With Muslim puppeteers and audiences and tales from Hindu mythology, Wayang Kulit is a tangible manifestation of Indonesia’s pluralism.

The audience numbered in the hundreds: mechanics and small retailers, office workers and academics, mingled as they squatted or stretched out on the dry lawn in front of the stage. Women wearing headscarves cradled children on their laps, whorls of spicy smoke floating above them, as their husbands chain-smoked clove cigarettes.

It was ten at night on a Thursday in South Tangerang, a suburb of Jakarta, and it wasn’t a popular band or comedian that the crowds had gathered to watch but rather, an extraordinary classical art form called wayang kulit. This is an Indonesian shadow puppet performance wherein ancient stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are brought to silhouetted life on a screen, using backlit figures cut from raw buffalo hide.

On this particular evening, a well-regarded dalang, or puppeteer, from East Java was performing the story of the birth of Rahwana (Ravana). The enactment had a hypnotic quality to it, with an energy that ebbed and flowed. Long lulls in the action when the dalang narrated the story, were suddenly interspersed by the singing of a female chorus, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra. The clashing and clanging of bronze gongs and xylophones, fused with the high-pitched singing to evoke a dream-like mood, pregnant with off-kilter possibilities. The performance lasted another three hours, being an abridged form of the full-length version that typically lasts the whole night, starting around nine pm and continuing on till four or five the next morning.

Wayang kulit has a history that stretches back over a thousand years. A copper plate from the central part of Java (Indonesia’s most populous island) that dates to 907 CE has been found, with an inscription describing a wayang performance featuring the story of Bimaya Kumara (Bhima’s adolescence). Hinduism made inroads into the islands of Java and Sumatra from early in the Christian era, as traders and priests from India travelled to the region. By the seventh century CE, Hindu kingdoms were dominant on both islands. Ever since, Hindu-Buddhist cultural norms have infused indigenous mores in these parts of Indonesia even after the local population largely converted to Islam in the 16th century, making for a startling syncretism that survives till today.

Wayang is the most tangible manifestation of Indonesia’s pluralism. Although 87 per cent of the country’s citizenry is Muslim, the imagery and idiom of Hindu epics is inextricably intertwined with the quotidian here. My local mechanic is called Rama Repairs, and my Muslim real estate agent is named Dewi. I discover a nation-wide charitable foundation for twins called the Nakula and Sadewa Society, and a support group for Indonesian women in mixed marriages named Srikandi (Shikhandi).

Wayang is, in fact, thought to have been used by the so-called Wali Songo, or the nine 15th century Islamic scholars credited with spreading Islam in Java. It is, similarly, also believed to have been used by Christian missionaries for proselytising. Wayang and politics have also long been enmeshed. From the Islamic sultans of Java to modern-day nationalists like Sukarno and military dictators like Suharto, wayang has been utilised as both a legitimising and oppositional political tool.

Even contemporary Islamist political parties like the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS) who have an explicit agenda to bring Indonesia in line with Shariat law, have been known to stage wayang performances in an attempt to boost their electoral fortunes. For example, the PKS organised a wayang centred on the life story of Bhima at the party’s national convention held in Jogjakarta in 2011.

In Indonesia, stories centred on Bhima are often used by so-called champions of the common people. During Suharto’s reign (1965-1998), Bhima’s struggle against a cannibal king who dined rapaciously on his subjects was commonly deployed as a means to express concern about the corrupt character of the regime. In Jogjakarta, the PKS used examples from Bhima’s life to draw analogies with contemporary corruption and the need for an honest entity (with Bhima-like characteristics), read the PKS, to enact change. And so an extraordinary situation was created whereby a political party with an ostensibly “Wahabi” ideology identified itself with Bhima in order to persuade people to vote for it.

This is not to say that Islamist hardliners have given wayang a completely free ride. Performances have occasionally been broken up by mobs accusing them of being unIslamic. And in 2011, four statues of wayang characters, including those of Bhima, Ghatotkacha and Nakula-Sahadeva, were destroyed in Purwakarta, a city in West Java.

But, despite these incidents, wayang in Indonesia remains a vibrant art form. Greg Churchill, an American lawyer who has lived in Indonesia for almost four decades and owns what is probably the largest private collection of wayang puppets in the country, says he remains surprised by “how alive” wayang culture remains. A host of Facebook pages and twitter feeds are devoted to the art form. And there is a feisty debate between dalangs and schools of performers, many of whom are taking wayang into new directions, by experimenting with both characters and form.

As part of his collection, Churchill also has traditional wayang puppets from Malaysia, a country where the art form used to be highly popular, particularly along the east coast. But in 1990 the northeastern state of Kelantan banned wayang kulit, for its “unIslamic” nature and, today, shadow puppet performances in Malaysia have largely been reduced to tourist curiosities. In Indonesia on the other hand, famous dalangs can still attract crowds that number in the tens of thousands. One such dalang is Ki Purbo Asmoro from the city of Solo, widely recognised as one of the top exponents of traditional wayang kulit in the country. He can command fees of up to IDR 120 million ($12,000) for a single performance and his calendar is booked up for months on advance.

To put this in perspective, one must imagine thousands of folk in England showing up to listen to an eight-hour long rendition of a Homeric epic in ancient Greek. Bahasa wayang or the language of wayang involves a mixture of several forms of Javanese including archaic, ancient Javanese called Kawi.

Purbo Asmoro points out that the audience may not get all the linguistic content of a performance but they will be familiar with the broad outlines of the stories and part of the enjoyment comes from the gathering itself. During a show people are not expected to sit quietly, but mill about, and chat. Indeed, at the wayang I attended in Tangerang, an itinerant masseur was busy kneading people’s back and shoulders, while food vendors were doing a brisk business selling roasted peanuts and sweet potatoes.

Purbo Asmoro is a Muslim, and his vast audiences are usually Muslim too. How do he and his fans reconcile their faith with the stories that he performs on stage? The dalang waves his hand dismissively. “These stories are allegorical. They are symbolic. None of us takes them as the literal truth,” he replies. Because Hindu Gods and Goddesses are shown in the epics as having human failings it is relatively easy to de-deify them and re-cast them as mortals involved in protracted moral plays. Moreover, the stories only confirm values that are affirmed by Islam, according to Purbo Asmoro. I ask for examples, and he mentions the loyalty, courage, and integrity of characters like Ghatotkacha and Bhima.

Islam, as practised in Java, has had a subtle influence on wayang stories. For instance in one of the Javanese versions of the Mahabharata, the five Pandava brothers are interpreted symbolically as the five fundamental principles (rukun) of Islam. Mystical elements of Sufism, which stress looking for God inside of oneself, have also seeped into many of the stories. But, it is Javanisation, rather than Islamisation, that accounts for most of the divergences between the original Indian epics and their Indonesian versions.

There are several characters unique to the Javanese versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata including important figures like Semar, a brother of Shiva, who is sent to earth in disgrace and gives advice to mortals and Gods alike. Different Javanese renditions also develop embellishments and distinctive side-stories for well-established protagonists like Bhima and Arjuna. Draupadi, who in the Indian Mahabharata is famously married to all five Pandava brothers, is — in some Javanese versions — married monogamously to Yudhisthira. The examples of divergences are voluminous.

In fact, in the mid-19th century, Ronggowarsito, a poet from the royal palace in Solo in central Java, wrote a history that traced the lineage of Javanese kings to the Pandavas, with the result that people came to believe that the epics were situated in Java, rather than India. It’s still not uncommon for people to be convinced that places like Kurukshetra and Mt. Meru are located somewhere in Java, and Indonesians have a real sense of ownership over these stories.

And so I received instruction from Pak Suharto, an observant Muslim, who is my driver, about an episode from the Ramayana. At the Tangerang wayang, he had joined the audience. Later, as we drove back home, he was agog with excitement. “I am too much liking Rahwana, madam,” he grinned, taking his hands off the wheels, alarmingly, and holding up 10 fingers. “Do you know that he is dasamukha? It means, he has 10 heads.”

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