If you thought puppets were tired and trite – the tacky stuff of Punch and Judy shows – think again. Consider the charms of Indonesian ‘wayang’ shadow puppetry.
At the heart of wayang is the ‘dalang’ puppet master. Picture a talented magician who transforms stick-mounted flaps of buffalo hide into living, breathing actors. Read: spirited shadows that appear on a screen lit by a bare bulb or oil lamp.
Often, the drama that the shadows perform stems from a colorful Hindu epic. One popular puppetry story is the romance between nice-guy god, Rama, and the lovely Sinta. Their messy affair worthy of a UK tabloid newspaper involves banishment, abduction by a monster king, help from a monkey king, and fights galore. Good mileage.
Nobody knows how the action-packed magic shows came to be. Wayang surfaced in China and spread to Java where it was performed to drive away evil spirits sometime in the 17th century, the theory goes. The mystery is part of the charm of the low-tech art that looks simple yet demands virtuoso skill on the part of the puppeteer.
Because wayang storylines wander all over the map, the puppeteer needs a great memory. He needs tons of stamina, too, because a typical performance lasts all night, from dusk until dawn. What’s more, to manipulate the bamboo-and-buffalo puppets convincingly, he must be nimble-fingered. It takes incredible deftness to make the shadows they cast look alive and engaged with the storyline.
With a traditional gong-like gamelan orchestra bonging eerily in the background, the puppeteer varies his voice to fuel suspense and boost the drama. In the end – fairytale-style – good beats evil, in keeping with wayang’s surprisingly feel-good mood. Wayang could be seen as an excuse for a lazy, leisurely party. Spectators waft in and out as they please, chatting, flirting, eating nibbles.
The long wayang night finally wraps up with a statement that conveys the fertility of Indonesia’s orchid-friendly volcanic soil.
"The flower has been picked,’ the puppeteer says. ‘May its fragrance spread.’
A mood of hope duly spreads through the audience and beyond into the community. Well, that’s the idea, anyway. Wayang is all about suspending disbelief. The audience follows the fantasy.
More info: The Wayang Museum runs shows every second, third and fourth Sunday of the month, from 10am to 2pm. It can be found in the Old City (Kota Tua) area of Jakarta in Fatahillah Square near Jakarta History Museum. Address: Pintu Besar Utara Street 27, Jakarta. www.museumwayang.com