I have heard of the wayang kulit ever since my cultural education began. I have always had a fondness for puppets since I was a kid. I remember buying a hand puppet and a string Pinocchio puppet in our family’s first trip to Hong Kong when I was still in grade school. Something about animating inanimate objects fascinated me. I got my first wayang kulit, albeit a tourist souvenir, from my friend Marissa, who studied the gamelan in Jogyakarta for two years. My next shadow puppet was from a village workshop outside Siem Reap on the road to Kbal Spean in Cambodia two years ago.
And now here I was, in Jogyakarta, center of Javanese culture and the wayang kulit. I have seen it and all other wayang forms only in documentaries and in pictures and this was my chance to see it up close and personal even if it wasn’t an all-night production that told the entire story.
After dinner coming from Kaliurang, we grabbed our seats at the Sonobudoyo Museum for the show (Rp 20,000) which started promptly at 8:00pm. There was a whole row of Japanese tourists and a lot of Europeans who seemed genuinely interested in the show.
The performance area was dominated by a large screen lit by a lone light-bulb behind. Both sides of the screen was flanked by large bananna tree trunks where several puppets were staked. Behind the screen was a gamelan orchestra. Chairs had been set up around the performance area so you could watch in front, on the side, or the back. I had read in a book earlier that traditionally, women and children sat in front while the men and royalty sat behind with the gamelan.
The program started with some gamelan playing. Then the puppets appeared. It was fascinating to watch as the shadows cast by the puppet made it seem like they were really moving especially when the dalang (puppeteer) would whisk the puppets away or slam them on the screen. Really amusing to watch were the fight scenes. The episode for tonight was the seventh episode of the “Ramayana”– the Death of Kumbakarna wherein Kumbakarna, King Rahwana’s brother, fight against Rama and his ape troops. The first scene in which Rahwana begs Kumbakaran to fight Rama looks like as if the two puppers really are conversing with their hand gestures and body movements.
As interesting as the action on the screen was the action behind it with the dalang expertly maneuvering the puppets. Sometimes, he would utter sounds especially when he whisked a puppet away. It was exciting to watch him and as the night led on, I came to understand how and why the dalang get accorded so much respect from the people and why the wayang kulit and him could have spiritual dimensions.
If it weren’t because my companions looked like they were about to fall asleep from tiredness, I would have wanted to stay much longer and finish the show. The Japs have already left and one elderly guy had to be nudged awake. A few of the Europeans had also left and there only about ten people from the original twenty-plus in the beginning left. There was still more than hour left and on the way home, Rhoda expressed her concern that there might not be people left to finish the show.