2019 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Hofstra University

Hofstra University

Faculty mentor: Timothy P. Daniels, Professor of Anthropology

Student fellows: Tiyanna Forrest, Katherine Dickerson, Adeline Davis, Fatima Sonday

Wayang Kulit in Northern Kedah: Social History and Deliberating Intangible Cultural Heritage

Over the last few decades, there has been a growing global interest in recognizing and preserving intangible cultural heritage. This project will explore this global issue in Malaysia, where globalization, urbanization, socio-economic change, and politico-religious perspectives have often affected the transmission and continued practice of traditional arts. The Kelantan state government under the leadership of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, PAS) banned mak yong, a Malay dance drama/theatrical exorcism, along with wayang kulit and some other traditional art forms in 1991 claiming that they violated proper Islamic belief and practice. Over a decade later, in 2005, mak yong became the only Malaysian traditional art form recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which later inscribed it as a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2008. Wayang kulit (shadow puppet theater), while not banned in the state of Kedah has virtually disappeared from the northern villages where they used to be a vibrant part of the cultural landscape in the 1960s and 1970s.

This project will be a qualitative, dialogical, and collaborative exploration of the social history of shadow puppetry in the state of Kedah as well as its place in contemporary cultural geographies. Our research problem addresses why the performance of shadow puppet theater has declined in Kedah over the last four decades. The two main questions we will seek to answer are: what is the social history of this art form and what are people’s ideas about extinction or continuation of this form of intangible cultural heritage?

This research team will strive to understand what has happened to performers and performances of wayang kulit puppet theater in these regions of northern Kedah where they were once a prominent part of the social landscape. Interacting and collaborating with locals, we will aim to understand the ideas of a wide range of stakeholders and interest groups about the preservation or extinction of this performing art form in Kedah. The team members will interview the family members of the last known puppeteer in the state, residents of northwest and northeast villages, the teachers of Islamic schools, representatives of the Muslim political parties in the state (UMNO and PAS), museum curators in the state capital, Alor Setar, government officials in arts agencies, and cultural activists in a national arts organization.

Under strong faculty mentorship, the team members will hone their skills at conducting ethnographic interviews and eliciting oral histories from local people. We will strive to develop spaces for interaction and dialogue with local people. In the field and after returning, team members will develop their ability to interpret their observations, recorded discourses, and other data collected. Team members will also work on the second phase of developing an interactive database in which they will enter audio and visual documentation and oral histories. These experiences and skills will prepare them for careers in social sciences, education, international relations, public policy, and art history.