Malay Theatre: Intangible Cultural Heritage and Islam

Curated by Kathy Foley (wayang) with Patricia Ann Hardwick (mak yong)

Major Malay intangible cultural heritage forms include shadow puppetry wayang kelantan (formerly wayang siam) and the 2005 UNESCO-recognized female dance drama mak yong. Beginning in 1991 after PAS (Partai Islam Se-Malaysia, or the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party) took over the government of Kelantan (1990), mak yong and wayang were banned as “un-Islamic” due to opening rituals, stories about Hindu god-heroes or local spirits, the concept of god-clowns, and other elements that were termed syrik (worshipping a god other than Allah). In the same period the artists of these forms were being named Seniman Negara (National Artist)—for example, puppeteer Dalang Hamzah bin Awang Hamat (1993) and mak yong actress Khatijah Awang (1999)—their arts were banned in their home state of Kelantan. Noted artists migrated to Kuala Lumpur to teach in schools, albeit in a technical and secularized format.

The ban led to a precipitous decline in the traditional arts. In 1969, Amin Sweeney found 300 puppeteers active in Kelantan; in 2015, five active dalang are found. Few go through the ritual initiation (believed to make one a full artist). The only puppeteer who freely performs in the traditional ways of this Muslim Malay art is a Chinese Buddhist, Dalang Eyo Hock Seng (Pak Cu), who as a non-Muslim is free to practice the art with mantras. The government advertises the genres to promote tourism—and the one place in Kelantan that the genres for a long period could be legally performed was at the tourist venue Gelanggang Seni (Arts Complex) in Kota Bharu. Permission to present performances to local audiences was banned due to animist and Hindu-Buddhist elements and the idea that males and females might mix and begin liaisons. The arts of wayang and female dance are often traditionally credited to the Muslim teachers of the Indo-Malay world, the wali songgo (nine saints), who converted Java—and, some versions say, Malaysia—to Islam. Local traditions see links to Islamic Java. This exhibit explores the ambivalence such arts have encountered owing to both modernization and the Saudi-inspired “Islamic revival” since the 1980s.

Wayang and nang are puppet arts that share features and cluster around the Gulf of Thailand.  Trade routes bind the Malay areas of the north coast of Java, Kelantan on the east coast of Malaysia, and Southern Thailand. Small-figure puppetry, female dance drama, and trance dance genres are found in these areas. Arts probably moved along trade routes changing with local tastes.

The anti-iconic bent of Middle Eastern Islam was not part of the practice of Southeast Asian Islam, which was largely introduced from Champa, China, and areas of India. Some Shi’a influences in Persia-Punjab were also found. The late twentieth-century Islamic revival, however, follows Wahabi models, which, unlike local Islam, reject representation of the human form, call for veiling of women, frown on cross-gender acting (i.e., women playing men as in mak yong), ban women and men playing together in the same performance, question mixed-gender audience seating, and reject spirit beliefs and philosophies that are part of local genres.

Acknowledgements: Martin Jean, Institute of Sacred Music; Phyllis Granoff; Pat Matusky Yamaguchi; Karen Smith; Rachim bin Hamzah; ASWARA Centre for Traditional Arts (PuTRA); Pak Nik Mustapha Nik Md Salleh; Mohd Kamanzaman Taib; Kadijah Julie Mohd Johari; Malaysia-America Commission on Educational Exchange (Fulbright); UCSC Arts Research Institute; UCSC Committee on Research, Art Division Dean’s Fund for Excellence; Asian Cultural Council (NYC); East-West Center Art Gallery


Opening Reception Thursday, February 2nd | 5 PM