Letter from Jakarta

Sitting cross-legged on a mat before a white cotton screen, the dalang manipulates dozens of perforated leather figures in the course of the wayang.

The single puppeteer animates the puppets as he narrates and chants throughthe night to the accompaniment of the gong and other instruments of the gamelan orchestra such as the kempul, kenong and ketuk.

Before his enraptured audience, the dalang recounts events spanning centuries and continents, improvising from the basic plot a complex network of court intrigues, great loves, wars, magic, mysticism and comedy.

He must be able to express by a distinct intonation every mood and emotion; the slightest departure from the accepted tone could upset the audience. In modern Indonesia, the shadow-puppet theatre or wayang is still alive.

For the Javanese villager, the art of the wayang is not simply entertainment. Many stories and wayang figures have a special mystical function.

Certain stories are performed for the purpose of protecting a rice crop, the welfare of a village or even individuals.

The Hindu epics – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana – are the basis of the most important wayang stories, particularly in the wayang kulit. They are merged with old Javanese legends like King Panji to provide moral tales, which for centuries haveplayed a large part in establishing traditional Javanese values.

For instance, in the Mahabharata, in the war between cousins, the Kuravas represent the forces of greed, evil and destruction, while the Pandavas symbolise refinement, enlightenment and civilised behaviour.

A key Javanese addition to the story is the dwarf clown Semar. An incarnation of a god, he is a source of wisdom and advice to one of the Pandava brothers, Arjuna.

Semar’s body is squat with an enormous posterior and a bulging belly. While he and his three sons – Gareng with his misshapen arms and crossed eyes, Petruk with his Pinocchio-shaped nose and Baging, who speaks as if he were choking – are comic figures, they play an important role of interpreting the actions and speech of the heroic figures in the wayang kulit plays.

For the Javanese, they are the mouthpieces of truth and wisdom.

In general, the characters of the stories are inextricably mixed. Ancient Javanese heroes appear in Hindu stories, and Hindu gods have been turned into clowns. The characters in wayang are really brought to life by the multi-talented dalang. The puppeteer must be a linguist capable of speaking both the language of the audience and the ancient kawi language spoken by the aristocratic characters of the play.

He must also be able to mimic a different voice for each character and direct the village’s gamelan orchestra. He directs the orchestra using a system of cues, often communicating the name of the composition to be played using riddles or puns.

But he is judged most by how he animates the puppets. The puppet is made of water-buffalo leather. Its outline is cut using a thin knife and the fine details carved out using small chisels and a hammer.

When the carving is finished, the movable arms are attached and the puppet is painted. Lines are drawn in and accentuated with black ink, which is also used to increase the contrast of the carved holes. The cempurit, the stick of horn used to hold the puppet upright, is then attached.

The leaf-shaped kayon represents the ‘tree’ or ‘mountain of life’ and is used to end scenes or to symbolise wind, mountains, clouds or the sea. Also made from flexible hide, the kayon might be waved softly behind the cloth screen while a puppet figure is held horizontally – an effective way to indicate flight though a cloudy sky.

While the wayang kulit is found mainly in Central Java, the wayang tradition exists elsewhere in Java, with variations according to locale.

In East Java, the wayang kulit is replaced by the wayang klitik or keruchil, which is a flat wooden puppet. The drama is performed without a shadow screen.

In West Java, there is the wayang golek, a performance utilising three-dimensional wooden puppets with movable heads and arms. Although wayang golek is also found in Central Java, it is most popular among the Sundanese in West Java.

Wayang golek uses the same stories as the wayang kulit, including the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

But it also has it own set of stories for which there is a direct Islamic inspiration.

And what about the audience for these age-old morality tales?

Most Javanese in the villages still attend the wayangs because of the ritual functions they perform.

But these days, the mystical aura of the wayang seems to be waning. Many now attend these shadow-puppet theatres for the pure entertainment value more than anything else.

The magic of the wayang has a more tenuous hold on Indonesians in cities, where it has to compete with the frenetic pace and razzle-dazzle of MTV and Hollywood productions.

For the moment though, the hypnotic sounds of the gamelan and the shadow puppet theatre continue to be a part of the rural landscape, deeply rooted as the wayang is in the minds and way of life of the farmers, fishermen, labourers and their families in Java.

For the masses in rural Indonesia, the great wars in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana-inspired wayangs are more fun to watch than any Steven Spielberg action flick.

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