Saturday, January 30, 2016

Wayang Kulit Show, Yogyakarta

After thanking the puppet maker for the demonstration, I headed over to the building at the Sonobudoyo Museum where the puppet show was taking place. The music had already started, with the Gamelan orchestra comprised of gongs, metallophones and xylophones, flutes, zithers, drums, and vocalists.
The dalang puppeteer was seated in front of the wide screen. Large puppets and several Tree of Life props were in front of the screen, their bone sticks stabbed into the soft banana leaf log. I was a bit surprised to see how tall some of the puppets were; Wayang Kulit puppets range in size from around 8-40 inches (20-100 cm) tall.

 Additional puppets were lined up on each edge of the screen. Traditional Wayang shows might last around 9 hours and comprise of between 100-500 puppet characters.
The dalang puppeteer was quite the multi-tasker. In addition to manipulating the sticks of the puppets, he was the narrator, made lots of sound effects, and leads the gamelan orchestra. He must know the entire performance by heart and keep track of all the different puppet characters - their personality, voices, actions, and physical location. Humor and the ability to comment on current affairs is also important. I can only imagine that with so many puppets lined up, the dalang must be very organized, arranging the puppets in an efficient order so he can grab the correct one at the correct moment. Improvisation is also a part of Wayang performances, ensuring that things stay fresh. The dalang traditionally had a priest-like role which was passed on from father to son, but now there are special schools that provide training. A dalang may have an assistant, who also must know the story well so he can anticipate the needs of the narrator. In the battle scenes, it was fun watching the dalang flip, spin, and twirl the puppets and then crash them together, much like a young boy does with cars or action figures. The "good" characters were positioned to the right of the puppeteer.
As much fun as it was watching the behind-the-scenes work of the dalang and the gamelan orchestra, I spent part of my time watching the actual shadow performance on the other side of the screen. (Years ago it was customary for women to view the colorful "behind" side, while the men viewed the shadow side). The intricately painted designs that were so apparent on the other side of the screen were replaced by an emphasis of contrasting negative and positive spaces. The lace-like perforations I had seen the puppet maker punch into the leather were now much more visible. I found it interesting that the puppets were never totally flush against the screen. The heads were pressed against the screen for clarity, but the legs were often slightly away. I later read that this was done to help achieve the desired proportions of the shadow. At times the action was quite slow and subtle, emphasizing the intricate movements of the arms. Punctuated with vocal cues of the dalang and synchronized orchestral accents, some scenes became quite dramatic. 
During the 80 minutes or so that I was there, I went back and forth between the front and back sides. I could see that the storyline was about good vs. evil, but found it a bit difficult to stay focused. It is rather typical for viewers to wander in and out. Imagine though, how challenging it must be for the dalang to stay on top of things and keep his voice for the entire duration of those really long performances. No wonder his role is held in high esteem!

I'm glad I had a chance to view a Wayang Kulit show in its epicentre of Yogyakarta. In 2008, the Wayang puppet theatre was inscribed on the intangible UNESCO cultural heritage of humanity list.

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