Sunday, November 11, 2007

Everybody Wayang Chung Tonight

After a hot bath and a sorely needed change of clothes, I headed out Saturday night with two co-workers. We ate at a japanese hibatchi restaurant and hit a bowling alley, where I won two out of three games (I only lost the last one b/c I used my other hand...!) I thought we'd be done after that, but we ended up going to a fantastic dance club (which made me laugh because I haven't been dancing twice in a month for, well - ever!) I've got to say, what I've seen of the club scene here is mad fun, but nothing I want to tap into for much longer than a month. It's exhausting!

In keeping with my personal pact, though, I got up today knowing that Sunday would truly be my day of rest. So I got up today knowing I'd have the whole day to myelf and was going to do something fun.

When I first began thinking of the world, and learned about Indonesia, two things captured my imagination : 1) Komodo dragons and 2) shadow puppetry (which I recently discovered is called "wayang kulit"). I knew I'd probably only have time for one museum while here, so I picked the National Wayang Museum in north Jakarta. At first, I was really disappointed. It was in a small alleyway, looked pretty rundown and none of the signs were in English. Plus, the guy at the door made it pretty clear I couldn't take any photos of the cool puppets on the wall. Boo. (Yeah, I took 'em anyway..)

But luckily there was a performance going on, so I got to see the puppets in action. I didn't realize that each performance is done by just ONE person, handling maybe 300 puppets in the course of the show. They are backed up by a large traditional orchestra, with gongs and gamelans and lots of percussion (there's alot of fighting!). I watched from the side of the orchestra, until a young man came up to me and told me I should watch from the "shadow" side behind the screen (duh, I was essentially watching the back stage from where I was at!). Once I moved over there, the effect was mesmerizing. Each puppet is so intricate!

After the performance, the young man followed me out and introduced himself as Daniel, owner of the theatre and the museum. His card actually says " Puppeters Family" - he comes from a long line of puppet-makers. He explained to me how each puppet is handmade from buffalo skin (not the leather part, but a stiffer layer) and showed me the raw materials and the tools they use for carving all the intricate holes.

He explained that the plays vary from island to island and culture to culture, but are mostly moral fairy tales. The mainstay characters are King Rama and his wife Sita, plus various gods that come down to earth in various forms to teach sneaky lessons. Originally, the king had used this medium to share with the masses laws and other information.

Daniel took me the rest of the way through the museum and showed me puppets from all over the world (punch and judy, marionettes donated by Francois Mitterand, a unicorn puppet from Bill Clinton, Polish, Russian, Thai, Cambodian and other SE nation shadow puppets). There were even Christian shadow puppets of Adam and Eve (plus the devil, of course). As if to underscore the universality of using puppetry to spread messages, Daniel also showed me puppets he had been commissioned to make (and then travel throughout southern Africa) with, to impart tales of health, hygiene and family planning. I was so glad he was there to explain everything to me - otherwise the entire trip would've been a loss. I kindly turned down his sales pitch for hand made puppets, but was no soured by the experience. His information was truly more valuable to me!

Truly one of the highlights of my time here in Jakarta.

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