Above the sun-baked earth of the empty paddy fields in Kelantan, Terengganu, Perlis and Kedah, the night is pregnant with a humming drone that seemingly comes from the sky. It lulls babies to sleep and soothes the frazzled nerves of adults, providing an aural backdrop to their conversations and daily activities. Beside their houses, paddy farmers have tethered kites to the trunks of coconut trees. The humming sound is created when wind blows through a bow attached to a kite flying in the sky.
The flying of Malay kites usually marks the post-harvest season. A Malay kite combines the best of skilled workmanship, dazzling colours and decoration. It exhibits the creativity of the Malays and their talented craftsmanship in fashioning a unique art form that has the highest possible level of aesthetics. A Malay kite is not a schoolboy's toy as it normally measures 1.5 metres by 1.7 metres. It is called wau because the shape of its wing is similar to an Arabic letter that is pronounced as "wow". It has also been postulated that the word "wau" originated from the Dutch word "wauw" that refers to a large predator bird found in South-east Asia. When Melaka fell to the Dutch in 1641, the word was introduced to the local populace.
The Malay kite takes many shapes of which the most popular is the moon kite or wau bulan. There are also bird-kites, peacock-kites, hawk kites, cat-kites, frog-kites, quail-kites, fish-kites, woman kites and fairy godmother kites. A peculiar Malay kite is the wau sobek, which is constructed of cloth and bamboo. It is too heavy to be flown and is used as a purely decorative item in many East Coast homes.
Such a variety of shapes demonstrate the talent of the Malay craftsman to produce an object d'art from abstractions of human and animal forms. In another aspect, the play of colours with extreme sensitivity qualifies the kite as an art form. Syed Ahmad Jamal in his "Form and Style" wrote, "the use of colours on kites is akin to that of stained-glass." Usually, the middle sections on the left and right sides of the wings are left devoid of patterns to provide balance with the decorated areas. This empty area is called "golden deer", and prevents the kite from being overwhelmed by a surfeit of patterns.
Anthropologists have noted that the wau bulan contains elements found in other traditional kites from other countries such as the Thai "hong song", Indian "tukkal", Indonesian "janggan" and the even Cambodian kites. For instance, Thai, Cambodian and Indonesian kites also carry humming bows.
The history and legends associated with the Malay kite are as colourful as its designs. In ancient times, coastal inhabitants of the Malay peninsula used kites fitted with lines and hooks to fish. Kites were also flown to act as flying scarecrows while the farmers were busy in the fields. In an episode of the Makyong dance, a love story culminates in a happy ending when two lovers are re-united by an unusual mean of transport. By clinging to a giant kite rendered sky-borne by monsoon winds, a Malay prince flew to his lover and landed on her enchanted castle amidst the clouds.
The wau has had an even more dramatic role in battle against a foreign army. Legend has it that a Malay army was surrounded and about to surrender due to lack of food and water. One blustery night, the head warrior ordered his troops to fly a large number of kites fitted with bows. The loud droning that was created frightened the enemy forces away, which did not want to fight against what they perceived as demonic forces from the sky!
Making a Malay kite is an art in itself. Several kite-making workshops that cater to the tourist trade can be found along Kota Bharu's Jalan Pantai Cahaya Bulan that leads past Kampung Penambang, Kampung Badang and Kampung Semut Api.
According to Hussein Daud, a kite maker of Kota Bharu, the process of making a kite can take up to two weeks. The best kites are produced by a combination of patience, artistry and nimble fingers. The frame is made from bamboo stems, which are split into thin strips. The best species of bamboo for making kites is the
thorn bamboo, which is strong yet flexible. Whatever the shape of the kite, the frame consists of the following parts: a head, a spine, a waist, a wing and a tail. After the frame is constructed, it is covered with tinted, glazed paper. Designs are traced on shiny foil paper, which are cut out using a sharp penknife. The cutout sections are glued on the glazed paper using rice paste. The humming bow is attached to the head of the kite, which is finally decorated with tassels at the tail.
Says Hussein Daud: "In the olden days, the humming bow was made by attaching palm leaves over a single piece of dried bamboo. Nowadays, ribbons have replaced leaves. The bow carrying the taut ribbon is clamped on the neck of the kite, and its resonation against the airflow produces a humming sound." He adds that different pitches are created by utilising ribbons of various thicknesses and by varying the tension. In competitions, however, ribbons are disallowed and rattan strips must be used. A kite is judged in two aspects: first, art and construction; and, second. height of flight and humming ability. Judges in design are usually batik painters or art teachers, while those judging flight ability are retired kite-makers.
Hassan Ibrahim, a veteran judge, says: "All designs must have a central flower called the "ibu" from which vines, leaves and flowers sprout. The vine symbolises the path of a man's life and the flowers, the women. In older kites, flowers were depicted from the side and back, analogous to the shy and reserved nature of women in olden days, who never looked at you directly in the face. Nowadays, flowers are depicted from the front, which is simpler to draw." He adds that frangipani, caterpillar flower, yam flower are the common motifs used. Border motifs often take the form of "sharks" teeth or "duck walk." Needless to say, the more intricate the patterns, the better is the artistic quality, as this indicates the input of more effort and skill.
Apart from the patterns, choice of colours is also important in determining quality. Colours that clash or show strong contrast are frowned upon. Complementing colours reflect on the emotional state of the kite-maker. Soft colours indicate that the kite-maker has a serene nature. Important elements in evaluating flight performance are smoothness of launch, angle of flight, height of flight and sound of the humming bow.
In Kuala Lumpur, one can watch kite flying at Batu Metropolitan Park every weekend. Located at Jalan Ipoh, the 24-hectare park sprawls around a disused mining pool. To add a "wow!" to your souvenir shopping, why not buy a kite from Kraftangan Malaysia in Jalan Conlay and Central Market in Jalan Hang Kasturi.
USEFUL PHONE NUMBERS
Ismail bin Jusoh Rahman Abd. Rahman
Kampong Kijang, Jalan Pantai Cahaya Bulan,
Kota Bharu, Kelantan
Tel: 09-774 3252, 019-961 2010
Pelayang Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2095 2626