Arya shakes his head when asked about who Kresna from the Baratayuda is while he browses the Wayang Museum in Kota, West Jakarta.
“Sorry, no idea,” the 17-year-old high school student from SMAN 78 high school in Kemanggisan, West Jakarta, says. “But I know the actor Krisna Murti!” he adds, giggling.
For many, wayang (puppets) convey images of old culture and alien heroes. Kresna, Arjuna or Bima as well as Rama and Shinta are hazily remembered, in contrast to Superman or Batman.
However, the stories of wayang contain a profound philosophy applicable to contemporary life. Kurawa’s troops, for example, still personify greed and lust, just as Pandawa’s knights embody benevolence, gallantry and patriotism.
A complete performance of wayang, be it wayang kulit (shadow puppets) or wayang orang (human puppets), is the result of sophisticated and delicate arts in playing the karawitan (gamelan orchestra), poetry, leather puppet crafting and wardrobe.
Wayang appeared locally in the first century after the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism in Indonesia.
The Gedangan inscription from 860 and the Penampihan inscription dated 898 described wayang in society, while the undated Wukajana inscription from the time of Sri Maharaja Rakai Watukura Dyah Balitung Sri Dharmodaya Mahasambu (899 – 911) of the Matarams mentioned a person named Galigi as a puppet player.
Since then, wayang has been used as a medium to spread moral values and religion, to convey messages from authorities as well as for entertainment.
In Indonesia, wayang has becomes a dynamic entity, evolving in accordance with various times and places, resulting in various types of puppets on display at the museum.
The museum, built in 1640, was once used as a church named “De Oude Holandsche Kerk”.
After several changes of mission over the centuries, the building
was officially established as the Wayang Museum by then-Jakarta governor Ali Sadikin on Aug. 13, 1975.
Budi Susanto, the head of exhibition and education section of Museum Wayang, says that a lack of resources holds the museum back.
“With only 10 personnel, it is difficult for us to make the best out of the museum,” Budi says. “A museum’s primary purpose is to safeguard and preserve its collections, then comes display, research and education. If only we had more resources, we hope we could open on public holidays.”
Budi wants the collection to do more than gather dust. “Without performances, our collections will remain as lifeless puppets without spirit. This is our effort to preserve the intangible heritage of wayang, to apply its philosophy in our everyday life.
He continues. “We conduct joint shows with foreign performers, and regular shows with local dalang [puppeteers] throughout the year on weekly basis.”
On display are the familiar wayang kulit leather puppets from Bali; from Banyumas and Surakarta, Central Java; and from Yogyakarta.
There are also the wayang golek three-dimensional wooden puppets made by the Sundanese people of West Java and hand-painted beber scrolls.
Look for the more esoteric wayang, such as the wayang kancil, created by Lie Too Hien, a Chinese resident of the Dutch colony, in 1925, and depicting regular people and animals.
There’s also wayang revolusi (revolutionary puppets), used by officials in Indonesia’s early days to promote the new republic, featuring puppets that show peasants and soldiers and men in Sukarno-esque white suits and black peci.
Visitors can also spot wayang intan (diamond puppets), and wayang suket, puppets woven from grassmade by young herders while enjoying free time in the fields.
Nyi Sri Sulansih and Sri Rahayu Setiowati are women dalang who frequently present such different wayang at the museum.
Also on display are wayang sadat made by Suryadi Warnosuharjo from Klaten, Central Java in 1985 to spread Islam, and wayang wahyu made by Brother Wignyosubroto and his friends in 1960 to preach Christianity.
One gunungan features Adam, Eve and the Devil in the Garden of Eden before The Fall. Another depicts the fires of hell.
In the end, the museum offers residents of Jakarta a relative rarity in the city: a respite from malls.
Patrons can view rare wayang puppets behind glass displays, while also deepening their knowledge of the nation’s rich cultural heritage, reading books in the museum’s library, watching frequent performances and joining workshops on puppetry and puppet crafting.
While getting to the museum, which is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., involves braving traffic and floods (even during the dry season), parking is not a problem.
Travelling by Transjakarta, however, might be your best bet: Corridor 1 runs from Blok M through the Central Business District to nearby Kota station, a five minute walk from the city’s historic heart.