Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Seeing the Shadow Puppets in Java

Since I always travel with a toddler, I don't really experience the nightlife in the places I visit (though honestly I was never a huge fan, since I dislike noise, crowds and dancing). In Yogyakarta we did a fair amount of night-time sightseeing, however, because there were several performances I wanted R to see.

Indonesia has a vibrant performing arts tradition: shadow puppetry is maybe the most distinctive. A single maestro performs scenes from traditional stories (usually the Ramayana) by manipulating dozens of different puppets while imitating their voices. This puppetmaster sings, talks, and tells jokes (often with a political flavor apparently, I don't understand Indonesian). He is accompanied by a gamelan orchestra and backup (female) singers.
Side view of the stage, with all the puppets lined up and ready for action
Closeup of some puppets: this is the Prince Rama and two clowns (who make topical jokes) 
The puppets themselves are handmade from flat pieces of pierced buffalo hide, and perform their antics behind a translucent screen, which is illuminated from behind. The audience therefore only sees their shadows (which the puppetmaster will vary in size to reflect plot points). It's kind of like a movie!
Waiting for performance to begin
I find shadow puppetry fascinating (in fact, I had already seen a couple performances elsewhere, once in Bali and once in California when a famous puppermaster was touring). So I was very eager to attend a performance in its homeland! We went to a tourist-oriented performance at the shadow puppet museum, because 1. I didn't want to keep R up until 3 am (the authentic choice) and 2. B hates shadow puppets (he attended the performance in the US and found it agonizingly boring, perhaps partly because that one lasted around five hours!).
Watching the show
Performances are always in Indonesian and thus incomprehensible to foreigners. But even if the jokes and banter are wasted on non-Bahasa-speakers, the music, singing and visual pleasure from watching the intricately-carved puppets made it a memorable experience for me and R (look at her face, she is totally focused!). B was dying of boredom (had to bribe him with chocolate): good thing R takes after the more cultured side of the family!

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