Luke Skywalker may have travelled to a galaxy far, far away and Superman may come from Krypton. But the most remarkable journey of these contemporary heroes has taken them to Kampong Morak, a farming village in northernmost Kelantan, Peninsular Malaysia's most remote and conservative state.
In a small workshop by the tin-roofed house of Muhammad Dain Bin Othman, a small team of puppet-makers are pounding patterns into pieces of water buffalo hide. Pak Dain, or Uncle Dain as he is more commonly known, is one of Malaysia's last surviving dalang, translated as master puppeteer in the art ofwayang kulit, or shadow play.
Alongside fearsome, stick figures of Rama, Sita and other characters of the ancient Ramayana epic, Pak Dain's team crafts stylized visions of modern-day heroes from Star Wars, and Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, even Bruce Lee and Santa Claus.
This so-called fusion wayang kulit - the brainchild of Tintoy Chuo - a professional "character designer" for high-tech games - is aimed at reviving Malaysia's oldest form of storytelling for a new audience.
"Some academics came here to object to adapting the shadow play to Hollywood," said Dain. "But I asked all the skeptics to show me a better way to revive a dying art."
The living embodiment of a Kelantanese tradition said to have been passed down through 13 generations, Dain now has trouble finding work. The wayang kulit was once an essential feature of harvest festivals, weddings, among others, and seen to bring good luck. Even more difficult is trying to pull together the 12 musicians skilled enough at the requisite drums and gong instruments for any performance.
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