Wayang kulit, the shadow theater of Bali, is one of the longest running theatrical spectacles the world has known. For centuries it has survived changes in politics, ideology and fashion - continually renewing itself and providing the Balinese with a unique vision of the world and of themselves.
The elements of the performance are simplicity itself. a white screen, a flame, music, and flat puppets that move and tell a story. Balinese audiences delight in seeing their favorite characters in familiar predicaments. There is the braggart caught in his own lies, the old fool who isn't so foolish, the invincible hero who needs to be rescued, the gods needing help from humans, and of course the beautiful princess - abducted, rescued and stolen back again.
The shadow puppets are made of rawhide, carved and perforated to create lacy patterns of light and dark. The puppets and screen are flat, but when all elements of a performance are in place - flickering firelight, gamelan music, voice and movement - they take on an unearthly dimension.
The characters are all recognizable at a glance by their headdresses, costumes and facial characteristics. There are two main types - alus and kasar. Alus means refined and controlled. Kasar is vulgar and quick to anger. Alus is not necessarily good, nor kasar bad; what is admired is the right combination of attributes at the right place and time.
A performance is usually a kind of offering that marks the completion of a ceremony. The occasion could be a wedding, a funeral, or any other major event in the life of the individual or community. In urban areas, a performance may be two hours long. In rural areas, expectations are greater and work schedules more flexible, so a performance is likely to begin after 10 pm and last three to five hours. Farmers often go directly from the performance to the fields.
Most puppeteers or dalangs in Bali specialize in wayang parwa stories from the Mahabharata myth cycle about two families in conflict over succession to the throne. Although each side has valid claims, one operates from greed and self-interest, while the other is more altruistic. The five Pandawa brothers struggle to assert their best qualities pitted against the 100 Korawas, who lust for power.
An apprentice dalang will spend years following his father or teacher from one performance to another. Gradually his understanding of composition, rhetoric and humor become instinctive. He is expected to improvise in several languages, to give convincing and inventive explanations of local customs and events, and to be adept in the use of proverbs and slapstick comedy.
The shadow play group usually arrives several hours before the performance. As they chat with their host and exchange gossip, the dalang will be listening for ways to adapt the story for his audience. He never announces which story he is going to perform, reserving the right to change his mind.
In a given performance, 30 to 60 puppets are used. While the musicians play the overture, the dalang makes his selection. Antagonists are placed to his left, protagonists to his right. Major characters are placed closest to the kayon - the "tree of life" puppet that marks the beginning and end of major scenes. The shadows are purposely indistinct at this point, symbolizing that the creation of the story has begun, but that like a child in the womb, no one knows what it is going to be.
There is singing as each character is presented. The first scene is the meeting scene, where problems central to tonight's episode are introduced. It is entirely in Kawi, the ancient language of poetry, religion and theater. Then there is a sound like someone clearing his throat, followed by a slow, deliberate laugh. A hush settles over the audience as a large figure moves ponderously across the screen, and bows - this is Tualen, and for the first time, Balinese is spoken.
Tualen is one of four penasar - advisors and servants to the king, and interpreters for the audience. They are the only puppets with lips - when the dalang pulls a string attached to their jaw, it looks as if they are talking.
During the initial scene it might be revealed that an army is gathering to attack; that someone is missing, kidnapped, or stuck in a dream; that a rare object is needed to complete a ceremony, or that everyone is invited to a marriage contest. There are hundreds of possible openings. They all end with a decision to solve the problem.
In pursuit of their goal, they might journey through a forest filled with dangerous animals, visit a hermit in his cave, enlist the help of an ally, climb mountains or cross an ocean. There will be a meeting between the two sides, ending with sharp words and a battle. There might be a romantic interlude as one of the Pandawas and a beautiful enemy princess fall in love.
Ultimately, fighting ensues and magical weapons fill the air. Eagles fight snakes. Fire fights rain. Ogres change shapes, fly, and become invisible. The penasars are everywhere - fighting, arguing, joking, dodging weapons and providing a commentary which gives the musicians a chance to rest.
The dalang works furiously. His assistants try to second guess him and hand him the right puppet when he needs it. The musicians pay close attention, emphasizing each arrow shot with a resounding chord. The audience cheers, laughs and groans, gripping each other in anticipation of what is to follow.
the dalang feels the audience is satisfied, he will play a rousing battle
scene ending in victory for the right side. This is not so much the
ultimate triumph of good over evil as the re-establishment of a balance
between the two. The clowns have a last word, then the kayon appears
at the center of the screen, and the dalang utters the words: "Though
the fighting is over, the stories go on forever. We apologize for stopping
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