One of the oldest forms of dramatic entertainment, wayang kulit
is a performance of flat leather puppets in the hands of a mystic storyteller,
the dalang, who casts their shadows on a backlit screen. This wayang
form exerts a powerful magnetism over Balinese of all ages. For sheer enjoyment,
it's even preferred over the more spectacular wayang topeng, in
which human beings act like puppets.
With its fluid, ethereal music and epic themes, its eerie shadows, its slapstick comedy, wayang kulit is an extraordinary mixture of ribaldry and mysticism. It is at the same time a morality play, a religious experience, and pure entertainment.
For the Balinese, wayang kulit also serves as a medium through which they learn about their classical literature, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Referred to as "Society's Teacher," the stories narrated are all important in Balinese education, its range of anecdotes covering all of life's situations.
kulit was popular at the court of King Airlangga of East Java in the
11th century. Through the 11th to 14th centuries, it was used by Hindu
teachers on Bali to propagate their religion. Though the chants relating
the stories of Rama and Arjuna were sung in ancient Sanskrit, the texts
were always interpreted by storytellers into everyday Balinese idiom. All
the classics of Hindu mythology were eventually adapted into this theater
so as to inculcate the masses. Even though the attractions of the electronic
age-TV and video-have devastated this art form over the past decade, wayang
kulit can be seen at important stages in the life of a Balinese: weddings,
toothfiling ceremonies, children's birthdays, cremations, marriages, and
Performances are also put on by hotels as entertainment for guests. In the presentation put on at Denpasar's Hotel Puri Pemacutan, the performance is shortened to cater to a Western audience. In the wayang kulit staged at Sanur's Mars Hotel, some of the characters speak English. The shadow puppet theater staged at Oka Kartini's in Ubud is the medium's only public performance; it's also the most authentic because all the characters speak High Balinese.
Be sure to take in a show if you hear of one, as they are becoming less common. Always announced in advance, shows start at around 2100. The traditional six- or seven-hour performance which takes place out in the villages is divided into three principal parts. The leading characters seldom appear before midnight, and the plot is resolved just as the sun comes up in the real world.
The mystic narrator of the wayang kulit, the dalang, is not only a skilled artist but a great spiritual teacher and philosopher, a master of eloquence and poetic embellishment. He is the true star of this shadow theater who almost singlehandedly directs the whole drama.
The dalang must be a captivating juggler and have surpassing endurance, able to remain seated for more than six straight hours while deftly manipulating his puppets. Each puppet may weigh up to a kilo, and he may be required to handle as many as three or four at a time.
The dalang is a refined classical orator and linguist who can sing episodes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana in as many as 47 different poetic measures, demonstrating an astonishing memory. He also conducts the gender wayang orchestra with its drums and other percussion instruments, and he is also an accomplished musician who can play each one of the instruments if need be.
Years of training in the now-defunct Kawi language and a scholar's knowledge of the rich fund of Balinese literature are also required of the wayang kulit master. The dalang is as well an ordained priest who can make offerings and divert evil, possessing a formidable sakti-magic power-with which he can move his audience to laughter or to tears.
Dalang are slowly becoming extinct. In the 1930s there were perhaps one thousand puppeteers on the island; now there are fewer than 20. The most famous are I Ketut Rupik of Lukluk, I Wayan Wija of Sukawati, I Wayan Dibia (a lecturer at STSI), and I Wayan Nartha.
The translucent screen (kelir) is a rectangle of white cloth stretched on a bamboo frame and lit by an oil lamp (damar) hanging directly above the dalang<\#213>s head. The primitive coconut-oil or a gas-flare lamp, set behind the screen, is preferred over an electric bulb as its warm, flickering flame dramatizes, enlarges, and mystifies the motions of the puppets.
Wayang kulit can also be staged in the daytime when the usual screen is replaced by twine tied between two poles or the branches of a tree, allowing the audience to view the puppets directly. At the foot of the screen is the soft trunk of a banana tree where the pointed horn ends of the puppets are stuck when not in use. The dalang sits cross-legged next to a long, coffin-shaped wooden chest (kropak) in which are stored his puppets. Between the toes of the dalang<\#213>s right foot is a buffalo horn tapper with which he knocks out sharp raps on the kropak clapper, providing sound effects, punctuating the action, signaling starts and stops, changing the tempo and moods, and cueing the musicians.
Behind the dalang sit the musicians, usually a virtuoso gender orchestra consisting of four xylophones in the case of the Mahabharata, plus a few kendang and kettle gongs for excerpts from the Ramayana. The musicans must play specific music-such as martial music or love music-consistent with the scene so that the music and drama mesh perfectly. After offerings are made and all is ready, the dalang strikes the wooden box containing the puppets, signaling the delicate tones of the gamelan to begin. Suddenly, a leaf-shaped shadow (kayon) appears. This mysterious motif, a link between the various scenes and also used to mark the beginning and end, is thought to derive either from the holy mountain Meru or the Tree of Life. When in use, the cosmic kayon silhouette is placed always in the center of the screen, waving in and out of focus, seeming to tremble in time with the music.
By its movements or its angle, the kayon prepares the mood of the episode to follow, or may represent water, fire, or wind. When the kayon is removed, the show begins. The dalang strikes the kropak three times in order to "awaken" the puppets. He then introduces the characters one at a time, the wayang figures raised and pressed flat against the kelir.
Though both forms share the same repertory, the Balinese puppets have longer necks, smaller bodies, and are more naturalistically carved than Javanese wayang, which are made much more stylistically because Islam forbids realistic portrayal of the human or animal form.
Puppets are manipulated by three long stemlike supports of horn or bamboo, one for the body and one for each arm. With only their arms jointed, their acting consists of rhythmical fast arm gestures while the dalang recites their lines. Small boys love to sit in back on the dalang's side of the screen to marvel at his deft hands and to better appreciate the designs and colors of the puppets.
The puppets can tilt, advance, retreat, fall, pivot, dance, fight, rise, hover, come down from the sky, or fly up like a bird. For an otherworldly effect, the puppets are moved toward or away from the screen, the shadows themselves becoming sharp black outlines or blurry grays, always fading and wavering and mysterious.
On the framework of a scenario which would take only about five minutes to read in its entirety, the dalang unfolds a six-hour drama in which he continuously narrates, chants poetry, sings, does sound effects, and simultaneously carries on many-sided dialogues.
Throughout the presentation the gamelan keeps up a steady accompaniment that echoes, evokes, and amplifies the intertwined themes and actions of the poetic drama. Since many of the characters and episodes are accompanied by their own appropriate musical theme and mode of articulation, the audience is able to imagine who is talking and exactly where in the story the event is taking place, even without following the dalang's narration. The appearance of a certain puppet tells the audience immediately just what episode is about to be enacted.
The dalang must have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Hindu epics; the Mahabharata alone has 90,000 couplets, seven times longer than Homer's Iliad and Odyssey put together. Not that the whole poem needs to be presented, but he must vary the episodes enough to hold the interest of his very discerning audience.
The Mahabharata deals with the feud between two rival royal families, the Pandawas and the Korawas. It's a story of treachery, jealousy, banishment, and a battle so awful that it made "the rivers stand still, the sun pale, and the mountains tremble." In this classic, the mighty hero Bima unleashes a furious attack on the evil Korawas, who are finally exterminated.
Or the play could present the theme of the Ramayana in which Prince Rama tries to rescue his beloved Sita from the clutches of the monster-king, Rawana. Rama is helped by a great army of monkeys, led by their flamboyant and fearless leader, the white ape Hanuman. The two armies meet in a clash so terrible that millions die on both sides. The ranks of the clumsy raksasa are swarmed over by biting, clawing, screaming monkeys and at last give way. As in the Mahabharata, absolute virtue in the end wins out over absolute evil, without which cosmic order would be unattainable.
Modern stories have started to make their appearance on the shadow puppet stage. An example is I Wayan Dibia's experimental Balinization of Racine's Phaedra, complete with raunchy dirty jokes and not-so-oblique jabs at political figures.
You're also beginning to see performances in broken English, which often break up both the Westerners and the Balinese in the audience. These two-language presentations are still in their formative stages, but their supporters believe that they have the potential of becoming a cross-cultural experience for those who don't understand Balinese. I, for one, believe they taint this theatrical form in the same way that foreign films are ruined when dubbed in English.
The heroes of these plays are the models after which the Balinese pattern their behavior and judge their neighbors and colleagues. Each character, whether a hero or a villain, is sharply defined by means of his headdress, color, garments, shape of eyes, and so on. The noble characters of the Right speak in Kawi, and the gruff ogres, raksasa, and demons of the Left speak in the Low Balinese tongue, or even in Indonesian. Whichever language is used, it's always spoken in the appropriate speech level, style, and accent.
The comic retainers of the heroes remain the most popular and amusing of all the wayang personalities. While the august figures of Hindu origin wear the Indian dhoti, hold themselves aloof, and speak with airs, these indigenous clowns, with no apparent counterpart in the Hindu pantheon, wear the Malayo-Polynesian sarung and behave ludicrously, yet possess great magic and power. Two righteous clowns and two wicked clowns are always pitted against one another in a jocular bawdy rivalry. Twalen and his son Merdah, on the side of truth and goodness, are in constant and hilarious conflict with their antagonists, Sangut and Delam, flying across the screen, jabbing and knocking into each other, alternating biting insults with riotous good-natured exchanges. They parody the poetic love scenes, employ spells on their foes, change into old women, and mutter cynical jokes, as spectators hold their sides in laughter. The clowns also play a useful dramatic role by translating from Kawi into the vernacular.
The Balinese say that Twalen is actually the son of the god Tintiya Himself, but since he liked his worldly pleasures so much he renounced his right to be deified in exchange for the freedom to eat, drink, and make merry as much as he wished. Beloved, impudent, and faithful Twalen is the Sancho Panza, the Poncho, the Falstaff of Balinese theater.