In part one of a two-part report on the Balinese performing arts, Dorothy Max Prior reflects on her first encounters with traditional wayang kulit, and on her meetings with an extraordinary family of artists
It is January, the rainy season in Bali. ‘Rainy’, as I have come to learn since arriving here at the beginning of the month, can mean a scorching hot day punctuated with a ten-minute shower, a welcome opportunity to shelter under a banana tree and catch your breath, or it can mean – as it does on the evening of Thursday 14 January – torrential rain of a sort one can only imagine in England.
I am sitting in an open-sided café on the outskirts of Ubud, Bali’s artistic heartland, and the rain is pouring off the thatched roof in what seems to be almost solid sheets. My companion Christine and I are trying to decide whether to attend temple for a wayang kulit (shadow puppet) ceremony to mark Dark Moon, as the Balinese call the new moon – an auspicious day in the calendar. It is a particularly special occasion as the dalang (puppet master) for the event is the renowned I Wayan Wija. We are here in Bali studying puppetry with Wija’s nephew, Mardika, and his brother, Kadek. We are now attempting to telephone Kadek, who will be playing in the gender wayang (a puppetry-specific small gamelan ensemble) for tonight’s ceremony, to find out more about the evening. Which temple, exactly? What time will it start? How long will it last? Answers are a little vague – I can almost hear Kadek shrugging over the phone when he says ‘about 10pm, I think,’ and, ‘maybe three hours, maybe five.’ As to how to find it: ‘Go north after the big wantilan on the corner’. Er, thanks…
Somehow, we find ‘transport’ (everyone’s a taxi driver in Bali) and find the right temple. From the outside, it seems deserted. We are dressed appropriately in kamben (a batik cloth wrapped sarong-like round the body), sash, and sleeved blouse (kabaya), so we know that we are allowed to enter some areas, although a little confused about exactly how to enter, and to which parts we are permitted access. There’s a narrow entrance, a large outer courtyard, and an archway through to another courtyard. Still no sign of life, and it is now almost 10pm. Picking our way through the rainwater puddles (although ‘lakes’ feels a more appropriate word), up a flight of stone stairs, and through into another courtyard, we at last see an open-sided pavilion on which a gamelan orchestra are seated, the men tinkering rather than playing. Everyone turns to stare at us: a pair of foreign women looking a little self-conscious in our adat (temple wear).
There are four of these structures in this particular courtyard, and on another, a couple of men are erecting a shadow screen – aha, perhaps we are in the right place after all! In a third corner, we see a pavilion on which sit a number of women and children, and edge towards there, standing nervously on the steps. Welcoming signs are made, and we are greeted with calls of Silakan masuk, silakan makan! (Sit down, please eat!) Small children bring us tiny wrapped portions of chocolate banana and rice pudding, and cool fresh water; a couple of little girls borrow our umbrella and run round the courtyard with it, laughing. An hour or more passes easily… but no sign of any shadow puppets yet, although we can see that the screen is now up and ready.
But now here’s Kadek, appeared from nowhere, greeting us enthusiastically, and beckoning us over to the pavilion with the screen – he wants us to sit with him ‘backstage’, behind the screen.
In Bali, wayang kulit is not, traditionally, an entertainment – it is part of the ritual of temple worship. There are wayang kulit shows presented in theatres, art galleries and other ‘non temple’ spaces, but these are mostly attended by tourists. Before our Dark Moon experience, we have attended a couple of these shows’.
They are set up ostensibly in the same way: the onstage gender wayang musical instruments; the shadow screen stretched onto poles; the use of a live flame to provide the light that casts the shadows; the dalang or puppeteer, with perhaps two helpers; and the box of puppets, carved from buffalo rawhide, elaborately painted, and depicting a range of gods, beasts, and human characters from kings to clowns.The show will open with an instrumental musical section, then the Tree of Life ‘puppet’ will create a fluttering fan effect to denote the start of the story. We will meet warring brothers, or a hero who needs to defeat a monstrous creature, or a goddess who has formed an alliance with an earthly boy. There will quite likely be monkeys, and perhaps even Hanuman the Monkey King. There will be battles. There will be clowns, who communicate directly with the audience (which in tourist shows will mean a sudden lapse into pidgin English, with jokes about taxis and football), and there will be some sort of resolution – a village saved, brothers reunited, a god appeased. But where the tourist show will last for around an hour, the temple ceremony can be three, four or five hours – often (as in this case) through the night. The tourist shows are not looked down upon – they are accepted as part of the picture, and the Balinese are glad that foreigners are taking enough of an interest in the form to go along – but to get any sense of the ‘real thing’, coming to a full-blown wayang kulit at a temple ceremony is important.
Bali – unlike the rest of Indonesia, which is Muslim – has Hinduism as its predominant religion (although their form of Hinduism is tempered with Buddhism and the indigenous Animist religions). The temples are colourful places, decked with statues, carvings, and elaborate ‘offerings’ of food and flowers. The stories told in the wayang kulit are often taken from the Indian classic epics; specifically The Mahabharata and The Ramayana.
It is an extraordinary experience to sit onstage with a master of the form such as Wija. Despite being in a temple, the atmosphere is quite laid back, irreverent even, by Western ‘church’ standards: the musicians are smoking, mobile calls are taken, and small children chatter in a corner. Wija, though, is in a very different space – almost trance-like as he lights the flame, burns incense and focuses on the task in hand, chanting softly to himself. His box of puppets is opened and two helpers take out and hand him a selection of figures, which are lined up for the opening scenes, in the order in which they are to be used.
In the traditional wayang kulit, the dalang manipulates all the puppets, voices all the characters, and narrates the story, whilst also denoting changes of scene, or emphasis in the text, with a percussive ‘toc’ of the wooden hammer held between the toes. He sits for hours in what looks to be an incredibly uncomfortable ‘extreme tailor position’, his torso stretching upwards, his neck elongated as he leans towards the microphone to annunciate in a strange high-pitched voice. Much of the spoken text is delivered in a language that is not only alien to us ‘foreigners’, but is also not the everyday language of the native Balinese – it’s a kind of ancient ‘high Javanese’, so I suppose the equivalent in our culture might be a Mass said in Latin. The assistants get the puppets out (which all live together in one big wooden box), and also receive the ones finished with, to be placed back in the box. Occasionally, for example in a scene in which many beasts run through a forest, they might help with manipulation, but for the most part this task belongs only to the master puppeteer.
Seen from this, the ‘wrong’ side, we are witnessing the puppets not as shadows but as two-dimensional puppets with shadows. In the glowing light, the colours of the painted forms are beautiful. The ‘higher’ characters – the gods and goddesses – have the most elaborate carving, and carry a great deal of detail picked out in gold paint. They don’t, for the most part, have moveable limbs but kind of waft across the stage, as befits gods. The human characters have articulated arms, and some have moving jaws. The beasts have multi-jointed, articulated limbs, and often ears that move too. In some scenes, a breathtaking number of puppets are engaged, and even sitting very close to Wija, it is not actually possible to work out how he is managing to manipulate them all. It seems almost like a magic trick, a sleight of hand.
As time goes by, the onstage vibe from the musicians and observers becomes more meditative, as if Wija’s trance-like state is catching. After an hour or two (in the land of the puppets, it is hard to tell where we are in ‘human time’), my companion Christine and I decide to move ‘out front’ so that we can witness some of the play in its shadow form, from the ‘audience’ perspective.
The pavilion that had earlier been a flurry of playing children and a sea of picnic-ers has, in these early hours of the morning, turned into a kind of cross between a dormitory and a night vigil. Men, women and children of all ages sit slumped, or lie on the floor. Some are watching the screen intently; others are staring out at the moonless night sky. Seeing the puppets in shadow form moving speedily across the screen, or interacting with other puppet characters, seems less extraordinary from this side of the divide – probably because we can no longer see that it is just one man’s manipulation skills in action, but also I suppose because our eyes are used to contemporary animated film – we take fast-moving animated characters on a screen for granted these days. It is only when I marry in my head the memories of the behind-the-screen experience and the ‘out front’ experience do I again start to have the sensation that I am watching something that seems hardly humanly possible.
I’m reminded of a conversation that I’d had with Wija just two days ago, at a family celebration that we’d been invited to, about the state of the art of wayang kulit in contemporary Bali. It was in decline, he had said, because of television… Wija’s English is not too brilliant, and my grasp of Bahasa Indonesia is pretty minimal, so the conversation I want to pursue about the prognosis for the future of the form, and the potential of new life for wayang kulit within contemporary art-making, isn’t possible (besides, we are surrounded by dogs snapping up the discarded chicken heads, small children on bicycles, and women with wooden rubbish baskets trying to clear up after the feast!). But this is a conversation I continue another time with my teacher, Wija’s nephew Mardika…
I Wayan Mardika Bhuwana (to give him his full title) is now himself a dalang or master puppeteer, as was his father before him – and indeed, as was his mother, Ni Wayan Nondri (Wija’s sister). When his father, the esteemed I Ketut Madra, died in a traffic accident in January 1979, he left behind a young dancer wife and three sons under the age of six (Mardika being the eldest, followed by Kadek and Komang). Ni Wayang Nondri, with the support of her brothers, took over the ‘family business’, establishing herself as a puppeteer, winning a prestigious competition in 1980, and rising to national and international fame and acclaim, alongside her brother Wija, whose own fame increased following the death of his brother-in-law (who until his death was the ‘big name’ in this artistic family).
Mardika made his first puppet aged 12, but dance was his principle love – the masked dance-drama of topeng, which he still performs, as well as other forms such as legong. He tells me that he specialised in playing female roles (often the path for a dancer perceived to be a finely-tuned interpreter). By the early 90s he was a student at the prestigious Balinese university of the arts, ISI, and performing across the globe (including visits to Japan, America, Germany, and Portugal). In Balinese performing arts, the distinctions that we in the West hold between disciplines are not adhered to: to learn that Mardika is proficient as a dancer, physical actor, musician, mask-maker, and puppeteer is humbling –but in Bali, one is expected to be at least competent in all of the above if following a path of dedication to the performing arts.
In many of Mardika’s overseas forays, he was bringing the traditional forms of topeng or wayang kulit to new audiences; but in other ventures he was working collaboratively with contemporary theatre-makers, for example in a three-month collaboration with America’s Mabou Mine Theatre. He was also one of the Indonesian artists involved in the Theft of Sita project, a collaboration of international artists led by Australian theatre-maker Nigel Jamieson (a team which also included composer Paul Grabowsky, and Julian Crouch of Improbable).
Yet all Balinese artists, no matter how widely acclaimed, are also expected to continue to use their talents for the good of the local community – and specifically, to contribute to ceremonies in the local temple, or at family celebrations: Mabou Mine one minute, Auntie’s 6oth birthday party the next!
If Mardika has anything to do with it, the wayang kulit traditions will never die. He is not averse to using new technologies, and to experimenting with form – having, for example, created a piece for the Bali Festival of Arts 2010 using a contemporary dancer working with shadow screen.
Yet in his embracing of contemporary forms, he remains committed to the traditional which, he says, is at the heart of the work: ‘Don’t leave the tradition behind; take it with you’.