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MUSEUM MONDAYS: Art from the shadows

April 3, 2011


wkThe room darkens. A screen lights up revealing the villain surrounded by his henchmen.  They discuss the day’s battle, fought with their mortal enemies. News that his beloved brother died in the fighting stuns the villain. At that moment, the tragic hero enters and the two start plotting the defeat of their enemies the next day.

Heroes and villains, magic and monsters – is this the latest Hollywood blockbuster? A blockbuster, yes, but this one is centuries old. This is a shadow play. Characters are projected onto a simple white sheet using flat leather puppets. They are recognized by their distinctive shapes and voices and are as popular as Superman and Batman are in this country today.

Shadow plays are a part of many cultures, but nowhere are they more firmly rooted in local cultural identity than on the island of Java. Wayang kulit, (pronounced why-yahng  coo-leet) which means “shadow made by leather,” is an old, highly respected art form on Java. Its characters, themes, and performance all have great significance to the Javanese. While many cultures use shadow puppets to tell stories, only on Java is the art form so deeply rooted and popular. Wayang kulit theatre performers use flat puppets made of water buffalo hide, and the puppets are highly stylized, intricately cut, and carefully painted. Traditional Indonesian gamelan orchestra music accompanies the performance. One man, the dalang, performs the shadow play.

Dalang means puppeteer, but it can also mean “mastermind,” which is a better definition.  The dalang does not just move the puppets; he composes the script, conducts the orchestra, sings, does all of the narration, puppet voices and sound effects—in short, he manages every aspect of the performance, all at once. The best dalangs are like rock stars, drawing large audiences to their performances, which last all night. For an example, check out some of the performances posted on YouTube.

A typical wayang performance starts at dusk and lasts about nine hours without intermissions. (Think about that the next time you need a bathroom break during a long movie.) A wayang performance is a social event. Hosts serve food several times, people visit and nap and all the while, the dalang tells the story without a break until dawn.

Ancient Hindu tales of heroes, villains, and monsters are the sources of the best known wayang plays. The Ramayana is a love story in which good characters fight evil ogres to rescue the hero's kidnapped wife. In the Mahabharata, the noble Pandawa brothers go to war to win back their stolen kingdom. While the Indian versions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana are the sources for the cycles of wayang kulit plays of the same names, instead of India, the action is set on Java. Character names have been “Javanized” and stories include completely new characters drawn from Javanese folklore.

The Logan Museum of Anthropology curates a collection of 52 wayang kulit puppets from Java and Bali. Intricately cut and richly painted, the collection includes many of the most famous characters from the epics and many more characters we have yet to identify. There are also animals, mythical beasts, and even one puppet representing an entire army. The collection demonstrates the stylistic differences between Java and Bali, where wayang kulit is also popular.

Wayang kulit is losing popularity in Indonesia today. Television, film, and the internet are the preferred entertainment choices for younger generations. In 2003, wayang kulit was listed by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This makes collections like ours here at Beloit important documents that record and preserve our knowledge and understanding of this unique theatre from.

SAY WHAT? In this country we might say a politically motivated report or investigation is, “all smoke and mirrors.” In Indonesia and Malaysia the term “wayang kulit” is used as slang in a similar way. The expression is usually applied by opponents to describe the claims and activities of public servants that they suspect are designed to obscure the truth.