With both hands he begins twirling two mountain-shaped kayon puppets, followed by carefully manipulating Drupaudi, giving her svelte, human like gestures. Her story spans generations of family feuding and bloody wars.
It begins with a prologue in old Javanese: “A flower bud opening, aromatic perfume is overtaking the entire kingdom of Pancala.”
Though its roots in Indonesia haven’t exactly been established, wayang kulit is one of the oldest traditions of storytelling in the world, which incorporates elements of Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islamic teachings.
However, having long been a part of Javanese identity and life philosophy, it now faces great obstacles to ensure that it survives future generations. The priest-puppeteer, who comes from a lineage of dalang (puppeteers) seven generations deep, cites language as one of the main problems.
Epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are based on ancient forms of speaking. “Wayang uses a specific form of Javanese that is a blend of archaic Javanese, descriptive and metaphoric Javanese, modern literary Javanese, and everyday Javanese. The younger generation really only tend to understand the latter.”
The key to wayang’s modern day revival, or survival, is to educate younger generations. “We must bring an audience along in clever ways to help them through the language complexity,” says the dalang.
It is not entirely impossible that, in the next 50 years, the old aspects of the art form’s language may simply be gone and replaced by alternatives such as the Indonesian language.
This is a serious concern that dalangs, gamelan musicians and even puppet makers need to discuss.
A surprising trend is that while wayang seems to be on the decline in Indonesia, over the years it has seen more appreciation by international audiences.
This is evidenced by Ki Purbo’s world tours assisted by Kitsie Emerson, his apprentice of 10 years, responsible for translating his performances into English. His puppets have even been purchased by folk art museums in various countries; though within Indonesia many still consider wayang as outdated and irrelevant to the problems of an economically burgeoning Indonesia. To remedy this, Ki Purbo has also developed a more contemporary style or one “classically innovative” so that the story’s message, the drama and the conflicts are understood from the beginning. “The viewer does not need to sit through hours of slow court entrances, generic narrations, or ritual introductions only to see the main character's conflict some six hours into the performance," says Ki Purbo.
Ki Purbo’s collection of hundreds of puppets ascends in size from small and noble alas characters with refined, dainty bodies to kasar villains with large, uncouth features. Such unrealistic looking yet highly-stylized features date back to the arrival of Islam in Indonesia. According to Islam, it is considered haram (forbidden for Muslims) to represent the human form in plastic arts explaining the proscription. A new aesthetic and a new method in crafting puppets means that their makers were forced to take to the task with tremendous care and precision for the art to survive.
Wintala, a wayang craftsman based in Yogyakarta, runs a workshop that employs over 20 experts. From wayang golek (wooden puppets), wayang beber (scroll-painted representations), wayang topeng (the masks used in traditional dances), wayang klitik (flat and simple wooden puppets), to even the wooden fixtures that hold up the gongs and kempuls of gamelan, Wintala is one of the few to have survived the economic crisis of 1998 and the effects of the Bali bombings, changing his strategy to make puppets available for international markets. Asked whether he’d prefer a career change or become a dalang for a day, he responded by saying that it simply wasn’t his calling. “To be a dalang, you must have the soul of a dalang or, of course, grow up in a family of dalangs.”
With whatever changes the art form may experience, Wintala can vouch for the centuries-preserved standard of wayang as well as its high quality. “Nothing has changed in wayang puppet making since about the 16th century. We stencil the buffalo hide, the best quality skin, because it is durable and weather-resistant, then carve and make holes in it by hammering into the hide. The face, particularly the eyes, are made last because it shows the character’s true nature. Then we have experts who paint. A puppet usually takes one week, a cheaper puppet is done in one day.”
Though performances of wayang can be seen regularly in Yogyakarta and Surakarta in Central Java, it is a cultural artifact prone to change. Though many might see its future as being bleak if not wholly nonexistent, it is up to dalang Ki Purbo Asmoro, Wintala and many others, to ensure it survives for years to come.