Playing with Shadows

A behind-the-screen glimpse into Indonesia's shadow puppet theater

IF you can imagine a country in over 13,000 pieces spread across a tenth of the equator with a width equal to that of continental United States (although much of it is water), you have Indonesia. Java, Bali, the Spice Islands are familiar names but are only a few, if the most populous, of the islands in the largest archipelago in the world. This sprawling nation is unified by the Malay language, common legends, and a rather uniform history of princely states which were eventually colonized by the Dutch in the 17th and succeeding centuries. Independence was declared in 1945. The religious and cultural influences - Indic, Chinese, Buddhist, Muslim, Dutch - seem to have swept over the islands at more or less the same rate.

The wealth of mineral resources and the skills of the artists gave the numerous princely courts ample opportunity to encourage sculpture, metalwork, jewelry - and the fascinating wayang kulit, the shadow puppet theater. (Wayang kulit literally translates as ``shadow leather.'')

The graceful, elongated puppets are patterned after the shadows we cast as they stretch before or behind us on the ground. Making one is no easy task. The carefully selected buffalo hide used to make these puppets must be cured for 10 years. The intricate carving is a painstaking process,a craft which may have begun in India or China. Turkey and Thailand have versions which seem to be based on Indonesian modes.

A full set commissioned by a wealthy court might consist of three to four hundred figures of kings, princes, ladies, ogres, buffoons, animals, birds, and even a horse-drawn coach. The rarest carving is the gunungan, the mountain. The gunungan on this page from Central Java has more of the form of a leaf to us but is a stylized mountain. In Bali the gunungan form is rounded like a hill. The design is always symmetric. A tiger on one side of the central tree trunk is balanced by a buffalo on the other. The delicate tracery of the twining vines and flowers is incredibly intricate. The leather is exceedingly sturdy. But because of the wet, humid clmate and numerous insects and molds, centuries-old examples have not survived the way art objects have in drier parts of the world.

In a sense the gunungan is also the most important puppet because it represents the harmony of the universe. At the opening of the play it occupies center stage. As the action commences, the tension between good and evil splits the gunungan in two, dividing the stage into left and right. When the noble hero triuphs over his adversary and the story ends, the two halves are re-united and the universe is harmonious once more. The outside, which is the side which faces the dalang, or puppeteer, is painted with various colors and gold representing the outside world; the inside is represented as flaming red.

In Indonesia, a white cotton screen is hung between the dalang and the audience. Behind the dalang, the gamelan, which is a mainly percussive musical ensemble, sits. Above the dalang an oil lamp sways in the tropical breeze. The lamp may be in the form of a mythical bird, the garuta. The pierced work of its brass feathers add to the flickering of the light and heighten the effect of movement in the puppet shadows it casts.

At the Asia Society in New York City, which recently put on a rare performance of this art, the setting was more prosaic. Comfortable theater seats and an electric light for illumination did not lessen the enchantment of the play. The play was considerably shortened from the eight to 12 hours of Indonesian custom. Our dalang, Tamara, was the first woman to practice this demanding art.

The stories may be autochthonous legends, retellings of the Hindu epics, or more recently, those dealing with contemporary themes. The dalang recites the narrative portions of the story and also speaks the dialogue, changing voice for the various characters. While the play must follow prescribed forms, there is opportunity for improvisation in the dialogue. Tamara, having seen young boys in the front row, had a character respond to a request with a jaunty, ``No problem!'' Comic characters have always been allowed to make ad lib satirical political comments with impunity.

After the performance, Tamara told me that Christian missionaries utilized the wayang kulit to convey their message to a largely illiterate population. The story of David and Goliath was popular and parallels the tale of Rama which I saw, in that the young prince carries no weapon against his huge, fierce adversary.

ONLY the puppets' arms are jointed and moveable, controlled by slender buffalo-horn rods. The body is mounted on a stouter horn rod and the puppet can be placed in a banana tree log in front of the dalang. It is visible on the screen, but allows the puppeteer to concentrate on the motion of other characters. The action in the performance I saw had a wide range - from the energetic combat of Rama and the ogre to the delicate motion of the princess, Sinta, stroking her pet deer.

As the delang also keys the action by pounding on a wooden box with a mallet held in the left hand, he or she must sometimes move the characters with only one hand free. And, the dalang also conducts the musical ensemble from behind. The dalang engages in meditation before the performance to prepare him or herself.

At one point in the performance, the audience is treated to the sight of the dalang manipulating the puppets to allow them to experience all the energy of the brilliant colors swirling about. In New York, this was accomplished with a turntable. In Indonesia, the audience would move from one side of the screen to the other. Tamara related that when she was a small child only the men were permitted behind the screen, as women were deemed too distracting to the dalang. At her first performance she, unknowing, trotted around to the other side after her father and the other men, and was entranced by the beauty of the puppets. From this developed her career as a dalang.

One of the interesting characters in Indonesian puppetry is Srikandi, who is shown here in a West Javan figure carved in the 19th century. She has become the symbol of the liberated woman. Srikandi was one of the wives of the nine-wived Arjuna. She is quite the reverse of the stereotype of a submissive wife who never dares eye-contact with her lord. Srikandi keeps her head up and is outspoken, even argumentative. She is generous. A hunter and a capable warrior, she is often depicted as wearing a kris, the slender wavy-edged sword unique to Indonesia.

Another of Arjuna's wives is Banuwati, who has an even more ambiguous role than Srikandi. She betrays the secrets of her first husband's kingdom and has an affair with Arjuna before becoming a widow.

Like many traditional forms of dramaturgy, the wayang kulit is rooted in the religious impulse to convey ideal behavior and right moral choices, especially for the rulers who had the responsibility for the well being of their state. And like all dramatic forms, there is also the intention to mirror life with its myriad individuals, both good and not-so-good, their emotions, their actions and consequences.

AN interesting corollary to this is the coloring in the faces of the characters. Tamara mentioned that in different stories the hero-prince Rama's face may be white (perceived as the absence of color), which signifies ignorance, or it may be black, which signifies theattainment of all wisdom. (Black is seen as the totality of all colors.) Green faces indicate an intermediate stage on the way to wisdom. Characters with red faces are the grosser beings inflamed by passions and appetites. They and the comic characters have round faces with bulbous noses, very unlike the slender, elegant forms which make up the majority of the puppets.

The exhibition called ``Court Arts of Indonesia'' continues at the Asia Society Galleries in New York City until Dec. 16. It will be at The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C. from May 19th to Sept. 2, 1991, and at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, from Oct. 19, 1991 to Jan. 5, 1992.

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