The Puppet Masters of Indonesia

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The entire ensemble of the Shadow Puppet theater, with the puppet master directing the musician, singers and manipulating the puppets. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
The entire ensemble of the Shadow Puppet theater, with the puppet master directing the musician, singers and manipulating the puppets. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

With the other hand, he grabbed a rounded piece of wood, smoothed and molded by years of being clutched in his grasp and rapped the wooden wand against the floor in a distinctive beat. A signal for the percussion orchestra known as the gamelan and female chorale singers known as sendhin to provide intense background music.

The instrumental ensemble included metallophones pounded with mallets, xylophones, and bamboo flutes. With cord-wrapped sticks, a musician struck 10-14 horizontal and hanging, bronze cast gongs with centered, rounded nipples, made in various sizes to produce different scale tones. Hand played drums called kendhang and a bowed instrument called a rebab completed the orchestra.

A gamelan accompanies all Indonesian puppet performances; the music is improvised and features complex harmonies and rhythms. Being an integral part of Indonesian culture, it predates Hindu-Buddhist times and believed to have been created about 230 A.D.  All the musicians, including the female vocalists sat back on their heels throughout the performance. I sensed their discomfort, as I realized I could never maintain that position for six hours and then get up and walk with ease.

The gong is the most important instrument in any Indonesian gamelan. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
The gong is the most important instrument in any Indonesian gamelan. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Mesmerized by the intricacies of these players, I realized that I wasn’t following Billy Kwan’s advice. I hadn’t watched the play from the audience side of the screen. I neglected to study the shadows of the moving puppet images, because I was too fascinated by the actual movements that the puppet master directed.

Flat characters are brought to life by the dalang, who has a repertoire of hundreds of stories, and incorporates the happenings of the local village into each shadow play. The audience receives knowledge from the dalang and uses what is learned to benefit the community. The people believe that the puppets have spiritual powers. One, Semar, the principle jester used in all performances, is said to be the spirit of the island of Java and can heal and protect them. They have faith that ancestral spirits can inhabit the puppets and the gongs, considered an integral part of every performance.

The development of wayang kulit blossomed during the Hindu-Buddhist period from 800-1500 A.D. using Sanskrit-based words and stories centered on great Hindu epics. However, when Majapahil, the last Hindu-Buddhist Kingdom on Java fell around 1500 A.D., Chinese Muslims migrated to Java, making Islam the primary religion there.  Most Javanese Hindus fled and took up residence on Bali. This transition dramatically changed the fabric of Indonesian shadow puppetry.

A row of shadow puppets in Indonesia. Flickr/Alyson Hurt
A row of shadow puppets in Indonesia. Flickr/Alyson Hurt

On Java, the puppet master believes that wayang relates how Javanese people converted to Islam. Although the stories still encompass Hindu elements, most Javanese dalangs are Muslim.  Wooden and metal puppets on Java reflect the influence of the Chinese; Bali still uses leather ones to tell Hindu-based stories. Puppets on Java have distorted body shapes, because Islam precludes making exact images of the human body, while Balinese puppets are more naturalistic. The Javanese puppet master demands a slow, meditative style, while Balinese puppets move faster with louder music.

After an hour, I took leave of this 1200-year-old Indonesian art form, but the dalang, the gamelan and the sendhin showed no signs of stopping. I didn’t completely understand the complexities of Indonesia’s history, but I knew that ancient shadow puppet theater had helped to make thousands of islands strung out across the Indian Ocean and Java Sea into a cohesive nation.

Author Bio: After a life-long profession of treating the mentally ill at a PA psychiatric hospital for 33 years and also serving as its Director of Admissions, Carol retired to Lake Chapala, Mexico in 2006 with her husband, to pursue more positive passions. Her family thought that she, too, had ‘gone mad.’ She’s been teaching English to Mexican adults for ten years, in a program operated by volunteer expatriates and writing for local on-line and print publications. Using her adventures experienced during visits to over 80 countries to capture a niche in travel writing, Carol also dabbles in ‘memoir.’  A frequent contributor to Lake Chapala English magazine, “El Ojo del Lago,” she’s won several literary awards from that publication, including Best Feature in 2010 and Best Fiction in 2014. She also netted a story regarding her psychiatric field work in the published anthology, “Tales from the Couch.”