Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Indonesian Christian Shadow Puppets

Today I'd like to discuss the Indonesian art form of Wayang, or shadow puppetry, and its use by Christians to express the Gospel.  Much of my information for this post came from an article by Marzanna Poplawska for the Asian Theatre Journal.  In order to download a copy of the article, I signed up for a free trial account on Questia, downloaded the article, and then cancelled the subscription.  It's well worth a read.

First of all, I was surprised to learn that there are several variations of these puppets, which can be read about here and here.  Wayang kulit, the most common form, is prevalent in Java and Bali.  "Kulit" means "skin," ("wayang" = "shadow") and refers to the leather from which the puppets are constructed.  Wayang puppetry seems to be no older than the arrival of Hinduism in Indonesia during the first century A.D., though there may have been a form of oral drama present before that.  The first inscription mentioning wayang dates from 930 A.D.  Most wayang stories are based on the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabarata.  As time went on, wandering puppeteers (dalang) traveled from village to village to give performances, and to tell of news from the outside world.  The dalangs were (and still are) held in high esteem by Indonesians.  Most performances are spoken in classical Javanese and last a whole night or longer!  Today, wayang performances are less frequent but are still an integral part of many Indonesian weddings and other traditional functions.  They can also be seen at cultural centers, festivals and special performances for tourists.

As mentioned above, the wayang stories last for several hours and are performed at night from behind a sheet illuminated by a light.  The shadows of the puppets are projected onto the sheet, and the audience watches from the other side.  The dalang 

plays the most important role in the performance as he operates all the puppets, performs all the narration and dialogue, sings the songs, and directs the musicians. He must be highly skilled to manipulate, direct, sing and story-tell; for example, if he is using both hands to hold puppets, he would use his foot to cue the signals to the musicians. [Batik ‘n Craft]

The performances are accompanied by a live Indonesian orchestra called a Gamelan, which accompanies dance and puppet performances, rituals or ceremonies.  

A Catholic form of shadow theatre in central Java called wayang wahyu was created in 1960 by Brother Timotheus L. Wignyosoebroto as a way to communicate the stories and ideas in the Bible.  His idea for creating wayang wahyu came after he saw "a performance of shadow theatre by M. M. Atmowijoyo, who presented a story taken from the Old Testament ("Dawud Mendapat Wahyu Kraton" [David receives divine revelation]), using ordinary wayang puppets. The story was in fact a modification of a story from the Mahabharata: 'Wahyu Cakraningrat.'" (Poplawska, p. 2).  Brother Timotheus's use of wayang for the purpose of communicating stories and information fit into the historical tradition of the art form, because it had been used for centuries

first by sultans and later by the Indonesian government to spread their policies.  Traditional wayang was also meant to provide ethical and moral education based on different religions and philosophies. However, this was always done in a nondogmatic and nontheoretic, often humorous way, that is, calling for an individual meditative approach, making choices for oneself, and looking for the best way of living life. The Christian Church adapted this philosophical and spiritual approach quite successfully. In this light, the special role undertaken by wayang wahyu to strengthen and broaden Catholic spirituality is quite understandable (Poplawska, p. 2).

Wayang wahyu performances tend to emphasize Old Testament stories, because they often involve more action than New Testament stories, though there are performances which portray the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  

The wayang wahyu performances are usually reserved for special occasions, such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, or anniversaries of particular churches, Catholic schools, or universities.  The local Catholic Church and/or individual Catholic sponsor the performances.  Poplawska writes that "the performances of wayang wahyu are on the whole quite expensive, [and] therefore [are] not very often held. Their rarity is also caused by difficulty in gathering performers. There are only a few wayang wahyu dhalang, who are often busy with other activities" (Poplawska, p. 4).  

Apparently the golden period of wayang wahyu was 1970-1990.  After 1990, support for the art form began to decline among Catholics, and today "is known only in rather small Christian circles" (Poplawska, p. 5).  But in the last few years the practitioners of wayang wahyu have redoubled their efforts to revive it from its decline.  Their current organization is a foundation called Paguyuban Wayang Wahyu.  A review of one of their performances can be found here, and a short video of another performance can be seen here:

Regarding wayang wahyu's future, Poplawska writes that it 

seems to depend on the efforts of particular individuals: priests who are interested in traditional arts, artists who are Christian, and those interested in experimenting in diverse areas. It unquestionably constitutes one of the domains of creativity for Javanese artists of Christian and also non-Christian background. Wayang wahyu... is an example of the vitality of the traditional arts in Java, which unceasingly find new forms to manifest themselves. They are still developing, perhaps in directions unexpected and unforeseen by some of the early twentieth-century anthropologists, who lamented the annihilation of traditional cultures that was inevitable with the entry of Western religions and missionaries (Poplawska, p. 4-5).

Lastly, Poplawska mentions a Protestant form of wayang called wayang prajanjian.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find any additional information about it online, but I did email Poplawska for information on obtaining a copy of her PhD dissertation, as well as any references about wayang prajanjian that she was aware of.  Hopefully I'll get a response from her.

There is a Facebook page for wayang wahyu here, which has several photos of the puppets and performers.

UPDATE: Dr. Poplawska emailed me back and said her dissertation ("Christian music and inculturation in Indonesia") could be ordered at this site.  Just copy and paste her last name into the author search field, and it will pull it up.

1 comment:

  1. cool!

    Im Indonesian people and know this is a great traditional show. Did you know half of the player of gamelan music and sinden singer isnt christiant! And they can respect and tolerance about this diferences. It's what we call "bhineka tunggal ika" :D