KUALA LUMPUR -- Bent over strips of water buffalo hide, a team of puppet-makers is laboriously producing lively stick figures. Placed between a spotlight and a translucent white canvas that reflects colors, the puppets bring shadows to theatrical life in the form of wayang kulit, the traditional shadow puppet play of Kelantan, a northeast Malaysian state mainly populated by Malay Muslims.
Traditionally, wayang kulit performances feature characters from the Hindu "Ramayana," one of two epics in the ancient Sanskrit language, which date to the period between the 7th and 4th centuries B.C. But in an effort to revive this waning art, the puppet-makers have given the classics a popular twist, introducing characters from popular science-fiction sagas and comic books.
"Unfortunately, we can't perform at this time because of COVID-19 restrictions, but we are still preparing workshops and always trying to maintain the interest for wayang kulit alive," says "Tintoy" Chuo, a Chinese Malaysian multimedia design graduate. Chuo, a professional "character designer" widely known as Tintoy, is the co-founder of the Fusion Wayang Kulit group, along with Teh Take Huat, a senior art director from an advertising agency.
Fusion Wayang Kulit's two latest creations are Per-Kasa and Tengkorar, versions of the main characters from the 1980s comic and animated films franchise "Masters of the Universe," in which He-Man, the most powerful man in creation, does battle with the evil Skeletor to save the planet Eternia.
Per-Kasa and Tengkorar fuse elements of Kelantanese shadow puppetry into the features of the two eternal antagonists -- for example, they both ride a Naga dragon, symbolizing their strength and greatness, and both have the clawlike, elongated fingers typical of Kelantan's traditional shadow puppets.
"I have been playing with the Masters' vintage toys since I was a kid," said Tintoy, who says the two characters are a perfect match to the art because both are strong and use weapons like the original wayang kulit characters Rama, Sita and Laksamana.
Tintoy timed the creation of Per-Kasa and Tengkorar to coincide with the launch of a new "Masters of the Universe: Revelation" series on Netflix, which premiered on the streaming platform on July 23.
But He-Man and Skeletor are only the latest in a series of shadow puppet tributes to pop culture and movie icons in wayang kulit, ranging from Batman to Predator. Fusion Wayang Kulit started making such figures in 2012, inspired by the landmark sci-fi film "Star Wars" (1977).
"I am a big Star Wars fan, and thought that it would look strikingly different if it was adapted to traditional Malay wayang kulit," said Tintoy, who self-funded the debut show "Peperangan Bintang" ("Star Wars") in 2012. Spoken in Bahasa Malaysia, the national language of Malaysia, the show featured striking shadow puppet versions of the film's main characters with localized Malay names such as Sangkala Vedeh (Darth Vader), Hulubalang Empayar (Storm Trooper) and Perantau Langit (Luke Skywalker).
A post on Tintoy's Facebook page caught the attention and support of Muhammad Dain Othman. Better known as Pak Dain, he is the 13th accredited Tok Dalang (Master Puppeteer) of the Kelantan Traditional Malay Shadow Play art school, and has worked toward the preservation of this ancient Malay art in Kampong Morak, a village near Kelantan's main city of Kota Bharu, since the 1980s.
Pak Dain told Nikkei Asia that the wayang kulit art form "is believed to have arrived in Malaysia from India about 500 years ago." Shadow puppetry is also well represented in neighboring countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia. "But the Kelantanese form is different from all others because we have five dominant and unique characteristics," said Pak Dain, referring to background music, specific stories, modes of performance and presentation, and specific physical elements of the puppets.
Unfortunately, the Hindu pantheon and animist beliefs that are inherent in wayang kulit -- which predates the conversion of most Malays to Islam following contacts with Arab traders -- have become a major problem for the art in its Kelantan homeland.
The Malaysian Islamic Party, which controls the Kelantan State government, has banned several traditional Malay arts, including wayang kulit, on the grounds that they are "un-Islamic." Since 1998, performances have been allowed only indoors at specific venues.
However, says Pak Dain, characters based on modern sci-fi films and comic books have made the art appealing to a wider, multiethnic audience, even if they are a far cry from the original form of the art. Malaysia has a Malay Muslim majority but substantial Chinese, Indian, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities.
"Peperangan Bintang" initially shocked some religious and social conservatives, and Fusion Wayang Kulit faced questions about the authenticity of its efforts. "Some said that we were 'destroying the art,'" said Tintoy. "But that's exactly why I am working close to a real wayang kulit master puppeteer," he said. "I am not playing around. Whatever we do is respectful, and properly approved by Pak Dain."
"Peperangan Bintang" received many international accolades, including a feature on the official Star Wars franchise website and praise from actor Mark Hamill, who played the original Luke Skywalker. It also led to opportunities to perform in Thailand, China and Europe, where the popularity of the puppet shows surprised Tintoy.
"During our German exhibition, a gentleman came to me asking why we had displayed most of the Ramayana's characters, but not Laksamana, the brother of the main character, Sri Rama," Tintoy remembers. Tintoy says he was both surprised and sorry, explaining that he "didn't have enough space in his suitcase to bring them all."
A decade later, the group is still creating new characters, ranging from Bruce Lee, a Hong Kong martial arts star, to DC Comics' superheroes such as Superman and Wonder Woman. There is even a shadow puppet rendition of Ed Sheeran, an English pop star.
The group's Star Wars entourage was recently spruced up with new puppets of Sang Mandalor (an adaptation of the Star Wars character known as the Mandalorian) and Budak Grogu (Grogu the Child), both inspired by the television series "The Mandalorian" (2019), created by Jon Favreau for the Disney+ streaming service.
But Western popular culture is not the only treasure trove that the group has been scouring for inspiration: Tintoy is equally in love with the Japanese robots and superheroes he grew up watching on Malaysian television.
This year, Fusion Wayang Kulit celebrated the 50th anniversary of vintage Japanese superhero Kamen Rider by turning him and Ultraman, another Japanese character, into shadow puppets. "I was really hooked to them as a child," said Tintoy, who wanted to pay his childhood heroes "a personal tribute."
"We created our series of Japanese mecha (a form of manga featuring humanoid robots) wayang kulit a few years back, including the world's first transformable shadow puppet inspired by Macross (a well-known mecha franchise)," Tintoy said, referring to Valkruda Seta, a version of Macross's iconic VF-1S Valkyrie, which can switch from robot form into a spaceship. Other tributes to Japanese mecha robots include Zakulit Komet Merah, inspired by Zaku Red Comet from the mecha franchise Gundam, and Eli Gno Satu, a version of EVA-01 from "Neon Genesis Evangelion."
But even if Fusion Wayang Kulit keeps creating, the art risks losing the next generation of dalang (puppeteers) unless it gets support from the government of Kelantan, says Pak Dain, adding that in the past two years he has trained only two new apprentices, both of whom were hard to find.
On top of that, wayang kulit remains under official scrutiny even though Kelantan lifted a 20-year-old ban on mak yong (Malay dance-theater) in September 2019 after pressure from Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. (Mak yong performances must still comply with Shariah law, curtailing pre-Islamic features that are at the heart of the ancient Malay art form.)
Despite the difficulties, Fusion Wayang Kulit says it will continue its efforts to preserve the typically Malay cultural tradition of wayang kulit for the enjoyment of all Malaysia's races and religions.
"Being a Malaysian, [for me] everything we have here, including any form of culture, belongs to all Malaysians," said Tintoy. "So I don't see anything wrong in a Malaysian trying to help Malaysian culture stay alive."