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Art-Pacific (Carolyn Leigh - Ron Perry): Guide to Artifacts

Puppet Master

The puppet master (dalang) presents a play (lakon) during important social events including public holidays, religious festivals, weddings, births, circumcisions, exorcisms and on Bali, cremations.

The sponsors may be fulfilling a vow, or the performance may be part of their responsibility to their family or community. Plays provide moral and social instruction along with entertainment. The audience is said to be protected from evil while a play lasts.

On Java: theater | music | performance | On Bali | Tourist shows

[Wayang kulit puppet seen as a shadow: 40k]

Wayang kulit theater on Java portrays the essence of the Javanese world view. Life is fleeting and changeable, not controlled by mortals or even the gods, but manipulated by some cosmic puppet master.

Other arts reflect the puppets. For example, Javanese dancers mimic the manners of the puppets in masked dances (wayang topeng) and sometimes a dalang speaks their lines. Contemporary events are frequently interpreted in terms of the plays. Former president Suharto was often referred to as a puppet master.

Figure 1: Shadowed wayang kulit puppet from Java, possibly Srikandi, one of the wives of Arjuna.

There are no puppet theater buildings on Java. The dalang carries all his equipment with him: a portable screen (kelir), a brass lamp (blencong) and the large wooden chest with his set of puppets (kotak).

The stage is a screen of white cotton cloth with a colored border stretched across a frame about 10 feet long (3 meters). In a wealthy home, one side (the front) faces out to a veranda or pavilion where the men sit and watch the dalang work the puppets. The other side (the back) faces the interior of the house where the women sit and watch the shadow side.

In a village home, the screen is set up across a courtyard with the dalang's side facing the sponsor's veranda. The family and friends watch this side but anyone can come for free, sit in the courtyard and watch the shadow side.

The puppets may seen more important on Java than their shadows, but the puppet is said to represent only the physical part of the character, while the shadow represents the soul. The atmosphere is generally informal and the audience chats and eats during the least interesting parts of the play.

Two or three long banana stems are secured at different heights below the screen. The dalang drives the sticks of the puppets that won't be used in this play into the top banana stem starting at the outer edges with the largest puppets from each of the opposing sides and stepping down towards the center to the smallest.

The puppet characters on the opposing sides of the stories represent mixtures of good and bad. The left side tends to have more undesirable traits and the right side of the hero is seen as being closer to Javanese ideals.

The dalang can move two puppets at once. Often the rods are fixed in the banana stem and he only moves the arms. A puppet stuck in the lower stem is sitting. A bow is a tilt forward. During battles, puppets are whirled in and out, even tossed into the air.

In the center space where the action will happen, the dalang places the "Tree of Life" puppet. The remaining puppets are laid out within reach on the chest, inside it or stuck in the lower banana stem.

The music is provided by a gamelon orchestra of about 30 instruments, mostly percussive, including bronze gongs of all sizes, xylophones-type instruments and drums. The melody line is carried by 1 or 2 flutes (suling), the rebab, an Arabic 2-stringed, bowed instrument and 3 female singers.

The sound of the gamelon is the invitation to come to the play. Adults and children gather after dark on either side of the screen lit by the flickering light of the oil lamp. A gas lantern or a dangling electric bulb sometimes replaces the oil lamp.

The dalang sits at arm's length from the screen, just under the lamp. The gamelon is behind him. The puppet chest is to his left. He knocks on it with one of two mallets to mark off sections of the story. The larger mallet is held in his left hand, the smaller one by his right toes. He also beats on a bronze kepyak plate to punctuate events.

Before the play, the dalang meditates before the "Tree of Life". This tree/mountain (kayon/gunungan) puppet is a link between himself and the gods, between the Upper and the Underworlds and symbolizes the universe. The power of royalty is seen to descend from the mountain. This shadow puppet starts both shadow and rod puppet plays. It brings the puppets to life. Later in the play it is placed back in the center to mark a change of scene or fluttered to represent a strong natural force like a wind. At the end, it marks the finish of the play.

The performance lasts about 7 hours and is divided into 3 parts:

The performance demands great stamina from the dalang. He has a long apprenticeship either under a relative who is a master, or at the newer schools. He must memorize the cycles of plays.

The texts are a mix of Sanskrit, archaic Javanese, plus contemporary high and low Javanese. Some sections are fixed and each word must be exact, but much of the dialogue is partly improvised. The dalang, speaking in the voices of the clowns, can comment on village or town gossip, make sexual jokes and even safely express political opinions without fear of reprisal.

He must learn to select, anchor and manipulate the puppets in the constant cycle of scenes, recite the Javanese poetry in each play and foreshadow the plot in formal declamations. He speaks all the dialogue, adapting his voice to the different characters, from the gentle voice of a princess to the roar of a warrior or the whining voice of a complaining clown. He also directs the gamelon orchestra and occasionally sings to heighten the mood.

[Wayang kulit-style puppet with animal-like body circled with sets of rings and a jester-type head: 13k]

Figure 2: Shadow puppet cut from scrap metal and painted red, blue and yellow.

On Bali all night wayang kulit performances and shorter daytime performances are given outdoors during the dry season. At night the screen is stretched on bamboo rods. During the day when there are no shadows, sacred tree branches with a sacred string stretched between them mark the stage. The puppets are set in a banana stem in the same order as on Java. All the puppets in a set must be on view except for animals and demons.

The dalang has two apprentices who help him. The musicians play four pairs of gender, metal-keyed instruments played with small hammers.

The setting is informal with food, drink and cigarette vendors. Everybody comes, young people flirt, children sleep or play on the edges, the adults chat, eat and laugh.

The play begins with the "Tree of Life" puppet. The storyline is in Kawi or Sanskrit, but the dalang explains in Balinese. His interpretation is meant to be ribald, funny and inventive.

Because the season is short, Balinese dalangs work only part-time. They come from the lowest caste, but can attain status and power through the strength of their performances. Beginning dalangs perform for entertainment or for daytime rituals.

Figure 3: Shadow puppet from Java representing Garuda, the bird which carries the god Vishnu.

[Wayang kulit puppet of a large bird with toothed bill: 15k]

Shorter versions for tourists are presented in cultural centers like Jogjakarta on Java and Ubud on Bali. For many travelers, these 1-2 hour performances will be enough. Ask at the hotel or at the local tourist centers for times and locations.

Try to view both the dalang's side as well as the shadow side. Quietly walk around to the puppet side, it's much more interesting.

The dalang, the musicians and the singers quietly joke among themselves. They eat snacks and drink tea. The children of the musicians sit or play by the adults. The dalang smokes during a break while the women sing. Watch how the he manipulates the puppets. On Bali, the audience normally moves about to look at either side.

Next: Wayang Cycles | Indonesian Puppets | Wayang Kulit | Wayang Golek

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Artifacts on this site were collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. Background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. by Carolyn Leigh is licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0