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Behind the Screen at a Wayang Performance

Behind the Screen at a Wayang Performance

Wayang theatre—Indonesian shadow puppet theatre–is the traditional art form by which epic drama is presented in Indonesia. Years ago I had the immense fortune to watch a wayang drama presented by a master puppeteer at the University of Chicago and the experience was quite extraordinary. In wayang theatre there are many layers of verisimilitude built into the varying levels of theatrical artifice (and into the elaborate & hypnotic music). The shadow puppet stage can be approached from both sides. On the shadow side (which faces the audience) is the cinematic drama of nations, heroes, monsters, maidens, and wise-cracking dwarves. On the other side, behind the screen is the puppeteer himself moving sticks, pulling strings, voicing dozens of characters, and directly animating the whole enterprise. Viewers are encouraged to view both sides since the shifting perspective enhances the enjoyment of the drama. Not only are the puppets beautifully painted and the gamelan orchestra instruments (and musicians) ornate, but thinking about the machinations behind the art provides larger lesson about politics, human affairs, and life.

 

A Niwatakawaca Shadow puppet

A Niwatakawaca Shadow puppet

The master puppeteer was a wizened Javanese sage. He took one look at the audience of American lay-people who were unfamiliar with the George R. R. Martin-esque backstories behind Indonesian epics (to say nothing of 6 syllable Sanskrit names) and his face fell. Nonetheless with a flourish of cymbals and gongs he leapt to his craft. In a mere 5 hours he had explained an incredibly elaborate story, cracked a number of hilarious topical jokes, staged a vast battle, and wrapped everything up in a happy ending (traditional performances can go on for days). Unfortunately he had to take some shortcuts so that we didn’t become hopelessly lost. One of these was the name of the main antagonist. In the Arjunawiwāha, the principle antagonist is an asura (demon) named Niwatakawaca. This nomenclature was clearly not going to fly with the Chicago audience, so the puppeteer made Niwatakawaca into “the flower ogre”.

Niwatakawaca harasses Apsaras in his pleasure garden

Niwatakawaca harasses Apsaras in his pleasure garden

Niwatakawaca (aka the flower ogre) is a powerful wicked spirit who disturbs the cosmic harmony and shamefully harasses the pulchritudinous apsaras. As you can see from the above pictures he is a very hedonistic demon (although not without his own love of refinement and aesthetics). I particularly like the picture above which makes him seem exactly like an ogre who loves flowers and beautiful gardens. I suspect the flower ogre represents a lack of self-discipline–but since that is my personal demon as well, I am going to pretend he is just a supernatural monster. In the end of the epic Arjuna, the archer hero must fight the flower ogre in a great epic battle. When I saw the Arjunawiwāha performed, the battle was extraordinary (particularly considering it was all deft puppetry by one man). Flights of arrows were launched. Forests burned and great hosts were slain. Finally Arjuna gained the upper hand. The hero bodily grabbed the recalcitrant demon and hurled him out of the universe. Since this was puppet theatre, it meant that the ogre wayang flew completely out from behind the screen and flipped end over end into the lap of a startled Asian civilization professor. It was one of the best finales I have ever seen in anything anywhere and provided a very fitting end to the flower ogre.

Gamelan Orchestra

Gamelan Orchestra

Varaha Fighting Hiranyaksha

In the epic stories of Hinduism, Lord Vishnu, the sovereign protector of the universe, was always fighting power hungry demons and monsters (for example one such myth explains the formation of Lake Lonar).  Some of Vishnu’s opponents, however, were much more terrible than others.  Among the very worst was a filthy albeit incredibly puissant asura named Hiranyaksha (asuras were malevolent and greedy demon-gods).  Hiranyaksha was the son of Diti, an earth-goddess who sought–through means of her monstrous children–to overthrow Indra (the king of the gods). Hiranyaksha had golden eyes and a written pledge from Brahma that no god or man or beast could kill him.  Through some oversight, the boar alone was missing from the list.

Not satisfied with the many atrocities he had committed and the many beautiful things he had stolen, Hiranyaksha grew truly ambitious. He stole the entire earth and carried it to the bottom of a polluted ocean.

From time to time, Vishnu took on mortal incarnations–or more properly, “avatars”–to conduct his battles against the forces which sought to destroy or subvert the world. In his third avatar lifetime, Vishnu appeared in the form of a colossal boar, named Varaha in order to fight Hiranyaksha. Varaha sprang out of Brahma’s nostril as a tiny pig, but he grew and grew until he had reached a size sufficient to lift the entire world.  This great boar dived down into the cosmic ocean to find Hiranyaksha and kill him. For an entire millennium, the two opponents battled in the poison depths. Finally Varaha gained an advantage. With his tusks he tore open the demon and with his great mace he smashed Hiranyasha’s head. Varaha/Vishnu then lifted the earth back to its correct position with his snout!

Varaha lifts the world from the poison sea (by Harish Jahari)

The story nicely follows up on the porcine theme of last month’s post and Hiranyaksha is an interesting addition to the Deities of the Underworld category, but what real relevance can such an abstract story have for us?  Surely nobody could be so greedy and insane as to try to steal the entire earth and drown it in poisons.  And if such a terrible thing were to happen, what reviled but titanic force could spring from Brahma’s head to assume the role of the big pig and rescue earth from wicked corpora…um demons.

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