Where Cultures Meet

Puppet masters bring ancient art form out of the shadows in spectacular ways

Puppet masters bring ancient art form out of the shadows in spectacle

Wayang Kulit: The Shadow Play of Kelantan
YES Prep Academy Southwest students previewed a 20-minute show by Wayang Kulit. Courtesy of Society for the Performing Arts
Wayang Kulit: The Shadow Play of Kelantan
Students also participated in in a dance class and engaged in lively dialogue with the visiting theater troupe. Courtesy of Society for the Performing Arts
Wayang Kulit: The Shadow Play of Kelantan
A two-dimensional leather puppet. Courtesy of Society for the Performing Arts
Wayang Kulit: The Shadow Play of Kelantan
A three-dimensional wooden puppet. Courtesy of Society for the Performing Arts
Wayang Kulit: The Shadow Play of Kelantan
Wayang Kulit has members from 13 to 75 years old. Courtesy of Society for the Performing Arts
Wayang Kulit: The Shadow Play of Kelantan
Wayang Kulit: The Shadow Play of Kelantan
Wayang Kulit: The Shadow Play of Kelantan
Wayang Kulit: The Shadow Play of Kelantan
Wayang Kulit: The Shadow Play of Kelantan

In a celestial epic of good versus evil and between light versus darkness, it's the shadows that appear to be the hero, at least as a mysterious, ancient and simple channel that is acting as a cultural exchange in Houston.

While shadow puppet theater isn't a sophisticated art form by Western standards, the practice is highly complex in Indonesia, dating back to the first century before the common era.

You won't find amateurish hand shadows that resemble lewd body parts like you did as a kid. Instead, exquisitely crafted three-dimensional wooden puppets and two-dimensional leather puppets are manipulated from behind a backlit screen by a skilled master, called the tok dalang, who also impersonates numerous characters — sometimes more than 40 characters — vocally. Typical performances can last up to four hours (and you thought Wagner was long winded).

That's in addition to a gamelan music ensemble that, together with the theatrical elements, creates a milieu that was recognized as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

 "To experience the wonder of the Malaysian shadow puppet group Wayang Kulit is to discover an art form that borrows from many cultural traditions."

To experience the wonder of the Malaysian shadow puppet group Wayang Kulit is to discover an art form that borrows from many cultural traditions that have grazed its area of origin.

Sponsored by the Society for the Performing Arts, in partnership with The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and Arts Midwest, Wayang Kulit is in Houston to perform plays based on the Hindu folktale Ramayana, widely treasured in the Muslim villages in the Kelentan (translated as "Land of Lightning") region of Malaysia. The tale portrays the ideal father, servant, brother, wife and king, among many more characters.

A public performance — don't worry, it isn't four hours long — is scheduled for 7:30 p.m Thursday at the Asia Society Texas Center, followed by a shadow puppetry workshop set for 1 p.m. Saturday also as the Asia Society.

The engagement is part of an initiative titled Caravanserai: A Place Where Cultures Meet, which also includes performances and workshops at schools in an effort to encourage youth to open up their minds to the world at large. On Wednesday, YES Prep Academy Southwest students previewed a 20-minute show, participated in a dance class and engaged in lively dialogue with the visiting theater troupe, which has members from 13 to 75 years old.

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Society for the Performing Arts and Asia Society Texas Center presents "Wayang Kulit - The Shadow Play of Kelantan" on Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for general public and $5 for Asia Society Texas Center members and can be purchased online