Playing with Shadows A Behind-the-Screen Glimpse into Indonesia's Shadow Puppet Theater

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IF you can imagine a country in over 13,000 pieces spread across a tenth of the equator with a width equal to that of continental United States (although much of it is water), you have Indonesia. Java, Bali, the Spice Islands are familiar names but are only a few, if the most populous, of the islands in the largest archipelago in the world.

This sprawling nation is unified by the Malay language, common legends, and a rather uniform history of princely states which were eventually colonized by the Dutch in the 17th and succeeding centuries. Independence was declared in 1945. The religious and cultural influences - Indic, Chinese, Buddhist, Muslim, Dutch - seem to have swept over the islands at more or less the same rate.

The wealth of mineral resources and the skills of the artists gave the numerous princely courts ample opportunity to encourage sculpture, metalwork, jewelry - and the fascinating wayang kulit, the shadow puppet theater. (Wayang kulit literally translates as "shadow leather.")

The graceful, elongated puppets are patterned after the shadows we cast as they stretch before or behind us on the ground. Making one is no easy task. The carefully selected buffalo hide used to make these puppets must be cured for 10 years. The intricate carving is a painstaking process,a craft which may have begun in India or China. Turkey and Thailand have versions which seem to be based on Indonesian modes.

A full set commissioned by a wealthy court might consist of three to four hundred figures of kings, princes, ladies, ogres, buffoons, animals, birds, and even a horse-drawn coach. The rarest carving is the gunungan, the mountain. The gunungan on this page from Central Java has more of the form of a leaf to us but is a stylized mountain. In Bali the gunungan form is rounded like a hill. The design is always symmetric. A tiger on one side of the central tree trunk is balanced by a buffalo on the other. The delicate tracery of the twining vines and flowers is incredibly intricate. The leather is exceedingly sturdy. But because of the wet, humid clmate and numerous insects and molds, centuries-old examples have not survived the way art objects have in drier parts of the world.

In a sense the gunungan is also the most important puppet because it represents the harmony of the universe. At the opening of the play it occupies center stage. As the action commences, the tension between good and evil splits the gunungan in two, dividing the stage into left and right. When the noble hero triuphs over his adversary and the story ends, the two halves are re-united and the universe is harmonious once more. The outside, which is the side which faces the dalang, or puppeteer, is painted with various colors and gold representing the outside world; the inside is represented as flaming red.

In Indonesia, a white cotton screen is hung between the dalang and the audience. Behind the dalang, the gamelan, which is a mainly percussive musical ensemble, sits. Above the dalang an oil lamp sways in the tropical breeze. The lamp may be in the form of a mythical bird, the garuta. The pierced work of its brass feathers add to the flickering of the light and heighten the effect of movement in the puppet shadows it casts.

At the Asia Society in New York City, which recently put on a rare performance of this art, the setting was more prosaic. Comfortable theater seats and an electric light for illumination did not lessen the enchantment of the play. The play was considerably shortened from the eight to 12 hours of Indonesian custom. Our dalang, Tamara, was the first woman to practice this demanding art.

The stories may be autochthonous legends, retellings of the Hindu epics, or more recently, those dealing with contemporary themes. The dalang recites the narrative portions of the story and also speaks the dialogue, changing voice for the various characters. …