behind the white string
of a wayang kulit, the dalang
brings the puppets to life
The odalan in Nyuh Kuning has been going on around the clock for days. Lots of offerings, blessings, prayers and chanting, and also lots of entertainment. One of the most popular is the shadow puppet theater, wayang kulit. Pak Win, my cultural interpreter, tells me that wayang means shadow and kulit means skin, in this case the perforated water buffalo hide used for the puppets. Wayang kulit is religious, instructive and entertaining all at the same time.
There are two types of performances, daytime and nighttime. Wayang peteng usually goes on all night and is primarily entertaining, combining religious mythology with historical facts, current events, local stories and humor. Wayang lemah is a religious rite. Lemah means daylight and this shadow puppet theater is performed only during the day. The two types of performance also differ in the presentation. In wayang peteng, the flat cut-out figures are silhouetted behind the kelir, a translucent screen lit by a damar, a hanging coconut-husk lamp which creates animation with shadow and light. In wayang lemah, like the one I'm watching, there is no screen, only a string separating the dalang, or puppet master, from the audience. Pak Win points out the white string hanging in a graceful curve above the stage. He says that the daytime wayang kulit is actually performed for the gods and is considered an offering.
The dalang sits cross-legged on the stage behind a gedebong, a bamboo trunk in which the puppets are placed, heroic figures on the right, evil figures on the left. His two assistants, tutulan, hand him the puppets. The dalang manipulates the puppets with rods made of carved buffalo horn.
He is accompanied by a gender wayang, a small gamelan orchestra, which he signals by tapping his foot on the wooden puppet box by his left side. Gender means an instrument with bars suspended over bamboo resonating tubes. This gender wayang consists of two metallophones with ten bars each. Pairs of musicians sit on both sides of the instrument and strike the bars with two disc-headed wooden mallets and then mute them with the heals of their hands.
There are three types of religious stories that are performed in wayang kulit, Pak Win explains: Wayang Parwa, about the many heroes in the Mahabharata, Wayang Ramana, stories about Rama, the hero of the Ramanyana, and Wayang Colon Arang, stories about the witch Rangda. All of these epic stories climax with the triumph of good over evil.
Pak Win says that the dalang is really a one-man show: actor, storyteller, historian, educator, comedian and holy man, all rolled into one. He and his puppets are highly revered in the community. The puppet master, usually a male, is consecrated in a ceremony similar to that of a priest. Like a priest, he is able to make holy water and he recites prayers before the performance to bring the puppets to life. He is able to recite long passages from memory and play all the parts, varying his voice to match each character. With his many skills, the dalang plays an important role in passing on traditional culture from one generation to the next.