wayang as education

The size and nature of the puppets depends on their character and station in life -as an ordinary person, god or demon. The puppeteer or dalang will have the good puppet characters (‘halus’ or ‘refined’) standing in the gedebog or banana trunk to his right and the bad puppet characters (‘kasar’ or ‘coarse’) to his left. This connects with the idea underlying wayang kulit that in every person there is a struggle between good and evil. The banana trunk represents the earth. Smaller puppets are closer to the dalang, and they are lined up from shortest to tallest. The puppets on both sides face in to the middle of the screen.

The stories:
Like most stories, including modern films, wayang stories often explore the battle between good and evil, and the problems that people face.

Javanese puppet theatre performs many cycles of plays from mythical origins to contemporary events. The four oldest cycles are known as wayang purwa, and relate Java’s legendary history.

Other stories were brought to Indonesia by traders from India. These include the great epic stories such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. These stories have many sub-plots or sections that can be explored in different versions.

Wayang stories involve lots of comments on society, people’s behaviour and humour.

The language:
Much of the story will be performed in ancient high Javanese, since traditionally performances were often held for the entertainment of leaders in the society, who spoke a higher form of the language. There is usually a very popular section in the play where the clown or servant characters enter, and the puppeteer uses the local or lower language and improvises with jokes and comments about local issues.

You might like to explain to students that Shakespearean plays are still performed, despite the fact that the language has some archaic features and is not the commonly spoken English of today. In Shakespeare’s plays as well, clowns or servants are often used for comic relief and to make political comment that ‘normal’ characters wouldn’t get away with.

The puppeteer:
The dalang must be almost super-human. Performances can be up to nine hours long and for all that time the dalang sits cross-legged, telling the story and providing a voice for each puppet character; singing; moving the puppets; directing the gamelan orchestra and adding sound effects. The dalang must memorise lengthy dialogue and also be able to improvise about the local social and political situations. He may use up to 90 puppets in one performance. It is no wonder that the dalang is not only a respected and skilled artist, but is also thought to have a special spiritual dimension.

Many dalangs are born into the profession and learn by working from early childhood with their parents. Although many dalangs are male, there are a few female dalangs, as well as some westerners who have trained to be dalangs as adults. But generally being a dalang is a lifelong calling, passed down through particular families.

During a performance the dalang will sit cross-legged in front of the screen, holding a kechrek or rattle with his right foot, and using it to strike the kotak or box just to his left almost continuously, accompanying the story and guiding the orchestra.

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