Ramayana in the shadows: Wayang Kulit (Shadow Puppetry) in Indonesia
Intricately carved and vividly colored leather puppets, neatly arranged gamelan instruments, players of the orchestra dressed in colorful batik clothes — all of it synchronizes to make grey shadows on a white screen appealing to the viewers!
Oh, I missed the most important part of the play — the puppet master, called the Dalang, whose job is to move the puppets between the screen and a lamp to make shadows on the screen that people on the other side of the screen see.
After reading about Wayang Kulit a few months ago, I didn’t take much time to add it to my bucket list of my then-forthcoming trip to South East Asia. After all, the connection with the Ramayana and Mahabharata and the idea of exploring an ‘intangible cultural heritage’ as classified by UNESCO were too appealing to let go. However, after not getting clear information in Bali in a month, I had given up on the possibility of experiencing the unique cultural feast.
I think I was in for a sweet surprise! I flew to Jogja (or Yograkarta) yesterday, mainly to explore great temples of Borobudur and Prambanan and volcanos in the east Java. That’s when Asif from Joglo Aruna (my stay) told me about Wayang Kulit Ramayana show that runs every evening at Jogja’s Sonobudoyo Museum everyday (except Sundays) between 8pm and 10pm. I instantly changed my day’s plans to experience what I had been waiting for all this while! No prize for guessing that it was totally worth it! (Otherwise, a lazy guy like me wouldn’t have been writing about it).
Just before the start of Ramayana
Inside the museum compound, just before the hall where they play Wayang Kulit Ramayana show, a 50-something artist (name not recorded) quietly carves puppets out of leather. In the rush to watch the show, these guys are often forgotten. However, In all senses, he’s THE man who makes it possible. By HE, I am referring to all those artists who make these puppets come alive through their perfect hand-eye co-ordination.
Behind the scenes: The Dalang
If puppet-makers are the real producers, puppeteer, or Dalang, is the sole and soul hero of the show. Imagine a guy moving puppets between the lamp and the screen, narrating the story, and changing voice for every character (He even changes his voice to a female one for female characters). The amount of focus required for his job is beyond measure. Traditional Wayang Kulit shows run all night and feature stories from Ramayana or Mahbharata!
Not to forget
While the dalang almost completely steals the show with his versatility, the contribution of gamelan musicians and other singers cannot be ignored. Gamelan orchestra really sets the tempo of the show with its mystical feel. The vibes of gongs and the voices of singers create an atmosphere to take you to a whole new world in a trance where only shadows remain! A world where everyone, the maker, the puppeteer, and the musicians remain at the backstage, just the way gods let the world function at their own will!