If you thought that puppetry was a little outdated and tired in today’s age of television and the internet – you might want to think again. While Punch and Judy may have had their day, there’s a lot to be said for the unique charms of “Wayang” shadow puppetry in Indonesia.
The “dalang” puppet master is at the heart and soul of any Wayang show. The dalang is a magician of exceptional talents who is able to transform flaps of cow skin and buffalo hide on sticks into actors and actresses who literally sparkle with life – living, breathing and dancing.
The highly animated Wayang shadow puppets tales are epic, action-packed tales of spirited shadows encompassing romance, love, heroism, battles and intrigue. One of the most popular Wayang shows tells the tale of the Hindu god Rama, and his delightful mistress Sinta. Worthy of a tabloid front page scoop, this messy affair keeps viewers riveted with abductions and banishment, monkey kings, monster kings and battles galore.
There are not many dalangs, as the role requires many talents – not just virtuoso skills of manipulation, but a vast memory and a huge deal of stamina as shows often go on throughout the night, from sunset until sunrise. To be able to convincingly manipulate the buffalo skin and bamboo puppets requires a super-human deftness in order to bring the shadows they cast to life – a skill that can take years to perfect.
The drama and suspense of a Wayang is fuelled by the non-stop bonging away of gongs by the eerie-sounding gamelan orchestra in the background, while the puppeteer will raise his voice in dramatic moments to keep the crowd on edge.
As always, in true fairy tale style, the goodies always come out on top, sending the bad guys packing to provide a feel-good factor for the watching crowds. Wayang shows often appear to be a leisurely, laid back party, with spectators wandering in and out as the mood takes them, while plenty of flirting, chatting and munching nibbles takes place.
The long night of the Wayang finally ends with the puppeteer stating “The flower has been picked, may its fragrance spread far and wide.”
A positive mood of hopefulness duly wafts through the crowds and outside into the beyond. Wayang is all about believing, and the audience simply laps it up.
Wayang shows can be seen each Sunday in both Bali (at the Ola Karti theatre in Ubud), and Jakarta (at the Bharata Theater), as well as many other venues across the country.