Kelantan has a rich artistic tradition, boasting two costumed dance/drama forms, mak yong and the Thai-influenced menora. Even more striking is wayang kulit, shadow puppetry, traditionally staged on a dais screened from the audience by a large cloth sheet and illuminated from behind. The cast consists of a set of stencils made of hide and formed into the shapes of the various characters, which are manipulated against the screen by a sole puppeteer, who also improvises all the dialogue. Reflecting the long history of Indian influence in the region, the tales are taken from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana; in the past, wayang kulit functioned as a sort of kampung soap opera, serializing Ramayana instalments nightly during the months after the rice harvest. Performances are gripping affairs, with a hypnotic soundtrack provided by an ensemble of drums, gongs and the oboe-like serunai, whose players are seated behind the puppeteer.
Sadly, all three of the above traditional art forms have been banned in Kelantan by the PAS-led state government since the 1990s. PAS has cited issues of public morality – which could mean they object to the fact that both mak yong and menora can involve an element of cross-dressing. PAS also objects to the non-Islamic nature of these performances, since they involve folk tales or Hindu mythology. Finally, the party also has a problem with the spiritualism permeating these arts. A wayang kulit performance always begins with a buka panggung ceremony, in which the puppeteer readies the stage by reciting mantras and making offerings of food to the spirits, while mak yong can be staged for an individual as part of a folk-healing tradition called main puteri, in which the performers enter a trance to remove a spirit believed to be affecting that person.
Whatever the reasons for the ban, the effect has been akin to cultural hara-kiri, depriving a generation of Kelantanese of their own traditions. Dozens of wayang kulit troupes have been reduced to a mere handful, performing largely outside Kelantan or, thanks to one concession from PAS, for the benefit of the mainly tourist audience at Kota Bharu’s Cultural Centre. On a brighter note, all three forms mentioned here are being passed on to a new generation, and sometimes staged, at the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage in KL (waswara.edu.my).