The deep thudding of drums boom in my ear, the clanging of gamelan strikes across the room. The voice of the dalang is ringing clear, as if the shadows on the screen are speaking directly to me. This was no ordinary puppet theatre; this was a rare occurence that you can only truly experience in Indonesia. We, as Earthbound students, had received the rare opportunity to observe a puppet show at the Sekolah Pedalang Wayang Sasak, an art school teaching the ancient tradition of puppetry. The Indonesian wayang kulit is one of the world’s most unique and powerful traditions still alive today.
The tradition of using puppets to tell stories in Indonesia has existed for thousands of years. The earliest written records of the wayang art form was in the year 930 AD, though modern scholars believe it was very different to the wayang we know today. The early puppet shows were created using 3 dimensional rod puppets, rather than the shadows behind a screen. With the introduction of Hinduism from Indian explorers, the traditional Indonesian stories were replaced with stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. As history progressed, and Islam moved to replace Hinduism and Buddhism, the wayang art form was slowly being suppressed, as the puppets were against Islamic values. King Rada Patah in Java wanted to see the ancient tradition, but the Islamic religious leaders forbid him from viewing a god in human form. The puppets were forced behind the screen, with only their shadows visible to the audience.
Wayang Kulit theatre have been carefully crafted over hundreds of years, to create a full sensory experience in every show. The whole show is orchestrated by the Dalang, who is the maestro of the show. The Dalang interprets the story, constructs and controls the puppets, creates sound effects, sings, and directs the orchestra. He is the most vital part of the performance, and some of them can become famous all over Indonesia, with hundreds gathering to watch their shows. A whole orchestra of traditional gamelan instrumentalists sit behind the screen, creating music to accompany the masterpiece of the Dalang.
This traditional art-form is handed down from father to son. But now, there are schools like the Sekolah Pedalang Wayang Sasak where the oral tradition can continue. Many of today’s dalungs find work in art schools similar to the one we visited in Lombok, teaching kids from their local area the ancient art of wayang Kulit.
A wayang Kulit is a direct portal to the past, by observing it you are viewing a tradition that has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. It is a unique opportunity, to view the ancestor of modern film, and to watch the carefully crafted work of a Dalang. An Indonesian shadow puppet theatre is a powerful and hypnotic show, unlike any other puppetry display on earth.
Written by William Vovers