Lot 012

b. Kelantan, 1933 - d. Selangor, 1993


Signed and dated 'Nik Zainal 1981' in Jawi (lower left)
Watercolour on paper
29cm x 37.5cm

Private Collection, Kuala Lumpur

ESTIMATE  RM 9,000 - 12,000

Nik Zainal Abidin draws from various sources of wayang kulit styles and stories and in varying forms through his own interpretations and those adapted and assimilated according to the host society’s mores and peculiarities. Though his core sources are the Ramayana, whether it be the Malay adaptation or from the Thai version, he also includes the tales of the Mahabharata and the Hikayat Panji into his repertoire. He generalises the storyline as it is impossible to have one pictorial scene representing the whole gamut of the overly long epics. It’s more a mish-mash of characters – whether they be the Ghatotkacha ‘Bald Pot’ against the debonair Arjuna of the Pandawas in the Mahabharata or the Rama-Rawana battle of the Ramayana, or the Hikayat Panji (Wayang Purwa of Java) – picked up at certain stages of the story.

Like in a Kabuki play, one can re-enter a wayang kulit performance in the old days at any point, and not be any poorer for it, though there are the important scenes. Before the Islamist party PAS took over Kelantan and the Islamisation in Government Administration and education in 1984, the wayang kulit folklores were instrumental in helping to mould concepts of State and kingship. Artist and writer Siti Zainon Ismail observed: “The concept of bringing traditional imagery into the development of visual art began with Nik Zainal Abidin, who transferred the designs of wayang kulit puppets and the bangau of perahu onto paper... Seri Rama and Raja Wana were not only moving elements and voices fighting behind a screen, they became two-dimensional characters and icons in modern art”. 

Light in wayang kulit is more than the life force. For all the performance’s un-Islamic practices, there is one saving grace. In the paper, The Study of Semiotics Wayang Kulit Theatre in Malay Culture Society, Dahlan Abdul Ghani (Universiti Kuala Lumpur) wrote: “The metaphor behind the light (paraffin gas lamp) is not meant only for the performances, but also it replicates the concept for Malay society to seek knowledge and guidance from the one above. Here it refers to God which is (Allah SWT).”
Hailed as the Painter of the Epics, Nik Zainal Abidin was the pioneer who transferred the wayang kulit (shadow play) theatre and its myths and legends onto canvas. He worked as a set designer for RTM from the 1960s until his retirement in 1988. He has already showed early promise when he won a prize in the Merdeka Independence Fair in 1957 and First Prize in the Joy of Living exhibition in 1964. He became a member of the Wednesday Art Group which was formed in 1955. He was selected for a German cultural tour in 1970 and represented Malaysia in the Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan. He is also known for his design of the Kunci Ibu Kota, the cokmar (royal mace) and the royal throne for the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in 1960 and the mural for the West wing of Muzium Negara.

Menulis dan Melukis: Writing and Drawing in Malay Traditional Art and Their Impact in Modern and Contemporary Art – A Study of Cultural Values, Siti Zainon Ismail (Translated by Hasnul J. Saidon), Imagining Identities: Narratives in Malaysian Art Volume 1, RogueArt, 2012.