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Malaysian shadow puppetryBookmark

Learning area: The Arts
Year level: Year 3, Year 4
Country: Malaysia

In this learning sequence, students will learn about Malaysian wayang shadow puppet theatre, its production and performance elements, and how the puppets are made and operated. Students will gain knowledge, understanding and skills about the different types of Malaysian shadow puppetry such as wayang gedekwayang kulit jawa, wayang kulit melayu and wayang kulit kelantan (siam).

They will write a wayang play, make a shadow puppet that reflects an understanding of wayang characterisation, perform the play and create an animation of the performance.

Key inquiry questions

  • What are the origins of wayang in Malaysia and why are there different performance styles?
  • What are the performance elements of Malaysian wayang theatre?
  • How are the puppets constructed and operated? 

Wayang kelantan (siam) puppetsWayang kelatan (siam) puppets

Related resources

Activity 1: Malaysian wayang puppets and performance styles

In this activity students view images of Malaysian wayang puppets and investigate the variety of performance styles. They will use this information to discuss the reasons why shadow puppetry performances may differ throughout the countries of South-East Asia.

Key inquiry question: What are the origins of wayang in Malaysia and why are there different performance styles?

About Malaysian puppets

  1. Ask students to read through the information below and conduct a Know, Want, Learned (KWL) focusing on Malaysian shadow puppetry.
    • What do I know?
    • What would I like to know?
    • What have I learned?
  2. Ask students to look at the images of the Malaysian shadow puppets and describe them using the following headings.
  3. Complete the activity by discussing as a class why they think there are different forms wayang performances in Malaysia and throughout countries in South-East Asia.
About wayang kulit

Kulit means skin or leather. A wayang kulit puppet made of skin or leather is the most popular form of puppet used in wayang puppet theatre throughout Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia. A performance combines music and drama and is a celebratory ritual involving elements of Hindu, Islamic and Indigenous Javanese stories brought to Malaysia.

Map showing countries of Southeast AsiaMap of South-East Asia
Varieties of wayang

Malaysian shadow puppetry was originally performed to entertain after a hard day working in the rice paddies or looking after the family. Today these wayang performances are still influenced by Hindu, Thai and Malay traditions, and can also have added elements of contemporary life.

There are four types of shadow puppet performance in Malaysia. These include:

  • wayang kelantan (siam) – a Malay form of shadow puppetry performed in the states near the Thailand/Malaysia border
  • wayang kulit melayu – a Malay court form of shadow puppetry that concentrates on Panji stories
  • wayang gedek – a Thai and Malay folk style performed near the Thai border and strongly influenced by the Thai version of the Ramayana, and Thai and Malay folk stories
  • wayang kulit jawa –  performances focus on the Javanese forms of the Mahabharata is performed in Selangor and West Johor.

Today only two of these are performed – the wayang kelantan and wayang gedek.

Puppet characteristics

The features of the puppets display good traits that are valued by the Malaysian people such as loyalty, courage, purity, wisdom, compassion and emotional control. During the plays the characters face certain trials in which these traits are tested. The colours of the puppets do not have symbolic meanings as with Javanese puppets.

Activity 2: Performing and producing a wayang play

In this activity students will learn about wayang performances, write a play using either a traditional Jataka or a contemporary short story and practise their characterisations.

Key inquiry question: How do you create and perform a wayang play using the appropriate dramatic conventions and design elements?

Write a wayang play

Explain to the students that they will be writing a wayang play. The story needs to be scripted in their own words and can be based on the following Jataka story or a contemporary story such as Star Wars

  1. Divide the class into an even number of small groups. Half will write a wayang play based on The elephant and the forester and the other half will write a play based on a contemporary story.
  2. Each group nominates a puppet master, tok dalang. The dalang will conduct the puppet show and designate other jobs to the group members. This could include characters, musicians, prop makers, a storywriter, light controller.
  3. Once each group has chosen their story, each member of the group will write their own script. There should be enough characters so that each member of the group has a speaking part. Once the scripts are written, read through each one and decide as a group which script will be used for the performance.
  4. Explain to students that they will have to develop an appropriate voice for their character.
    • 'bad' characters should speak slowly in a deep voice and should be accompanied by deep, slow music whenever they appear in the production
    • 'good' characters have a higher pitched voice and are accompanied by music that is faster and lighter
    • both characters are exaggerations or stereotypes of 'good' and 'bad'
    • a single voice or a chorus of voices can be used to produce the accompanying music
  5. Students then rehearse the production repeatedly so that the group can acquaint themselves with the script, timing of their entrances and exits, the interactions with other characters and their movements and gestures. They should also rehearse the music accompaniment and how it can increase the impact of the story for the audience.
  6. As a class, students share their performance ideas with the rest of the class and explain the decisions they made to create a dramatic puppet production. Have the class suggest ideas for improvement.
  7. Develop a class design for the theatre stage, props and audience area. The most important area is the screen and the light that shines behind the screen. The size of the puppets is controlled by how close and far they are from the light. The further away it is, the less detail of the puppet the audience will see.
  8. Construct the props, stage, lighting, audience areas and music in preparation for the final performances.
A Jataka tale: The elephant and the forester

In one of his previous incarnations, Lord Buddha was born as a white elephant in a forest in the Himalayas. He was gentle and kind. He lived peacefully by himself, giving good advice to various animals.

One day a forester from Varanasi came into the forest and lost his way. He was frightened. As the light grew fainter at dusk, the forester began to panic. Suddenly he heard the sound of heavy footsteps. He turned around and saw a white elephant standing next to him.

He was surprised to hear the white elephant say to him in a human voice, 'I heard you scream, is there anything I can do for you?' The forester was relieved. 'I have lost my way', he replied. 'I want to go to Varanasi.'

'I know the way and will get you there', the elephant replied. 'But first rest in my cave and spend a few days here.'

The forester enjoyed the serene surroundings for a few days and then decided he wanted to go back to Varanasi. The elephant asked him to get on his back. Soon they reached the edge of the forest and bid each other farewell.

One day the forester came to an ivory shop. He admired the carvings but was amazed to find out how expensive they were.

'Would the tusk of a living elephant be equally expensive?' asked the forester.

'It is worth a lot more', replied the ivory carver.

Greed got the better of the forester and he rushed back to the forest. He met the gentle white elephant and pretended to be sad.

'What is the matter?' the elephant inquired.

'I am up to my neck in debt, the forester replied. Only a piece of your tusk can save me.'

The elephant sat down immediately and held his trunk out obligingly.

'I will be glad to give you both of my tusks.'

The forester had come fully prepared and took out his saw. Soon he removed most of the tusks leaving only two stumps attached to the elephant. The elephant departed in great pain but happy that his tusks would relieve the forester of his debts.

Back in Varanasi, the forester received a huge sum of money for the prime tusks. He spent the money in no time buying luxurious goods for himself and his family. Soon he was left with nothing. Should I have cut a little more? the greedy forester thought, as he tossed and turned in bed wrestling with his conscience. Finally, his greed won over and he started for the forest in the morning.

He found the kind elephant.

'Your tusks have cleared my old debts but I need money to live,' he pled again. The gentle, benevolent elephant once again sat down and said, 'You may have what is left of my tusks.'

The elephant courageously bore the pain as the forester pulled out the remaining tusks. The forester then packed the tusks into his bag and headed back to Varanasi, saying, 'I have done with you, my friend, I have got all there is to get.'

The elephant, torn and trembling, watched the forester go. Not a word of reproach escaped the elephant's lips.

Suddenly the ground split open before the forester and he was encircled by fire. The forester realised that he was being punished for his greed, but it was too late. As the fire consumed the forester, he heard a voice say,

'An ungrateful man is never satisfied not even if he is given the whole world'.

Activity 3: Creating an animated wayang puppet play

In this activity students will learn about the design and decoration of Malaysian wayang puppets so that they can make their own puppets, perform a play and create an animated version of the performance. 

Key inquiry question: How are puppets constructed and operated?

Create wayang puppets

  1. Students are now going to make wayang puppets.
  2. Remind them to look at the images of the various Malaysian wayang puppets in Activity 1 prior to making their puppets.
  3. Discuss the procedure and identify the steps to assist students with the creation of their puppets.
  • heavy duty cardboard
  • gold, black, white, red paint
  • scissors and/or paper knives
  • textas for outlining
  • something to punch holes through the card, for example, hammer and nail on a block of wood if supervised, or a large eye blunted needle, or a sewing machine with a large needle
  • wayang kulit templates
  1. Trace puppet outline using the template.
  2. Use it as a stencil on a piece of cardboard to cut out a sturdy version.
  3. Mark in major lines using a felt pen.
  4. Punch holes along all lines to create dimension within the shadow.
  5. Colour both sides of the puppet. Pay attention to the face colour.
  6. Make arm segments and join using wing clips.
  7. Attach arm segments to the body using wing clips.
  8. Attach pieces of dowling rod or other stick-like objects to the hands to manipulate the arms.
  9. Attach a thicker piece of dowling rod or long ruler to the length of the puppet body with sufficient length at the bottom to hold the puppet comfortably so the hand is out of sight during the performance.

Create an animation

Students will now create a digital performance of their play using Toondoo. Explain each step:

  1. Delegate roles for each member of the group.
  2. Divide their performance into key frames and draw a storyboard.
  3. Provide a digital camera or phone so that photographs can be taken of each scene. Explain that these images will be uploaded to a computer and will be used to create their digital story.
  4. Upload the images to the computer and open Toondoo.
  5. Upload each image into the 'imaginer' application and save each one.
  6. Create a new Toondoo maker and use the images in imaginer plus speech bubbles to create their digital performance.
  7. View each digital performance as a class and ask students to reflect on and evaluate the effectiveness of their animation and the part they played in producing the resource.

Create a performance

Students complete the learning sequence by creating a performance of their play.

  1. Prior to creating a performance, students design an aerial view of the performance space and include labels where the audience sits, props are stored, the orchestra performs and the light is distanced from the screen.
  2. Students may wish to advertise their performance for other classes to come and see it.
  3. Students could design an advertisement either for the internet or as a publication such as a poster or handout.
  4. Students rehearse their play a number of times to perfect and refine the performance.
  5. Students perform the plays for an audience.
  6. Following the performances ask each student to reflect on and evaluate their own role.

Activity 4: Reflection

In this activity, the class will develop a blog where all class members can upload their designs for the performance, their animation and photographs or film of the production.

The blog provides an opportunity for other students to question the performers on the intended representation of their puppet character and how they interpreted voice, expression and other production elements.

It will reveal students' assumptions about the activity and how others agreed or disagreed with the way they addressed the task.

Students complete the activity by writing their own reflection about the performance within the group, their success with designing an authentic puppet and creating an animation.

Useful websites

The websites listed will assist teachers to explore the history, culture and arts forms of Malaysian wayang shadow puppets. These websites can be used for reference material, in accessing information about the performance and how to build a wayang puppet.

  • Malaysia's evolving shadow puppet plays – a journal article by Mary Beth Osnes provides an overview of shadow puppetry in Malaysia. She has also written a book, The Shadow Puppet Theatre of Malaysia: A Study of Wayang Kulit with Performance Scripts and Puppet Designs which can be purchased as an e-book. Background information provided in this resource has been adapted from this resource.

It is recommended that teachers preview websites to ensure they are suitable for their students prior to use in class. Content accessed via these links is not owned or controlled by Asia Education Foundation and is subject to the terms of use of the associated website.

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