Portrait of one of gamelan players.
One night in July 2012, I was listening to the melodious rhythm of the gamelan in harmony and watching the silhouettes of the heroes and villains of the ancient Mahabharata epic flit across the screen of wayang kulit performances.
Wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performance of Indonesia is among the oldest and greatest story telling traditions in the world and is said to lie at the heart of Indonesian culture. Wayang kulit are flat, leather puppets elaborately decorated and perforated, casting intricate and dramatic shadows when performed. Performances are always accompanied by a gamelan orchestra and traditionally begin in the evening and last until dawn.
Wayang kulit performance is done by the dalang (puppeteer) who is also the storyteller who is possibly considered the best entertainer in the world. All the night, he plays all the characters of the wayang kulit forming human characters made from buffalo skin decorated with motif as the product of leather carving. He has to change the voice character, switch the intonation, produces humor and even singing. In order to make the atmosphere vivid, the storyteller is assisted by musicians who play gamelan – the traditional Javanese music instruments – and the female singers called sinden who sing Javanese songs.
The puppets are stored in line, in a banana tree trunk, behind the screen and in front of the dalang. On the right hand side are the good characters, on the left hand side the bad. The open space between them, about two meters wide, represents the stage.
Dalang are also social commentators. Performances are usually based on classical literature such as the Indian epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana with contemporary issues incorporated into particular scenes. Those ancient epics that form the basis of the wayang repertoire still have relevance for modern viewers. The tales may be populated with gods and ogres, but they are fundamentally stories about power and politics, good and evil, loyalty and treachery, love, hate and family feuds – as modern as any soap opera or political scandal.