Before there was television or the cinema, there was the world of wayang kulit. This traditional storytelling form using shadow puppetry entertained countless audiences all over Indonesia and Malaysia for centuries.

As time passed, however, wayang kulit slowly became neglected, especially with the rise of technology. But a new book hopes to stop further neglect and spark a new interest in the ancient art form.

Titled Shadows, the book is a delightfully illustrated children’s tale centred on the art of Wayang Kulit Kelantan. It is written by Maya Zaharudin, illustrated by Shufitri Mohd Shukardi, and co-published by Kakiseni and MPH Publishing.

“The traditional arts of Malaysia represent our shared heritage. They have shaped our cultural identity and continue to be an important facet of our nation’s history. That’s why it is important to introduce them to a younger generation of Malaysians, to inspire and educate them,” said Tan Sri Norliza Rofli, National Department For Culture And Arts director-general, speaking at the book’s launch in Kuala Lumpur.

Shadows is the tale of Adam, a young boy who finds himself in a wayang kulit world of shadow and light and must use his wits and courage to defeat monsters and help a royal prince recover treasure.

It is the first book in the upcoming Hikayat series, which is aimed at getting young Malaysians interested in the traditional arts.

Future titles in the series will showcase the mystical art of Mak Yong and the grand tradition of teater bangsawan.

One of the pages from Shadows.

One of the pages from Shadows.

In writing the story, author Maya, 25, says she tried to keep the plot humorous, just like the stories traditionally performed in wayang kulit.

“My idea was to keep the story as relatable as possible. I didn’t base the characters on anyone I know, but I have nephews who bully each other a lot, which is how the brother idea in the book came about,” says the first-time author who has a background in education.

“And for the other characters, I tried to take the most prominent characters in a traditional wayang kulit show and put them in the book. Kids can then get to know who they will see in the shows.”

Illustrator Shufitri, also 25, says a lot of research went into creating the distinctive visuals of the book, with much help coming from Kamarul Baisah Hussin – “Abang Baisah”, as Shufitri fondly calls him.

The lecturer at the National Academy Of Arts, Culture And Heritage Malaysia (Aswara) is one of the few practising tok dalang in Malaysia. (A tok dalang is the master puppeteer and storyteller in a wayang kulit performance.)

“I was not at all familiar with wayang kulit. So I had to go to Aswara with Abang Baisah, who showed me trunks and trunks of puppets! So I learned all these designs, and how they are made, and how each character has different roles and designs,” Shufitri explains.

The self-taught visual artist and theatre practitioner with a background in teaching says it took him weeks to develop the motifs for the book’s artwork. His aim, he says, was to create something that both children and adults could relate to.

“I tried to put in little things behind the illustrations, little ‘Easter eggs’, for the kids to spot. Things like eyes drawn in the corner,” adds Shufitri.

According to both author and illustrator, working on the project has given them a new-found appreciation for this ancient art.

“Before this, I was a bit interested. But now, if an event has a wayang kulit show, then I would go for sure! I now know how complicated it is, how people play the music, how they do the puppets, choreograph the movements, how they do everything,” Maya says enthusiastically.

The author adds that when she was young, she was exposed to Western fairytales through Disney movies and the stories from the Brothers Grimm.

Later, however, she became enchanted by Malay folktales about characters like Bawang Putih, Bawang Merah and the legendary Puteri Mahsuri.

She hopes, therefore, that Shadows will expose children to these wonderful stories told through wayang kulit.

“I hope kids will be able to read it, and think, ‘Malaysia has a pretty cool arts scene!’ It may be ancient, like hundreds of years old, but it can still be fresh and interesting,” Maya says.