An unlikely source of inspiration from pop culture has given a renewed lease on life for wayang kulit, a traditional form of shadow puppetry.
Nearly a decade ago, character designer Tintoy Chuo was invited to participate in Designer’s Weekend. For the art exhibition held at Publika, he settled upon the ingenious idea to employ wayang kulit but executed in such a way that was never before thought of by anyone else – not even George Lucas. The same shadow puppetry that was in peril of being disposed of by economic progress found a saviour from the epic space opera Star Wars.
The unique contemporisation of an ancient art form caught on. Inspired by a galaxy far, far away, Fusion Wayang Kulit was born in Malaysia to not only preserve this art form but attuning it to modern society. The founding team comprises Tintoy, Teh Take Huat and Pak Dain – the 13th accredited Tok Dalang, or master puppeteer, of the Kelantan Traditional Malay Shadow Play art school. They have performed internationally on numerous occasions.
While they are famously associated with Star Wars, Fusion Wayang Kulit has explored other endearing subjects including Batman, Ed Sheran and the late Bruce Lee. Perhaps it wasn’t such a surprise to witness Tintoy’s fascination with pop culture manifest itself in their endeavours once you learn of his upbringing.
“My dad worked as a mechanic at arcade centres and I loved visiting him at his workplace,” he reveals, recalling a childhood surrounded by arcade machines with a palpable excitement creeping into his voice. “When they went under repair and upon completion, I always got to play for free.”
“Those were wonderful moments,” he puts it. Naturally it had a profound influence on him on his career path. “Because when you play a game, you think about the progression of the game and what’s next,” he says.
It is this rumination of where the storyline will drift that has kept Tintoy invested. Now being a creator himself, dictating characters and plots is his prerogative.
I didn’t get to see much of wayang kulit when I was a child. It was only when I started the project (referring to the Designer’s Weekend exhibition) that I began to research Malaysian wayang kulit. The project took off and became quite a significant undertaking.
I love sci-fi, as well as comics and cartoons revolving around sci-fi. In recent years, I have grown fond of war planes particularly those from World War II. I love a lot of things when it comes to cartoons – ThunderCats, He-Man, Ultraman, you name it. Those were the cartoons I watched as a kid. Of course, Japanese anime series too. They have a huge influence on me.
Not at all. Tintoy is a pseudonym I started using many years ago. The reason for this is that my surname Chuo is hard to pronounce for many people. They often mispronounced it. As a child, I loved the tin robot and since I have my own website called Actiontintoy, I might as well call myself Tintoy. And I have been using the moniker ever since.
We are preparing for a video shoot. We have been selected for an educational programme where we will be teaching children about wayang kulit.
Most importantly is to like what you are doing. I love to draw and create and so I got into design.
If you do something that you dislike, every obstacle you encounter will be seen as a problem thwarting you from advancing. But if you do like what you are doing, you will see it as a challenge instead. They are bumps in the road that you can step over and move forward. There is nothing easy in life and so you have to remember to be persistent and to persevere.
To balance and stay true to the essence of wayang kulit, first of all, we should do our homework and understand the things that we are doing.
Consult a master in the craft that you want to work with. Speak with them. You might not get their approval immediately or they may not be instantly receptive to your idea, so you have to try to understand their points of view. If they aren’t keen, look for another person. But you have to understand at least the basics of the thing you are working on.
I am fortunate that I have met Pak Dain. He is a very open-minded person. I told him about my plan. He thought about it for some time and got involved because we were doing it correctly.
Many traditional arts aren’t well appreciated by the younger generation. Part of the reason is the impression of the arts. The younger generation may feel that it isn’t trendy or modern, and not something they can relate to.
On top of that, our education system doesn’t place culture very highly among the things to be taught and children don’t learn much about it.
That is why we are working to revive the art. Our way is to infuse it with sci-fi and pop culture. I feel this is a good formula. I see a lot of youngsters come in, get acquainted and become interested in the arts.
We do this respectfully of course. What we do is still the same art form; it is still wayang kulit. It is only the characters that have been changed, to Darth Vader or Batman for example. These are the characters the youth can relate to.
Also, what we are doing at Fusion Wayang Kulit is one of the ways to revive the art. There are many groups in Malaysia who in their own ways are keeping this art form alive and making it more relevant to the youth. We need more people to do more things, different things to keep this art and tradition alive.
All images by Tintoy Chuo