Silk Shadows Speak: A Study of Malaysian Children’s Voices on Heritage Folktales Using Performative Tools Period of Research: January 2018 – Feb 2020

Research Background

The last 50 years have brought dramatic changes to the lives of children as they confront shifting patterns in Malaysians’ lifestyles, leisure time and tastes as well as increasing competition from entertainment and recreation. Intriguingly, children today, are seeking new fixtures that offer new and varied ways to communicate, learn and play where they can emerge as central actors in a shifting landscape that challenges our values and norms surrounding heritage folktales and performative arts.

Silk Shadows Speak is an action research project that will explore wayang kulit (shadow play) as a performative art that can delve into children’s engagement with heritage folktales in critical and creative ways. The concern of the project is about children’s voices – their thoughts and reactions towards heritage folktales in their everyday lives. It is about children’s participation in appropriating wayang kulit to make and communicate meaning through storytelling, interpretation and creation of characters, puppetry, sounds, textures and gestures. It is also about re-visioning performative tools, specifically, the wayang kulit experience in engaging and interactive ways that will bring unprecedented attention to public conversation and action on children’s performative activities; from children’s voices in secondary schools to the halls of the university, government agencies and grassroots community organizations.

The Three Main Areas of Focus:

I. The Children
Children as active learners, draw on direct physical and social experience as well as culturally transmitted knowledge to construct their own understandings of the world around them.

II. The Heritage Folktales
Folklore is an ingredient of Malaysian cultural identity that shapes ideas and actions of children in rapidly changing living settings today. Children need interested adults and others to listen to their plans, respond to their ideas, and offer assistance and support for their explorations on heritage folktales in the Malaysian setting. This will enhance respect for Malaysian heritage folktales in productive ways.

III. The Performative Arts – Appropriating the wayang kulit experience
Arts experiences that recognize children’s active role in exploring opportunities are important to construct and elaborate voices on meaningful activities that are relevant to children’s daily realities. Departing from existing conventions that situate children as passive participants, there are struggles to bring wayang kulit to more participatory platforms that respond to the present lifeworld dramatic experiences that engage critical inquiry and creative skills.

Challenges in Research

This topic is uncharted territory for researchers and stakeholders alike as there is hardly any empirical information on children’s engagement with heritage folktales. This presents a difficulty to accurately predict what impact this will have on the social futures of children, heritage and performative arts in Malaysia.

Policymakers, arts educators and activists, businesses, educators and parents need to understand children’s involvement with living experiences to comprehend their attitudes and practices in contemporary challenging settings. The richness in our heritage artifacts will vanish before our eyes if we do not engage with children’s social realities and re-visioned children-centered capacity in performing arts.

Research Objectives

The present study has the following objectives to fulfill:

I. Children’s interest in heritage folktales in Malaysia
To chart children‘s knowledge and attitudes towards heritage folktales in the current Malaysia context.

The following research questions were asked:
Are Malaysian children interested in heritage folktales?
What aspects of heritage folktales do they find as most engaging and at most distressing and why?
What do they think about building connections between heritage folktales and their social realities in creative performative ways?

II. Performative Arts – Appropriating the wayang kulit experience
To revision the wayang kulit experience by exploring new forms of participation, storytelling, interpretation, and creation of characters, puppetry, sounds, textures and gestures where children voice heritage folktales in fun and imaginative ways.

The following research questions were asked:
What are children‘s experiences and views on wayang kulit?
What aspects of wayang kulit do they find as most appealing and as most uninteresting and why?
How can wayang kulit be re-visioned in a way that retains the core elements, and yet be performed in appealing ways that engage children’s voices today in fruitful ways?
What are the folktales that are seen as relevant and how have they expressed these representations and meanings in their wayang kulit works?
What are the challenges that will be encountered in appropriating wayang kulit to the social realities of contemporary children?

Research Achievements

The research documents 3 major processes that 60 primary school children went through in this research:

I. Charting knowledge in heritage folktales

The children were able to identify themselves with 3 folktales namely Bawang Merah, Bawang Putih, Si Tanggang and Hikayat Sang Kancil. The children related these traditional tales of the past to their present lives by adding their present moral and social values to these stories from their perspective and level of understanding. The children also gave their voices to the narration of the stories, created the character dialogues, acted and embodied the characters of the stories. They also had a hand in crafting and drawing out the characters of the stories learn in various sessions with the researchers to envision how these story characters would look like in real life.

II. Appropriating the wayang kulit experience

The children were able to envision, imagine and ideate how the puppets should be created, colored or shaped. Children after receiving instruction were able to learn puppetry moving techniques and handle the movement of the puppets according to the flow of the characters in the stories presented during the final performance. Besides the puppetry, the musical aspect was also introduced and students learn to accompany a wayang kulit performance with Gamelan music and learn musical cues and rhythm to match the flow and pace of the stories presented in their performances.

III. Staging a performance of wayang kulit by using heritage folktales through acting, puppetry and playing Gamelan instruments

A wayang kulit performance was staged with selected heritage folktales. A total of 40 children from Sekolah Kebangsaan Minden Heights in Penang and Sekolah Kebangsaan Seri Jerai in Gurun, Kedah participated in a two-day workshop to prepare them for the performance. The whole process happened from October 21 until October 23, 2019 at Panggung Pelenggam Cahaya, Universiti Sains Malaysia.

The following skills were acquired by the students in the course of these three days:
(i) Writing the narration and dialogues of the stories
(ii) Acting of characters during story narration
(iii) Using puppets with wayang kulit methods to act out story details
(iv) Playing Gamelan music accordingly with tempo and timing
(v) Children were able to voice out their perception of moral values to each of the stories