Shafie Jusoh loves traditional Malaysian kites so much that he can’t get a good night’s rest unless he’s been working on them daily.
“I need to make kites everyday, if not I can’t sleep,” the 69-year-old said. He began making them when he was a young boy, skipping classes to entertain his flights of fancy.
“If you don’t do it everyday, you will lose the technique,” he added.
Shafie is among a diminishing group of Malaysian master kite-makers who have dedicated their lives to breathing life into the ancient craft.
A colourful giant two-metre kite with extended wings greets visitors at the entrance of Shafie’s dark and dusty studio in a sleepy village in Kelantan state.
“I made this kite 30 years ago. You need 25 men to fly it,” the self-taught kite-maker quipped proudly as he showed a faded photo of it soaring in the air.
A wooden table at his studio is lined with several awards from government agencies for his efforts promoting Malaysia’s kites, a national symbol, worldwide.
He recalled one particular visit to Paris many years ago, where he had brought over 30 Malaysian kites to an exhibition and all were sold quickly.
“To the foreigners, the kites are just so unique and they love it” he said.
Passion and patience –
The early morning rays stream through a rickety green window, dancing on the thick veins on his arm as he flips and turns his knife, cutting a spiny bamboo stick to perfection.
After thinning out several bamboo sticks, he bends and ties them with strings to form the main kite frame.
Separately, using a small knife, he cuts out intricate floral designs on an assortment of coloured paper. These are painstakingly pasted onto tracing paper which is then glued to the main bamboo frame.
The kite is then left indoors for a day to let the glue dry.
A ribbon is attached tightly to two ends of the kites and this produces a loud “swoosh” sound when the kite makes sharp turns in the sky.
The entire process can take between two weeks to three months depending on the size and the intricate nature of the kite.
“You need both the passion and the patience to make kites,” Shafie explained.
There are several kinds of Malaysian kites, with various shapes based on stingrays, cats and peacocks. There is also a kite called “wau jala budi” where its curvy shape, some believe, is inspired by the outline of a woman’s body.
But the “wau bulan” or moon kite with its lower tip resembling a crescent, an Islamic symbol, is the most popular in Kelantan.
It takes around a week or two to produce a small moon kite and is sold for around 400 to 500 ringgit, said Shafie. Some moon kites though can be as high as three metres. The bigger models can cost as much as 9,000 ringgit.
The “wau bulan” is also the inspiration behind the Malaysia Airlines logo.
Dwindling interest –
Many of Shafie’s customers are keen kite flyers but some also purchase his designs as decorative pieces for their homes.
As he has built up such a reputation for his artistic pieces, his studio is also a popular pit-stop for international tour groups from Europe and North America visiting Kelantan.
He enlists his wife Wan Enbong Wan Deraman to help when there are large orders. The state’s annual kite festival causes a surge in demand, with many local students buying his pieces.
“My students like these traditional kites because of the historical knowledge and art involved,” one teacher told AFP.
While the people of Kelantan, known for its crafts, still love such Malaysian kites, interest is waning.
There are fears the ancient skills, passed from one generation to the next, will die out.
“It takes many, many years to master the craft and the situation in Kelantan and elsewhere in Malaysia is that there are very few craftsmen who still have the traditional knowledge,” said Pauline Fan, creative director of Pusaka, an organisation that works to document and protect traditional Malay arts.
She warned: “It’s intricate and hard and most young people don’t have the patience to do it…once the masters and the knowledge are gone, it will be difficult to get it back.”
As for Shafie, he has no plans to retire any time soon and hopes there is still time for him to pass on his knowledge and skills to others.
He said: “Some students, even a few outside of Kelantan, have come to ask me to teach them, reports AFP.