The Puppet Masters of Indonesia

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The shadow puppets behind the opaque screen entertain the viewing audience. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
The shadows of the puppets create images on the opaque screen for the audience to enjoy. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

A mere stroll triggered beads of sweat to form and trickle down my face. The oppressive 90 degree heat and 97 percent humidity during my travel in Semarang, Java, Indonesia dampened everything but the spirit of adventure.

Intrigued by the distinct sound of Javanese music, I followed clanks of gongs, thuds of drums and high pitched soprano voices. Like sirens, the shrill tunes guided me through the stifling, leaden air.

The mysticism pervasive in this land of a multitude of ancient Hindu and Buddhist Gods, plus Java’s predominant Muhammad of Islam drew me toward a temple-like structure with open-air sides. As the pageantry unfolded, there it was — the event I most wanted to experience in all of Indonesia.

Men in traditional Javanese costume display leather shadow puppets as they dry on the floor in Indonesia. Flickr/killerturnip
Men in traditional Javanese costume display leather shadow puppets as they dry on the floor in Indonesia. Flickr/killerturnip

Shadow Puppet Theater in Indonesia

Having scant knowledge about the cultural nuances of this island nation, I watched the 1982 film, “The Year of Living Dangerously,” starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Best Supporting Actress/ Oscar Winner Linda Hunt while sailing from Singapore to Indonesia. I had seen this film before, but had apparently paid little attention.

Now, with a specific purpose, I felt captivated by the opening scenes of dark images moving behind an opaque screen. I listened with a keener awareness to the advice that Hunt’s character, Billy Kwan, a local Javanese photographer, gave to rookie Australian journalist, Guy Washington, who arrived in 1965 to report on the toppling of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president.

In an attempt to enlighten Guy about the country’s complex cultural make-up, Billy said, “If you want to understand Java, you have to understand the sacred ‘shadow (puppet) play’. The puppet master is a priest, balancing the left with the right. The shadows are souls and the screen is heaven. You must watch their shadows, not the puppets. The right is in constant struggle with the left; the forces of light and darkness in endless balance.”

She continued, “In the West we want answers for everything. Everything is right or wrong or good or bad. But in the shadow play, no such final conclusions exist. Good always triumphs, but evil is never destroyed.”

I wanted to understand Java and Bali and the rest of this archipelago nation of 17,000 islands, 6,000 inhabited. Billy Kwan’s quotes gave me the clue. I had to attend a shadow puppet play.

The puppet master creates all the characters in the play with cut-out tin puppets. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
The puppet master creates all the characters in the play with cut-out tin puppets. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

The Gods must have helped me to stumble upon one, because magically I stood in the midst of a live performance of a wayang kulit. Wayang comes from the Indonesian word for ‘shadow’(bayang) and kulit refers to the use of buffalo hide to make the flat puppet figures with movable joints, animated by hand, using rods connected to their appendages.

Indonesian Shadow Puppet Theater, originating in 800 A.D. and considered the oldest freestanding puppet form, tells stories of heroic ancestors of Javanese Kings, quests, battles, ogres and scenes of romantic love. This ancient form of storytelling can last up to six hours for one performance, and uses cut-out figures, held in front of an illuminated backdrop to create the illusion of moving images.

Oil lamps used to provide illumination, now modern halogen bulbs act as the lighting source.  Although shadow play is performed throughout the Indonesian Islands, it remains a principle expression of the arts in Semarang, Java and Bali. In 2003, UNESCO designated Indonesian wayang kulit as one of the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

When I entered the theater through the rear entrance, the unique ensemble of participants required for every shadow puppet play unfolded before me and feelings of reverence filled the space. Standing no more than 15 feet from the ‘behind the screen’ activity, I felt like I was in the midst of a Broadway play, surrounded by the director, actors, the orchestra and singers.

The dalang, the puppet master, squatted on bended knees in front of the huge sheet-like screen, illuminated by a hanging bulb. He is the key to all shadow play — the music conductor, the epic storyteller, the comic, philosopher and political pundit. A huge collection of brightly colored metal puppets lay in a heap on either side of him.

As he told the story he sifted through the pile to find the characters needed for the scene. He manipulated the figures to dance, walk, laugh and cry as he held them against the partition. Changing voice tones to speak the words of each individual puppet, his ability to act out every role captured my complete attention.

As I watched, the mood of the play suddenly changed. The dalang snatched two warrior-like puppets and slammed them against the white backdrop with such force, that it caused a small tear in the screen’s cloth. As he bellowed loud, angry sounding words, he made the puppets fight each other in fierce battle, using only one hand to manipulate both.

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