Determined to bring wayang kulit out of the shadows, Adel Dzulkarnaen Ahmad has steadily raised awareness of this traditional performing art. Through school programmes, performances and connecting with likeminded practitioners, his work through Sri Warisan has been instrumental in keeping the art of shadow puppetry alive and relevant to audiences today.
Adel at the office of Sri Warisan. Photo by Si Yihan
As with many artisans, 42-year-old Adel Dzulkarnaen Ahmad’s love for wayang kulit (an Indonesian art form using shadow puppets) was not immediate. The only child of Mdm Som Said, founder of Sri Warisan and Cultural Medallion recipient, Adel had attended innumerable Malay dance rehearsals in his youth. However, he only got his first formal taste of Malay dance when he attended a Malay dance workshop while he was a student at St Patrick’s Secondary School in the 90s, at the encouragement of his mother. Now, he is the managing director of Sri Warisan, a performing arts company committed to developing professionalism in performance arts, and known for its ability to blend rich traditional art forms with contemporary techniques.
Adel’s passion for Malay arts was kindled during his time at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada where he had gone to pursue a degree in Mass Communications. While there, he experienced firsthand how local arts and culture were supported and celebrated by the community through numerous events and festivals. That was when he realised what he could do for the Malay arts in Singapore. Upon his return, Adel wanted to be involved in local performing arts because “the traditional arts then wasn’t that prevalent so we wanted to promote greater awareness of Malay music and dance starting from schools”.
Adel still remembers the challenges he faced. His first school was Dunman High School, a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school that was also a Chinese-stream school. He had been engaged to teach the kompang (a traditional Malay percussion instrument) and angklung (an Indonesian musical instrument made of bamboo tubes on a frame). He had found a way to bridge two cultures and engage the students’ interest in, and appreciation of a different traditional art. Fortunately, this paved the way for subsequent engagements for similar programmes, including wayang kulit, in other schools such as Henry Park Primary School.
The Straits Times coverage on Sri Warisan’s arts outreach programme at Yew Tee Primary School (2012, March 8)
While wayang kulit is a traditional art form dating back to the 16th century, local interest in it had waned by the 1990s. Sensing the potential loss of such a rich heritage, Sri Warisan made the move to revive it. In 2000, Sri Warisan organised a small Wayang Orang workshop, which was conducted by wayang kulit masters, gamelan musicians and dalang puppeteers.
This was followed by a two-week workshop in 2001 where, in Adel’s words, “guest artists who were experienced practitioners in Indonesia were invited to help gauge the level of local interest of the next generation and consider the possibility of taking it to the next level and reach out to a wider audience.” The outcome of the workshop set Sri Warisan on a resolute path to restoring wayang kulit to its rightful place in the local performing arts scene.
Their undertaking began in Bandung, Indonesia, where they learnt about the different types of wayang kulit, which spans across 60 styles of performances and character designs.
For Adel, it was a personal endeavor as well. “I am Javanese and I saw it as my personal responsibility to hand down the art of puppetry indigenous to our culture to the next generation.”
This led him and fellow members to seek out masters of wayang kulit from Bandung to Jakarta to Yogyakarta, where apart from understanding the styles of presentation, they also picked up the pedagogical approach to teaching wayang kulit.
While they were learning the craft of traditional wayang kulit, they realised that while they could perform the epic narratives such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana, stock characters were limited in their use. The characters’ designs – such as costume and headdress – meant they would be incongruous if used to perform local legends such as the story of Sang Nila Utama.
Therefore, new puppets – each one costing at least $250 – had to be made. “Each puppet is made of buffalo skin (kulit), and its handle and mainframe are crafted from buffalo horn. Each one is intricately designed and we now have an ensemble of characters such as Hang Tuah, and even the white lion and deer from Sang Nila Utama’s story,” explained Adel. He added that they have since expanded their repertoire of characters to include popular characters such as the Avengers and Justice League, which have been a hit with younger audiences.
Sri Warisan’s wayang kulit performances usually begin in a traditional manner for the first five to 10 minutes to showcase the classical performance style before modern elements are introduced. These elements are performed in English and contextual humour, such as a prince riding on a motorcycle, are also woven into the story. Sometimes, the puppets break out in Mandarin and Tamil songs to inject a local twist.
A performance-cum-workshop at Henry Park Primary School with a mixed “cast” of traditional puppets and a modern day superhero. Photo courtesy of Sri Warisan
While Sri Warisan’s efforts to revive wayang kulit locally was an accomplishment, their venture did not end there. Adel and its members have also attended several exchanges regionally and internationally.
Their first regional puppet exchange was in Brunei, which brought together modern and traditional puppetry forms, including Singapore’s wayang kulit. In 2015, Sri Warisan performed alongside other regional puppeteers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia as part of UNESCO Day celebrations. According to Adel, the exchange at ASEAN Day in Jakarta in 2015 marked a turning point because with little need for any introduction, the distinct identity of the Singapore puppets had become widely recognised and acknowledged by the puppetry community.
Adel and fellow Sri Warisan members at the UNIMA World Puppet Festival in Spain in June 2016. Photo courtesy of Sri Warisan
Keen to raise the profile of wayang kulit further, Sri Warisan have taken their puppets to as far as Spain to perform at fringe activities, as well as to Russia for a conference organised for directors of puppet companies.
Adel shared that “these international exposures as opportunities for Sri Warisan to establish itself as a hub for wayang kulit in Singapore and for them to preserve this culture and tradition”, noting that these experiences have inspired the direction of growth for Sri Warisan.
Having performed at events such as the National Day Parade in 2000 and the Youth Olympic Games hosted by Singapore in 2010, Adel is proud that Sri Warisan has managed to maintain its presence in the local performing arts scene. When the company first started, they did not know how long they would last.
“Back then, it was common for students to learn to play the recorder and there would even be a school band, but there was no such thing as Malay dance and the angklung club… Now every day when we wake up, we know we are contributing to the performing arts in Singapore,” said Adel.
Adel sees the work and influence of Sri Warisan embodied in the individuals who participate in this art form. The future of wayang kulit will lie in their hands and their work will transcend Sri Warisan as a physical institution because “the arts are a way of life and the knowledge that is handed down to the next generation” ensures that the spotlight on wayang kulit in local culture will never dim.
Written by: Terence C. Fong
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign