Unlike what many think, wayang is not frozen in time. Even as a remembrance of tradition, shadow puppetry continues to be a vehicle for politics.
Modern-day wayang (shadow puppet) performances often feature tremulous, not-to-scale shadows and disembodied music emanating from behind a screen.
Audiences no longer glimpse the hand-carved buffalo-hide puppets that enact characters from revered epics, the gamelan or the dalang (puppet masters) whose hands and oration suffuse the room in the mysticism of another era.
Traditionally, puppets were backlit by a flickering fire that made their shadows “breathe”. “One thing that hasn’t changed in wayang today is the importance of the message within a play,” says John McGlynn, editor, translator and the brains behind Wayang for the World, a compendium of literature and audio-visual materials for the study of wayang and the development of its dramatic structure.
Originally, performances began with court scenes depicting monarchs and policymakers debating socio-economic issues.
An interim of arbitration, flavored with comic relief, preceded the final battle, when the crisis at hand — be it corruption, poverty, disease or terrorism — was revealed a metaphor for inner turmoil (for instance, the prince’s battle with the ogre Cakil in The Grand Offering of the Kings connotes the prince’s “uncontrolled desires and emotions”, according to star puppeteer Purbo Asmoro).
The best-for-last format, however, meant that repetition was rife and plotlines were revealed five hours into a seven-hour staging.
Purbo pioneered garapan, or contemporary-interpretive style, which features a cut-to-the-chase dramatic structure that eliminated the court scenes and comedic interludes for which wayang was known.
Asmoro’s mission was the ultimate challenge, for the idea was not to cut short the all-night duration (as condensed versions of wayang have done) but to extract what was important.
McGlynn, working with translator and classical musician Kathryn Emerson, has charted these developments in six books based on six performances by Purbo Asmoro to compare the classical, contemporary-interpretive and condensed (shortened) styles.
The books contain dialogue transcribed from live performances of two most-popular wayang episodes, Sesaji Raja Suya (The Grand Offering of the Kings) and Makutharama (Rama’s Crown) based on the Indian epic Mahabharata concerning a feud between two families vying for control of the kingdom of Astina.
Kathryn Emmerson, an American fluent in Javanese who has worked with Purbo as a simultaneous translator and transcriptionist for over ten years, rendered the texts in Indonesian and English.
“This is the first central Javanese wayang that has been recorded in its entirety with subtitles in English — and all the [transcriptions],” said Emerson. “There have been books with no video, there’s been video with no subtitles, there’s been video with no books. This is everything.”
“It’s a living tradition. People change, traditions have to change. The point of this is not to keep things intact. It’s to record what is happening in time,” McGlynn, chiming in, explained.
The accompanying videos show puppet master Purbo in action, filmed by three cameras — one “behind” the screen with the dalang, musicians and singers, one in “front” on the shadow side best-known today and another roving.
The “right” side of the screen for spectators of wayang has always been ambiguous, notes Emerson.
“In the Soeharto New Order era, lots of big, important officials wanted to be visible on plush chairs at these concerts, so it switched to the other side.”
Alternating camera views allow for further comparison, which is bound to be educational for the new-generation dalang who are unused to having audiences watch them directly from behind.
Although the project, initially slated to take two years, has guzzled six, universities such as Berkeley, Cornell and Wisconsin are clamoring for copies of the educational package to serve faculties concerned with Southeast Asian studies, anthropology, visual arts and theater.
Additionally, McGlynn notes, this is the tenth anniversary of UNESCO’s proclaiming wayang as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”, “so in a way we’re kind of building it back.”