Monday, December 21, 2009

Wayang Kulit Balinese Shadows Puppet Theater (1): "The Sacrifice of Bima" (preliminaries)

The Balinese Shadow Theater or Wayang Kulit is one of the most fascinating spectacles in Balinese culture. As with Chinese drama (Chinese Opera) that originates in the puppet theater of antiquity, Wayang Kulit is probably the origin of several spectacular Balinese dances such as Legong. (1)

Wayang Kulit means shadows and also means leather (2). This shadow play, performed with puppets made of leather (usually ox), is a religious and artistic tradition, like most things in Bali. Based on the Hindu epics The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, it has been, for centuries, a way of telling the people about the origin of the universe and used as a fun way to listen to poetry.

Handled by a single master manipulator, Dalang (at one time considered more than a teacher, a priest), who also provides the voices for all the characters, recites poetry and at times improvises with humor; Wayang Kulit is a real direct line that takes us back to the ancient storyteller, one of the three origins of theater, according to Jerzy Grotowski. (3) The Dalang is accompanied by a small group of musicians, the Gamelan (a traditional Balinese orchestra), all of them behind the traditional screen which, even today, is illuminated by an oil lamp. (4)

As in any religious spectacle each element of the stage has a symbolism: the screen or Kelir symbolizes the properties of life on earth, being stretched between two bamboo poles it in turn symbolizes the universe; the trunk of the banana tree, where the puppets are fixed while on scene but not in use, is Pertiwi or Mother Earth; the lamp itself, Damar, is the sun, with three skeins representing the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (5). Positions, entries, and poses of the Dalang himself while handling the puppets, everything has a symbolism and everything must be done with strict control of movement.

Pictures: screen layout and musical instruments

Pictures: Arrangement of the Dalang, musicians and puppets behind the screen.

Bali's artistic life has evolved and changed dramatically with western civilization, but in turn it has been preserved thanks to tourism, which has made its existence a matter of interest to the island. Wayang Kulit has changed the reason for its presentation to an audience: you can have religious performances and business performances, the teachers are the same, the techniques are the same, what changes depending on the type of performance is the length of the representation and the audience; a performance can last all night in a temple and during a festival for mostly Balinese audiences; a one hour long show at any temple or gallery (as in this case), with only tourists and a small group of ever present curious Balinese children.

The performance I attended took place at a gallery-hostel, Okra Kartini, in a stage where there are regular performances of Wayang Kulit before 50 or 60 people. The video bellow shows the preparations for that performance. It shows how the screen was set up and how the music starts, as well as an explanation (in English) that the director of the company gave (in this case not the Dalang, who was behind the screen) about the characters and the story we were going to watch.

There is an additional, very short video that I took at the end of the performance, which shows how the musicians and the Dalang were seated behind the screen.

In the next post I will show the videos of the full performance.

(1) Island of Bali. Author: Miguel Covarrubias. (2) Balinese Dance, Drama and Music. Authors: I Wayan Dibia, Rucina Ballinger. (3) The other two are the man playing ( a game) and the shaman or medicine man. (4) The Chinese, for example, have lost that tradition; in the four years I lived in China I saw no shadow show that was not illuminated with electric lamps. (5) Balinese Dance and Drama ...

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  1. Thank you so much for posting your research! It is quite hard to come by good documentation of Shadow Puppetry. Good work!

  2. It's a pleasure. Thanks for the comment.


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