The painted wooden puppets on the preceding page are old examples from the still thriving and important folk art puppet theater of Java in Indonesia. Although tourist shops now sell imitations of wayang golek puppets, the puppets illustrated on these pages were actually used for many years in theater productions–in presentations of Hindu epics, Javanese history plays and the Islamic Menak cycles. These performances were given in towns and villages on holidays and for a variety of festivals, as were the distinctive shadow-puppet plays. A dalang, or puppet master, manipulated the puppets, spoke their parts, and coordinated the puppets’ actions with music from a gamelan orchestra.
Anne Richter has described the stories as follows: “The most frequently performed narratives derive from the Hindu epics. The Arjuna Sasra Bahu and Ramayana cycles concern the affairs of the noble Rama himself and his ancestors. Favorite stories concern Rama’s marriage to Sinta; their banishment to the forest together with his brother Laksmana; Sinta’s abduction by the monster king Rahwana; and her subsequent rescue, with the aid of the monkey king and after numerous battles, from the kingdom of Sri Lanka. The Ramayana contains many episodes from the lives of these characters which are emphasized in varying degrees to form separate plays in their own right.
Richter describes the puppet making itself: “Like so many other crafts in Indonesia, making wayang golek is a skill handed down through families. The master puppet-maker usually makes the head because it expresses the personality of the puppet. Ceremonies are performed before commencing a deity or a demon. A piece of light, local softwood, which is easy to carve and not too heavy to hold up during a performance, is sawed or chopped down to the right size, and the main features are roughly chiseled. After sanding, fine decorations such as the parts of a crown are carved in with more care and sanded. The smooth surface receives a coat of glue-based paint, which will enable subsequent coats to adhere well. Lips, flowers and some bits of jewelry are painted red, as are the irises of angry characters. Blue is also used for eyes and sapphire jewelry. Fine black lines are painted for eyes, eyebrows, moustaches and wisps of hair….Bodies are often made by younger members of the family, and arms are attached at the elbow and shoulders with string so that they move easily. The shapes of hands also express character and role; those of nobles stretch out gracefully, but servants and commoners have large open palms. A rod passes from a hole in the base of the puppet’s head and down through the body to form a handle. Costumes are usually made by wives. …Since the stories portray historical and human rather than divine affairs, the puppets, like those used for history plays, are always fully clothed in Central Javanese traditional dress with batik sarongs.
Richter concludes, “It is the mixture of courtly, mystical and popular elements that allows traditional theatre to be so loved by so many people.”
A Javanese dulang and musicians. Voices of the Puppet Masters, Mimi Herbert. 2002, Honolulu.
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