RM40 to RM100, when you can catch movies about spiders or pirates for RM10? Plus you’re allowed popcorn and drinks!

Our performances in these institutions will be free, or almost free. We’re hoping to bring in a new set of audiences into theatre by bringing theatre to these audiences.

This whole exercise is nothing new to Malaysia, of course. But hopefully we’ll also get to show another kind of theatre (there’s not just one kind, kan?) — and, at the very least, present a story about Wayang Kulit and the dalangs.

Otherwise … mana kita nak dengar, tak?

Why not bring the performance to high schools? Do you intend to bring “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” (or Projek Wayang, in general) to audiences outside the Klang Valley?

Why not?


First Published: 23.05.2007 on Kakiseni

Related items

For Translation

The 8th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…

The 7th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…