A Struggling Stage

_89748036_89748033.jpgIn a recent piece of photo journalism, India’s former folk theatre actors struggle to survive the BBC published a set of images, taken by Soumya Sankar Bose, of former Jatra performers from West Bengal, India.  New to me, and with a claim in the article that Jatra is a dying art, I started to investigate.

Jatra is an ancient theatre form which originated in 16th Century and like most theatre forms, has it’s roots in religious devotion, its literal translation in to English being,  to go in a procession. What has fascinated me most though is the fact that it has constantly evolved both thematically and in form.  Originally a musical theatre form, it has gone on to include prose, improvised dialogue, and comic interludes. The original narratives were great Indian classics like the Ramayana,  but come the 20th Century, Jatra transformed into a theatre that supported the growing calls of independence from the British and, for a time, became a vehicle of political satire and protest. This led to some performances being banned by the colonists who had once embraced it. At the same time, with the rise of communism in some Indian states, Lenin even made an appearance in some Jatra performances which positively portrayed communist ideologies and thought. However, even in this period, song remained at the heart of Jatra.


Following the World War II, Jatra started to fall into decline, with the arrival of radio, television and then Bollywood, although it still remained popular in the more rural communities. However, in West Bengal, where it originated, it is still popular today and according to one source, Jatra performances can draw an audience of up to 20,000. On the other hand, in an article for Indian Express, An Hour Upon The Stage, Premankur Biswas talks to some of the retired performers that Soumya Sankar Bose photographed, as well as Bose himself, and they tell a very different story:

Today, there are about 20 Jatra companies in Kolkata’s famous Chitpore district. In 2001, there were over 300 companies which employed over 20,000 people.

“The 20-odd troupes will also close down in a few years. The Partition had a major impact on jatra. Artistes in the newly formed East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), stopped enacting Hindu folk tales of Krishna lila, Kongsho bodh, etc. On the other side of the border, artistes in West Bengal stopped playing Muslim characters such as Siraj-ud-daulah. The advent of cinema and TV in the 1960s and 1970s was another major blow,” says Bose.

Jayashree Mukherjee, 66, who started her career in 1965, hasn’t acted in a jatra pala for about five years. She was 14 when she was spotted selling flower garlands at a north Kolkata market by renowned jatra director Bhavesh Kundu. She had five mouths to feed. “My father had lost his job and I had younger siblings. Bhaveshda asked me if I could act, I couldn’t say no,” says Mukherjee.

Her first role, the titular character in the popular Tapasi, required her to play a child bride married to a 40-something zamindar. “I would just mouth lines but people loved my performance,” says Mukherjee. For the next 20 years, Mukherjee played lead roles in a number of jatra palas, but the 1980s spelled doom. “Television ate away a large chunk of our market. Producers started bringing film stars to jatras to draw in the crowds,” says Mukherjee. Since the 1990s, popular film stars like Moon Moon Sen, Satabdi Roy and Raveena Tandon have performed in jatras.

Mukherjee, who acted in a jatra pala with Raveena Tandon about a decade ago, was paid Rs 1,000 for her efforts, while Tandon was paid “more than Rs 1,00,000”. Mukherjee does small roles in television serials now. “At times, I make about Rs 8,000 in a month, at times not even that. There are months where I don’t get any work. And to think less than two decades ago, I was too busy to attend even a nephew’s wedding”.

I have really only skimmed the surface of the rich history of Jatra.  There are some good sources if you want to read further. There is this one from Indiaprofile.com and then this more detailed one from Yakshagana Cultural Magazine, which covers staging and so on. There are more of Bose’s photos here. If you want real detail and have access to JSTOR, there is a volume of the Journal of South Asian Literature devoted to Jatra.

Final, a look at the Jatra itself:


Table Tops In Tallinn

Theatre Room is closed for the summer. Along with much of the educational world (apologies to my antipodean readers) we are done for another academic year and headed off for sunnier (or in my case, cooler) climes. Having said this, a few things have happened in the world of theatre over the last few weeks that give some pause for thought, so over the next few days I will be writing about these.

Nukuteater-esileheleHowever, today I want to share a beautiful place I found on the first stop of my summer holiday. Based in Helsinki for few days, I took a ferry across the Gulf of Finland to Estonia to have a wander around the old city of Tallinn and turning a corner, stumbled across the NUKU Theatre and Museum. Nuku (which means puppet in Estonian) is the current guise of the Estonian State Puppet Theatre which was founded in 1952.

IMG_0622Set beautifully in restored buildings, parts of which date back to the medieval period,  NUKU comprises a puppet museum, puppetry research centre, puppet making workshops and various sized theatres (with another currently under construction within a neighbouring building) as well as housing the Estonian office of UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionette). The museum’s exhibits are curated using the latest technology, with an extensive puppet and marionette collection that includes those created in-house as well as pieces from around the world amongst which are shadow puppets from Indonesia, bunraku puppets from Japan and exquisite old world Eastern European puppets.

The theatres had just closed for the summer and a couple of the exhibits were under a bit of reorganisation so it was quiet when I visited and I ended up talking to one of the staff, Maria Usk, who turned out to be the museum’s director.  As a result I ended up getting my own private little tour from Maria which was just wonderful.

So if you find yourself in Tallinn, do go to NUKU. It is really well worth a visit if you are interested in the history and current practice of European puppet theatre. A real gem.

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The Asian Dressing Room

As the academic year draws to a close for many of us who work or study in international education, people start to take to the skies so the latest exhibition at Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet in Paris might be of interest. From Nô to Mata Hari, 2000 years of asian theatre explores costume in theatre from across Asia over 2 millennia. 

Extravagant-Chinese-costu-009In an article originally written by Rosita Boisseau for Le Monde and then published in translation in The Guardian, Costumes of Complexity makes interesting reading about the exhibition and the history of costume in Asian theatre:

It is surely something of a miracle to explore 2,000 years of theatre in Asia in a single exhibition. But From Nô to Mata Hari, currently at the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet in Paris, does just that, showing costumes used in traditional Kathakali dance in India and Japanese Noh drama, Thai Khon and Balinese Barong masks, while also explaining the connections between them. This confrontation produces a real aesthetic shock: it is unusual to find in the same place, almost face to face, these dramatic forms, often very old, certainly infinitely complex and remarkably beautiful.


In geographical terms the exhibition, which features almost 300 items – masks, shadow puppets, costumes and films – reaches from India to Japan, Thailand to China, deploying a mass of detail. These simple yet elegant theatrical forms, some of which are covered by the Unesco convention on intangible cultural heritage, create an exciting set of postures and colours. “The exhibition was designed as a spectacle,” says Sophie Makariou, head of Musée Guimet. “We couldn’t make speech and movement part of the show, even if a sequence of several plays is being staged at the same time, but the costumes are heavy with history and symbolism. We have tried to enliven the various spaces with a breath of theatre.”

The overall effect allows the visitor to observe how apparently very dissimilar styles fit together. “The original plan was for me to work exclusively on the Beijing opera,” says Aurélie Samuel, who curated the exhibition and heads the Guimet textile collections. “Then as I advanced with my research I started picking up on common ground between the various dramatic arts. Most of them have religious origins and started in temples. In moving from the sacred to the profane, from street to stage, they retained a very spare approach. But the often extravagant costumes, always loaded with meaning, serve as a decor. Also all the actors in these plays are men.”

“We think,” she adds, that “the first theatre, born in India, was an offshoot of Buddhism, an influence shared by all the religions [which originated] in Asia.”

efa83dad-80e2-4a98-8052-e26a8da37205-1360x2040Fair enough, but what has Mata Hari, who was born in 1876, to do with this broad panorama? Born Margaretha Zelle, the famous spy first appeared under the guise of Mata Hari (“rising sun” in Malay) in 1905, at an evening of exotic entertainment staged by Musée Guimet. At the height of the Orientalist fashion, her show, designed in consultation with industrialist and art collector Emile Guimet, was inspired by Brahmanic ritual, midway between “an invocation to Shiva and a war dance”. It concluded with Javanese puppets. This number, which some spectators thought she performed naked, misled by her flesh-tinted suit, was staged in the museum library on the first floor, decorated like a Hindu temple.

Here she awaits us, for one of the high points of a deliberately dramatic exhibition, as we progress in our understanding of the many traditions and dresses presented here. We are treated to a close-up of five costumes for dance, drama and mime.

A minimalist decor – an embroidered curtain, a table and two chairs – serves as a backdrop for these sumptuous robes. The equation of Asian theatre found in Beijing opera, with its combination of song, music, dance, poetry and acrobatics, is a singular incarnation. This art form finally coalesced in the 19th century, but it has roots in 13th-century Chinese opera. It dramatises the history of China and its myths, but also stories of thwarted romance, comic police investigations and folk tales. The costume, sublime and heavily ornamented, provides a host of clues essential to the show.


The unbelievable court robe that features in the exhibition reveals the social status of its character. The dragon and wave motifs, head-dress sporting pink pom-poms and pheasant plumes tell us that a general would have worn this garment. This type of geometrical robe distinguished a high-ranking official, indicating not only his age, social status and importance, but also his feelings.

Over and above its meaning, the costume from the Beijing opera contributes to an appearance of luxury while exaggerating the actor’s gestures. The latter, though relatively simple and clear, carefully composed, reach out into the surrounding space thanks to the supple motion of the long plumes and ample sleeves.

One feature which was specific to the Beijing opera was the “water sleeves”, fitted to the costumes of both male and female characters. They were put to many uses, flicked and waved in the air, but also concealing the mouth (while eating) and cheeks (down which tears were running).

The existence of this costume is a miracle in itself. It belonged to the actor Shi Pei Pu (1938-2009), a leading light of the Beijing opera. In the mid-1960s the Cultural Revolution initiated by Mao Zedong and his wife Jiang Qing, a former actor, set about eradicating such bourgeois aberrations. Performances were banned, actors prosecuted and even murdered, and costumes burned. Shi managed to save some of his by hiding them. After emigrating to France in the 1980s he danced again in shows he had personally redesigned. So at least some of his wardrobe was saved.

Kathakali (literally “story-play”) originated in Kerala, southern India, an offshoot of Kutiyattam, the oldest form of entertainment which is still performed in the subcontinent. In keeping with the larger-than-life heroes of this dramatic form, which includes music and dance, and was dreamt up by a well-read rajah in the 17th century, Kathakali delights in big sagas such as the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. Shows of this sort are generally staged near temples, in the open air, at nightfall or in the very early morning. “This theatre is inconceivable without a complete shift in body and mind,” says the specialist Françoise Grund.


The costumes are extravagant and oversized, weighing more than 10kg. This allows only limited movement, apart from the arms. But on the other hand the mass of the skirts and the diversity of facial mimicry exaggerate what movement there is. Costume is both dress and decor, fitting into a set with only very limited props, generally a stool and a small curtain, which changes colour to mark the entrance and exit of characters.

Makeup starts at least four hours before the performance, turning the face into a real mask, to such an extent that it gives the impression that any life has been wiped out. It is a key step in the process of integrating a character’s heroic attributes. After touching a copper bell, the frontier between the land of the living and the realm of the divine, each man in the troupe – here too they take the female roles as well – starts to apply makeup using the stem of a coconut leaf.

The symbolism of the colours enables the audience to identify the various categories of character: noble heroes are associated with green; red with villains; black, the colour of evil and death, for demons; lastly orange for women. Each category comprises about 50 roles, which actors learn in the course of a 10-year apprenticeship. Just eye movements bring into play a sophisticated form of gymnastics, placing high demands on the player.

Chutti – painstakingly cut out paper beards or ridges – are then added to the geometrically precise makeup motifs, in order to broaden the face with fantastic jowls. An aubergine seed is placed inside the lower eyelid, in order to redden the eye. Finally an equally impressive head-dress is fitted, to complete the face which no longer looks in the least bit human.

The actors are then wrapped in loads of fabric and overlapping skirts. Resembling some fascinating or monstrous doll, they attain an inhuman dimension commensurate with the gods they embody. The ritual may now begin, backed by the feverish rhythm of the drums, accompanied by cymbals and chanting.

Japan: Noh or the aesthetics of slowness


The decor-costume favoured by theatre in Asia attains a subtle plenitude with Noh costume. The fabric and embroidery provide the spectator with accurate and remarkably detailed information on the dramatic action, its characters, time and space. Noh theatre, which combines song, mime and masque, first appeared in the 14th century, driven by the actor Yusaki Kiyotsugu Kan’ami and his son Motokiyo Zeami. It gradually established a literary, philosophical and theatrical identity all of its own. It was Noh that first produced librettos, known as utai bon, or chant books, which contain the script, score and rules for performance. “This art form was particularly appreciated by Japanese emperors, samurai warriors, in short the aristocratic upper classes,” Samuel explains.

The brocaded, embroidered kimono exhibited by the Musée Guimet dates from the second half of the 18th century, a period when costume started to play an increasingly important part in the drama. Particularly emblematic of the social codes expressed by Noh, “it [costume] deployed geometrical shapes evoking paths,” Samuel adds. “The maple leaves, with their orange hues signify autumn in the woods. The darkish material and the preference for embroidery rather than a woven pattern mean that the character must be a woman.”

With progress in the techniques used for weaving and dyeing Noh kimonos became increasingly sophisticated, enhancing the magic and luxury of the dramatic ceremony. In contrast to Kabuki – another spectacular form of Japanese entertainment, which appeared in the 17th century, but in a more expressive, less elitist register – Noh emphasises slowness and suspended animation. It attaches particular importance to yugen, a subtly profound, less obvious grace.

Kimonos dialogue with masks, often fashioned out of cypress wood by famous sculptors, and painted white, then yellow. “An object for contemplation, it even became the focus of a cult, preserved and venerated by acting families,” says Hélène Bayou, an expert on Noh theatre. “How hallowed it is depends on the age of the mask and the length of the lineage of actors, who have handed down a quintessential art form and aesthetic cult.”

As is the case for most dramatic rituals in Asia, costume is an integral part of the show, or at least its process. The layers of kimonos are stitched on to the performer. The mask, smaller than a human face, is adapted to suit their face. It conditions acting: the eye slits are so narrow that little light enters, prompting the actor to internalise his part.

Always backed by musicians and a chorus which chants and recites, the very slow, almost weightless movement of the shite (leading player), accompanied by the waki (secondary role) unfolds on a stage, which always consists of a raised platform covered by a roof. A gangway connects the stage to the wings; a movement of the curtains punctuates players’ entry and exit. The backdrop sports a Japanese symbol of strength.

Thailand: Khon, the art of pantomime


The mask, representing the monkey god Hanuman, belongs to the masked Khon theatre of Thailand. It is made of papier-mache, metal, glass and mirrors. The general commanding the monkey army is one of the heroes in the Indian Ramayana epic, which travelled as far as Thailand, where it was adapted to become Ramakian. Rooted in pantomime this spectacular dramatic form is accompanied by an orchestra, including metallophones, xylophones, gongs and oboes. It brings to the stage battles between gods, demons and monkeys. Khon was first seen in palaces, then temples, only entering theatres in the early 20th century, its arrival coinciding with the end of the ban on women attending public entertainment.

Khon players are masked. They circle the stage, their bust facing the audience, but their head looking to one side. Mute, they mime the situations described by two narrators – one for the story, the other for dialogue – and a chorus, supported by the orchestra.The impressive Hanuman mask must have demanded long hours of work. A plaster mould was covered with about 15 layers of mulberry paper, bonded with rice glue. The shell was then sculpted and painted. Masks are always white. This one has a jewel in its mouth, another on the forehead. The associated figure is valiant, swift and light-footed, but not short of humour either, particularly in amorous encounters. He consequently became a popular character in Thailand. Contemporary Khon no longer uses masks, which have given way to makeup.


Bali: Barong, from dance to trance

The mask and costume are beautiful, but huge and frightening, so lifelike the beast might at any moment open its jaws and eat us whole. This extraordinary dragon-lion is in fact a protective figure, always overcoming the evil witch Rangda, and one of the heroes of Balinese mythology, which still delights audiences today. Barong dance is rooted in the struggle between these two protagonists’ armies, an ancestral combat that varies as one travels round Bali, sometimes featuring a wild boar, elsewhere a tiger.

The fight between good and evil is central to most drama in southern and south-eastern Asia. In Barong dance many characters – monkeys, witches, ogres, princes, the god Shiva – appear as the action unfolds. Though now a tourist attraction, it was originally performed in temples as a purification ritual, quickly achieving a trance-like effect. The dancers threaten one another with wavy kriss swords.

Several players are needed to make the dragon mask and costume dance. The whole apparatus – consisting of wood, leather, plant fibre, hair and feathers – weighs about 25kg. The more lively Barong becomes, the more effective it is in driving out evil spirits. “It makes a place sacred, too,” Samuel explains, “which is why it’s so important that it should travel far and wide.”

From Nô to Mata Hari, 2000 Years of Asian Theatre is at the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet in Paris until 31 August

The Korean Way


Courtesy of my friend Paul Mór who teaches at Branksome Hall School in Jeju, South Korea,  is my second quick share for today. Theatre in Korea is a publication from the Korean Arts Management Service which explores recent theatre history as well as contemporary playwrights and directors from the country. An unusual find in English, it is a great resource for any world theatre student. Korea has a rich performance history and has really embraced, integrated, made its own and adapted western theatre traditions to create a very distinct theatre landscape. Click the link above for a PDF download of Theatre in Korea. Enjoy.

Heads Up

photo-exhibition01-1A couple of puppet based things to share today. Over the Easter vacation I spent a few days in Taiwan and while I was there I paid a visit to the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum, which is an absolute gem and I thoroughly recommend a visit if you find yourself in Taipei. Spread over four stories of an old colonial merchant’s house, the museum houses a 100 seat puppet theatre and puppet workshop where puppet carver Lai Shi-an plies his craft in front of visitors. However, the exhibit itself is what makes the museum really worth a visit. Beautifully curated from a collection of 10,000 artefacts drawn from right across Asia, it traces the rich history of puppet theatre in the region.

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I also want to share an interesting interview with puppeteer Max Humphries, whose work is largely inspired by Japanese Bunraku. In an article. No strings Attached by Max Dorey 4429097for Exuent, Dorey talks about the anatomy of the puppet, the puppet as actor and the joys of working with no strings attached.

I believe in trying to achieve the best possible mechanisms for a puppets movement and manipulation; finding the line between the needs of the puppet, the puppeteer, the maker and the performance. My ideal would be a theatrical landscape in which the puppet is viewed as actor, without preconceptions

Fascinating, I recommend a read.

A Heavy Wei-ght

Shen WeiDriving home from work recently I heard an interview with Chinese-American choreographer and director Shen Wei. Sometimes late to the party, I knew I had heard the name before and with my interest piqued by the interview, which ran as a strand on the BBC World Outlook series, I went digging. Shen came to international renown as lead choreographer at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. In itself this says something about the man and his international standing. To be invited to return to a country which would have once banned and perhaps renounced him for taking citizenship elsewhere, is powerful statement about his talent. It wasn’t this so much that attracted my attention, but his childhood in Hunan Province. Born during the cultural revolution, his father was a director of a Chinese Opera company and he literally grew up in the theatre. This is the BBC interview

Shen went onto study Chinese Opera at The Hunan Arts School and then to perform lead roles with the Hunan State Xian Opera Company. His journey from there to his own celebrated dance company in New York, Shen Wei Dance Arts is a fascinating one and detailed in these two interviews:


Clearly never a man to stand still, Shen is now gaining credence as a visual artist too and there is a clear link between the two art forms in much of his dance, easily illustrated by his piece for the Olympics:


You can watch the same video, with an english commentary here. In another piece, Second Visit of the Empress, he brings together Chinese opera and modern western dance in a wonderful fusion of the two forms:


Before leaving China Shen was one of the founder members of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company and was asked back in 2000 to create a piece called Folding which particularly caught my attention with its stunning imagery. Shen not only choreographed Folding but also designed the costumes, set and make-up.


Like much contemporary dance, it is hard to draw a line between dance and theatre and the excerpts above make that evident in Shen’s work. For the boy who grew up back stage, the act of making theatre would appear never to be far from the surface.

Noh It All

izutsu_FotorA quick but superb share today, especially if you have an interest in world theatre forms. Discovered by a student of mine, Tsz Yu, while she was doing some research into movement and gesture of Japanese Noh actors. A new site, The Noh.com is a superb english language resource.  There are a few other online sources out there, but they tend to be quite brief in their content aimed  at a tourist market, rather than a resource for students. Noh.com is an evolving site with new material being added all the time. In the Trivia section you can ask, and expect an answer to any Noh related queries. The Play section is a real gift, as it contains a database of over 200 Noh plays, translated into english (shown alongside the Japanese text) which can de downloaded as PDF files.

Traditional print sources can be quite heavy going, so Noh.com is real find.  Having said that there is one book that is particularly good, MASK: A Release Of Acting Resources Volume II. The Training of The Noh Actor, which is also on Google Books.

One of the better other online sources is from the Japanese Arts Council which has revamped its website and it is now much more accessible to non-Japanese speakers, including the process of booking tickets, should you find yourself in the country. They have three introductory guides available on the site:




These are great beginners guides if you are a novice in the main three traditional theatre forms. There is also a fantastic playlist on Youtube that has over 50 videos about these theatre forms, from documentaries to traditional music to recordings of performances. A veritable feast of all things Japanese Theatre.

Taking To The Streets

P_E_2008030706450314Politics and theatre are, and have always been, inextricably linked. So following on from my previous post, this one explores real theatre on the streets, this time in Nepal.  I came across an article in the South Asia Monitor, written by Deepesh Paudal and originally published in The Kantipur DailyRoad ActSadak Natak or Street Theatre emerged in Nepal in the 1980s, during the height of monarchial rule, as a way of protesting against the excesses of the ruling royal family. Ashesh Malla, Artistic Director of Sarvanam, a Nepali theatre company, is credited for starting the movement and in a country where many live in rural poverty, street theatre has proved to be an effective way of raising awareness of a host of issues,  as well as entertaining people.


However, in his article, Paudal sounds a note of of caution about the continuing existence of Nepalese street theatre:

Fading interest The development of  street theatre in Nepal has seen its peaks and troughs. Periodically, some have been critical, raising questions on its objective. Some of them have tagged  street drama as a mere developmental play (bikase natak), ‘farming dollars’, while others have sternly criticised it for an absence of aesthetics. Non-governmental organisations’ and other social institutions’ direct or indirect involvement in  street theatre s has drawn both positive and negative remarks from stakeholders. The lack of transparency in fund allocation and management has frequently put theatre groups under scrutiny, often exposing their dependency on donors and foreign aids. Additionally, the progress of cyber entertainment and communication has widely overshadowed the essence of  street theatre . street Even the interest of the pioneers and of those who had been actively performing in  street drama s in the past has significantly dropped. Under these circumstances, the sustainability and even the survival of  street theatre are increasingly in a vulnerable state. All theatre aficionados need to quickly apprehend that appreciating the contributions of  street theatre just as well as that of the commercial theatre will help save this form of art from extinction.

Little is written (in english, anyway) about the history of theatre in Nepal. Even in Jukka O. Miettinen’s wonderful online book Asian Traditional Theatre and Dance, Nepal fails to get a mention. It does, however, get a few pages in The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia/Pacific as it does in Ashis Sengupt’s book Mapping South Asia Through Contemporary Theatre (both available through Google Books). You can also read a interesting overview of the history of Nepalese theatre here on HubPages.

Shadows Of The Empire

I find myself in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo this week and as coincidences go this is a good one.  On the way here I came across an article in The Wall Street Journal about shadow puppet theatre – but with a difference. Entitled Star Wars as Shadow Play, the writer John Krich  talks about a new shadow play called Peperangan Bintang, which translates from the Malay into Star Wars. str2_cn_2710_cnbintang_A

In the article Krich outlines a three-year old project by Tintoy Chuo to find a new, younger audience for the ancient Malaysian art of Wayang Kulit:

George Lucas credits the success of his Hollywood blockbusters in part to traditional forms of mythmaking. Now, his storytelling is coming full circle. Those heroes and villains from “a galaxy, far, far away” have landed in Malaysia with the mission of reviving its traditional art of the “shadow play.”

“I’m trying to combine the traditional with the high-tech to find a unique way to preserve Malaysian culture,” says originator Tintoy Chuo. “I myself sometimes find shadow play too long and boring. But this is something cool that young people can relate to. Even my mom knows ‘Star Wars.'”

A 25-minute preview of “Peperangan Bintang” (Malay for “Star Wars”) premiered last October. Drawing on the first of the films to be released—whose full title is “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”—it features Sangkala Vedeh (Powerful General Vedeh, or Darth Vader), Perantau Langit (He Who Walks in the Sky, or Luke Skywalker) and Puteri Leia (Princess Leia), plus the familiar squeaking robots, augmented by banging gongs and screeching horns, eerie graphics, dramatic recitations and sound effects of heavy breathing and robotic squeaks. Mr. Chuo is still working on turning it into a full-length shadow play, usually 1½ hours.

“I thought it was a brilliant idea from the start,” says the retiring president of the Star Wars Malaysia Fan Club, Adi Azhar Abdul Majid. The club of 200 paying members—”from architects to kids who flip burgers,” says Mr. Adi, a former lawyer and freelance professional emcee—stages movie marathons and garage sales of memorabilia to support local charities. With the fan club’s help, Mr. Chuo was able to contact Mr. Lucas’s Lucasfilm, which said through a spokeswoman that Mr. Chuo’s “art was beautiful” and “was impressed with his passion for ‘Star Wars.’ ” Lucasfilm said it has offered to put Mr. Chuo’s photos in its fan publication, Bantha Tracks.

It was three years back that Mr. Chuo, 42 years old and a father of three, first struck on the idea of redesigning Luke Skywalker and the gang in shadow-play style. He raised funds by selling T-shirts displaying his fantastical hybrid creations. He seems perfectly suited to the project: By profession he’s a “character creator,” designing creatures for use in games, advertisements and other applications. But in the end he decided he needed help from a shadow-play “jedi.”


“At first, I made them in plastic with lasers,” Mr. Chuo says. “Soon, I realized I needed to find a real puppet master to help me stage a performance.” A long search across rural villages ended with a Facebook inquiry from Muhammad Dain bin Othman, 62, a shadow-play master known familiarly as “Pak,” or Uncle, Dain. “That Christmas,” Mr. Chuo recounts, “I saw my first shadow play and he watched his first DVD of ‘Star Wars.’ ”

Pak Dain’s conclusion: “It’s a simple story, not difficult.”

The master soon helped Mr. Chuo fashion 10 puppets the old-fashioned way, of cowhide, the holes made by nails. Pak Dain’s only hesitation was over his reputation for authenticity. He decided it was acceptable to adapt “Star Wars” because tradition allows “outside stories” to augment main mythic plot outlines. “Nobody has complained so far,” Pak Dain explains, because musical themes specific to the Hindu characters Rama and Sita were changed.

“I told him that if some found us inauthentic, I would take the blame as the Chinese guy,” Mr. Chuo says.

Hailing from the Tumpat district of Malaysia’s northern state of Kelantan, a shadow-play hotbed, Pak Dain was taught by three learned masters and began mounting performances in the 1980s. He retired in 2008, but kept a connection, pouring his money into training musicians to keep alive this art that was once a regular feature of weddings and village celebrations. Unable to perform, he opened a Kota Bharu gallery for the puppets. It is estimated there are only 10 surviving master puppeteers around Kelantan, where the form of theater was adapted from Indian sources. Compared with the better-known Indonesia version, Malaysian wayang kulit features rounder, more transparent figures—colors shine through the silhouettes. The characters have one movable arm, as compared with two in Indonesia.


The slow and relatively static performances have lost ground to movies, television and videogames. Today, the Malaysian shadow play is performed mainly for tourists in the Cultural Center of Kota Bharu, Kelantan’s state capital. One of the motives for basing a production on a Hollywood legend is, in Pak Dain’s words, to “change the mood” of authorities by “showing that shadow play doesn’t just belong to Rama.”

Though he’d like more funding to improve backdrop effects and perform overseas, Pak Dain says he will “continue to sacrifice a lot because we all love it and we want to promote it to the younger generation.”

This put a huge smile on my face for a number of  reasons. One, the attempt to keep, revive even, a traditional theatrical form like Wayang Kulit is admirable and innovative on Chuo’s part. Two, as contemporary theatre is using the big screen to widen its audience base, I am taken by the idea that the world of cinema is finding a place on the ‘theatrical screen’. Three, I have to admit I’m a Stars Wars fan – but of the original films, not the dross that Lucas produced later


Tintoy Chuo and his team have been working hard to publicise their work. Firstly an interview with Chuo, Take Huat, Pak Dain and Ahmad Azrai by Gloria Kurnik about the project, which you can watch here.  Secondly, Chuo and Huat took part in the TEDx event in Kula Lumpur, and spoke about their work:


There is also a Facebook Page which follows the development of the project, which is planned to be finished – a full length Wayang Kulit piece – by the end of the year. There is a little trailer here, which just made grin from ear to ear, especially the scene with R2-D2 and C-3PO


1479328_634266829961483_1618726353_nThe fact that traditional techniques of puppet making and puppeteering are the centre of this effort is heartening, as is the use of traditional Malay instruments to play the soundtrack. Also, there is an alignment of characters with those in the traditional Wayang Kulit stories, which will hopefully widen the appeal. On the flip side, when the New Straits Times wrote about the venture, they did so on their ‘Tech’ pages, because of the computer generated visual effects being used.

This truly is fusion in so many ways.

Specifically Epic

Last week I had a moment of enlightenment while doing some reading around site specific theatre. Actually it was more of Homer Simpson ‘duh’ moment. We tend to view site specific/responsive theatre as something new, simply because of its huge and growing popularity. This was my Homer moment, the realisation that of course it has been around in one form or another for hundreds of years, both in the East and the West.

Ramnagar-AA-20-700One site specific performance that is almost 200 years old is the Ramlila of Ramnagar performed in Varanasi, India every year. It was started in 1830 by the Maharaja Udit Narayan Singh and is a theatrical portrayal of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Ramlila or Ram Leela (which means, literally, Rama’s story) take place all over India, but the one in Ramnagar is an epic in its own right. It lasts 31 days and takes place over an area of almost 8 square kilometres – basically the city is turned into an open-air set.  It is steeped in tradition – characters are played by local actors and major roles are often inherited by families, a good example being, the role of Ravana  which was held by same family from 1835 to 1990. It is reckoned that over 1 million people come to watch the spectacle every year. What interested and heartened me was that the ‘audience’ are indeed pilgrims. Very few foreign visitors are amongst the spectators as Ramnagar currently has no real tourist infrastructure. It wasn’t until 2013 that it was officially allowed to be documented on film.


There are many Ramlila that take place across India, particularly in the North, but they generally last 10 days. Like Kabuki in Japan, Khmer Shadow Theatre in Cambodia, Commedia dell’arte in Europe and many performance traditions across the world, Ramlila is recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity:


There are two excellent articles which are worth reading if you’d like to know more. The first is by Richard Schechner, a professor of performance studies at New York University. Written for the The New York TimesA Maharajah´s Festival for Body and Soul is an Untitledexcellent insight to the Ramlila of Ramnagar and details the potential problems that face it in the 21st Century. The other, equally as informative, is by Saudamini Jain for the Hindustan Times, entitled A look at the grandest Ramlila in the world

Another interesting online source comes from ZeeNews and is about the Dussehra Festival during which the Ramlila takes place.

In his Introduction to Theatre in India, David Mason,  Associate Professor of Theatre, Rhodes College draws the parallels between the Ramlila and the liturgical dramas and passion plays of Medieval Europe.  This ties in with my opening paragraph to this post,  as one of the traditions I realised was effectively site-specific is the Oberammergau Passion Play which is performed every 10 years by the inhabitants of the village of Oberammergau, Germany and been done so since 1634.

One more excellent resource that I have come across is The Ram Lila by Norvin Hein. Very detailed and clearly part of a larger work, although I cannot attribute it beyond that.

So there you have it – my ‘duh’ moment has left me a wiser person.