Have you ever wonder what is that symbol emblazoned on the tail of all Malaysian airplanes flown by Malaysia Airlines System (MAS)? Although for most people, it is nothing more than just an emblem, it has a huge significance for each and every Malaysian that makes them proud. Known as ‘wau’, it is one of the oldest traditional games in the Malay culture. Dancing in the azure sky, a wau or kite is accompanied by a hummer, which produces various buzzing and purring sounds when soaring upon the wind. There are something mystical about the way this kite defies gravity by swaying and climbing slowly up the sky.
Kites are flown after the rice harvesting season is over. People are happy and free to pursue pastimes. 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.
Wau can appear in all kind of shapes but the three main one are the famous Wau Bulan or moon kite, named for its crescent like tail shape, the Wau Jala Budi or women kite, which takes on the curves of a women, and the Wau Burung Puyuh, the barred busted quail kite. Despite their different names, these kites all share the same basic, bird-like shape, with slight variations in their wings and tail.
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 paddy 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!
It takes about 2 days to 2 weeks of skill and patience to make a wau. 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. Each frame of a kite must have a ‘head’, a ‘spine’, a ‘waist’, a ‘wing’ and a ‘tail’. After the frame is constructed, designs are traced on a tinted and shiny glazed paper and then carefully cut out and pasted on paper which is glued to the bamboo frame. The humming bow is attached to the head of the kite, which is finally decorated with tassels at the tail to produce the ‘song’ of the kite.
Each wau is designed according to its own set of elaborate motifs, adhering to the traditional style of artwork expected of each design. 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. The more meandering the vines, the more twists and turns in a man’s life mean the more interesting is the person’s life. In older kites, flowers were depicted from the side and back, analogous to the shy and reserved nature of women in those days, who never looked at you directly in the face. Nowadays, flowers are depicted from the front. 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.
Apart from the patterns, choice of colours is also important in determining quality. Colours that clash or show strong contrast are frowned upon. Complementing or harmonious colours reflect on the emotional state of the kite-maker. Soft colours such as shades of blues and purples indicate that the kite-maker has a serene nature.
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