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Morning of the neo-Dalangs

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Wayang Fajar
11, 12 Dec (8.30pm), 13 Dec (3.00pm)
Annexe Gallery, Central Market, KL
entry by RM10 donation.

This weekend, in conjunction with Annexe gallery’s hugely popular Art for Grabs, Five Arts Centre unleashes a new generation of urban dalangs to stage a performance inspired by the many dawns, we – and Malaysia – experience. ARTERI speaks to Fahmi Fadzil and Azmyl Yunor on contemporary wayang and the stories we tell each other through light and shadow.

ARTERI: We understand Wayang Fajar to be the first part of a series of performances under a bigger umbrella project called Wayang Cahaya, of which the sequels will continue to explore different times of the day – noon, dusk and night. Can you tell us how did this project come about?

Fahmi: A bit of background… okay, we started with Project Wayang in 2006 as part of the Krishen Jit Experimental Workshop series. Since then, we worked on a couple of forms, such as Wayang Buku, Wayag Lampu and those works were, in many ways, more about forms. Wayang Buku, for example, looked at the book and Wayang Lampu was specifically playing with the light bulb. With Wayang Fajar, we thought it might be interesting to take it a bit further, looking at the very idea of light itself, which in a wayang performance is what cast the shadow. It is the source from which the shadow emanates. We wanted to look at the idea of light, what kind of stories is told where light is and light is not.

Azyml: In Wayang Fajar, you can say we are stripping down the entire performance of wayang to its light source.

Fahmi: Wayang Fajar is part of a Wayang Cahaya, where we extend beyond form to question the very idea of light itself and because of our context, living and working in a city such as KL, maybe it is apt to look at light and the city and use it to relate our experiences of living in the city.

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Azmyl: On a cultural level, I am interested in looking at different forms of wayang. When Fahmi brought up the question of whether wayang is still relevant or can it ever be relevant beyond the traditional performances in cultural tourism shows, I thought this is something we can explore. I also want to look at the flexibility of the wayang form, how much further can we take it?

Fahmi: This is also to democratise the knowledge and ownership of wayang, rather than being the sole privileged discourse of rare practitioners or historians or academics.

Azmyl: We take light for granted, especially when we live in an urban environment. In the past, when electricity wasn’t invented, we see things differently and experience our daily cycle according to a much more natural rhythm. Within the city, our space is constantly illuminated, albeit artificially. We want to work and understand this space we inhabit and recreate a sense of wonder within it.

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ARTERI: What are some of the challenges and rewards working collaboratively with non professional actors who come from different creative backgrounds, you have Zedeck (writer), Myra (journalist), Lisa Foo (architect), Azmyl (singer-songwriter),Ronnie Khoo (musician) etc.

Fahmi: Myra said it quite well in another interview. When we have people from different fields and different backgrounds, different professions really, you get to see and experience how is it that this other person works. So we have Lisa Foo, who is an architect, and if you think about architects, the way they work is to create a long lead time to realise a project, a lot of planning is involved. And then put them together with Azmyl and I who are a lot more spontaneous. How do you put these energies together to produce something engaging and entertaining?

People like Lisa Foo, completely forthcoming in providing ideas. Ronnie Khoo is like a diam diam ubi, the quiet yam who grows without you having to say grow. He comes into rehearsals with full music composition. And even though he works with sound and he also performs. Zedeck Siew who performs also writes. We aren’t precious about our position or role. Just because you’re there as a musician, you shouldn’t just stick to it. Ronnie Khoo who works on music also gives really real and very solid response to the narrative, for example. So everyone has an opportunity to really be a part of the project.

In many ways, getting so many people involved is one way of democratising the wayang. I think democracy has been quite strong a principle for how we work. There has been no real director for the performance. All of us take equal ownership. As an extension, we also want to take ownership of the idea of wayang.

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ARTERI: Why have you decide to depart from the conventional form of wayang in Malaysia, understood often as shadow puppetry? It seems that you are looking at a broader genre of wayang, which is prevalent in Indonesia. They have wayang revolusi and wayang reformasi – productions that are socially relevant and responsive to contemporary issues – are there precedences of this sort of wayang in Malaysia?

Fahmi: Not that I am aware of. The reason why I started Project Wayang back in 2006 was because of the inability to study a tradition. I wanted to learn traditional wayang, but either because people did not have the will to teach or the fact that they were dying, the whole learning process became one of self-discovery. Other than learning wayang on my own terms, I have also been looking at how is it that other young contemporary practitioners understand wayang in the region, in both Thailand and Indonesia. They take on an idea of wayang on their own terms rather than on historical terms.

Azmyl: There is a fetish for preservation. In coming up with a new approach to wayang, I don’t think we are bastardising the genre. We are just putting it in a contemporary context. When we did Wayang Rakyat, which was held in a mall, we had a pohon beringin, which we dubbed as pohon kapitalisme (the tree of capitalism), and iconic logos of franchises such as Starbucks, MacDonalds, budded from the branches of our tree. Now, for those familiar with the wayang, the pohon beringin is shown at the beginning of performance and represents the cosmology. In the case of Wayang Rakyat, all our modern day comforts are encapsulated in our capitalistic tree. We were asking these quetions as we performed Wayang Rakyat – where is it that the rakyat (the people) hang out? What are the kind of symbols and signs that would populate the tree and represent their world?

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ARTERI: How does a responsive form differ from the a traditional performance?

Azmyl: The idea of spontaneity is attractive to me. There is a level of improvisation that creates uncertainty. The wayang relies on this. It is therefore flexible enough to quickly capture and respond to our daily realities.

Fahmi: Like it or not, the survival of wayang kulit kelantan or siam is bound to economic imperatives or realities. Few people have the real drive to pick up the form because you need to earn a living and there are very few ways of making a living practicing traditional forms. Political ban is only one factor. The people themselves prefer to watch Astro satellite television or go to the cinema, it has become culturally irrelevant.

Marion D’Cruz puts it this way, the project that we do is inventing a new wayang. It is not about extending a lineage. We don’t belong to that tradition, we are not part of that artistic lineage. But at the same time, I feel that there is a driving semangat, a spirit, that informs our practice. What is the kind of melieu that informs and sustains this form? What is the kind of thinking of the Malayan population and is it possible that there are certain codes and conventions that can suppor the use of these forms within the theatre venarcular. There’s a kind of earthiness or rootedness that you experience in a wayang performance that can also be seen when watching a P Ramlee movie, there is something about the sense of humour, the sense of dealing with everyday reality, the sense of the power structure in our society that the wayang responds to and reflects on that makes it all the more relevant. At this point, we are at the stage of tryng to observe and articulate these issues, we haven’t arrived at the point of trying to manipulate it.

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ARTERI: What inspires Wayang Fajar?

Fahmi: You know the sweets, Nano nano? It goes with this jingle… Nano, nano, nano… nano, nano, nano… That’s one inspiration. I’m serious. Metaphorically, we are interested in the idea of distributing sweets. Often, we feel that we have been promised and given sweets all too often by our politicians.

Azmyl: As if the sweets are theirs to begin with when by right they really belong to us!

Fahmi: On a serious note, there is a lot of confusion at this point in time. Things that have happened over the past two years since the last general elections… It has been a new dawn for Malaysia and I’m not quite sure if we’re ready for it. People say it’s new day same business and to a certain extent it has, and in some sense it really isn’t. Things have changed. We want to document this, how we are feeling and experiencing what has been happening to our nation.

Azmyl: It is part of the popular psyche now in Malaysia. We’re not just riding on the political bandwagon. We haven’t yet seen this kind of expression in other forms of creative engagement. If we go to a traditional performance, they tell stories about their time and epoch. We want to tell our stories. The commonality within all wayang genres is story telling.

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Fahmi: The stories that we tell, are stories that Malaysians in general should be familiar with. We don’t present them literally, we try not to, at least. It is really an invitation to consider, to enjoy and most of all be entertained. Most importantly, to watch Azmyl put on a performance in defense of his dream of having a beer with a friend who passed away! It touches on the idea of dream and the idea of dawn. Dawn as the start of a new idea, at a moment of the day where people are beginning to wake up. There are about four stories where people wake up, people who aren’t sure if they are in a state of dreaming or not. Have we been asleep in the past two years?

Azmyl: If you switch the r and j in wayang fajar, it becomes wayang faraj. Faraj means vagina in the Malay language. We kept kidding about it during rehearsals. In a sense, when you think of dawn as a process of beginning, of birthing, then the idea of the womb is quite a fitting metaphor. We never linger on dawn, and in this production, we want to ask what happened this morning? We don’t get to savour dawn. People associate dawn with getting up for work. Getting ready, it’s a lot about getting ready as well. But in Malaysia, I don’t think we are ever ready.

~

(SS)

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