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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

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