“I’m just happy to create,” says Purbo Asmoro, a living treasure of Indonesian shadow puppetry. Born in East Java in 1961, Purbo embodies not only the legacy behind his immense skill — the performances of which are called wayang — but he is also one of the art’s most creative practitioners. As a dhalang, or “master of shadows,” his duty is threefold: directing the gamelan ensemble that accompanies his singing and the action it describes; reciting dialogue and story; and manipulating the puppets themselves. Not surprisingly, Purbo comes from a long line of puppeteers whose traditions he has expanded. His innovations run the gamut from the practical (he designs some of the sets used during performance, composes, and choreographs) to the political (introducing leading female characters in an attempt to equalize gender relations in this otherwise male-dominated tradition).
Audience members were treated to an overture as they walked into the venue — calls and responses over a drone provided by the Gamelan Mayangkara, an ensemble of gongs, percussion and voices under the masterful direction of Wakidi Dwidjomartono. The sounds were as lulling as they were exciting, putting us in a frame of mind unlike anything experienced in Bailey Hall this season. Some were perhaps surprised to notice that we were behind the screen where the shadows work their magic. This practice has come about due to audience preferences in Indonesia, where viewers like to admire the beauty of the puppets themselves. To compensate, the shadows were provided by a clever projection on the left half of a large screen above the stage. The screen’s right half revealed another surprise in the form of a simultaneous translation by Cornell alumna Kathryn Emerson ’83, who typed in real time as Purbo worked his vocal stylings. Every performance has variations and this method is the only way they can be shared abroad. The fact that Emerson is the sole person in the world qualified to do this only underscored the privilege of being there.
A rousing hit of gamelan and drums introduced us to the story proper. Our sorrowful protagonist was Arjuna, one of five brothers featured in the Indian Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. Banished to a forest for his immoral behaviors, Arjuna finds solace in meditation and reflects on the error of his ways. He rejects his past and desires instead to become of use to the world.
Meanwhile, Niwatakawaca, a malicious ogre king possessed of arrogance as unwieldy as his name, professes his love for the goddess Supraba. As he repulses us with his dreams of attaining her, he engages in a “generic macho dance that ogres do.” His advisors warn him against this infatuation. “A horse can’t marry a duck,” informs one. “The poor duck. Think about it.” Adds another, in a juxtaposition of bawdy humor and insight characteristic of Purbo’s delivery, “Do you really love her, or do you just want to control her?” Yet Niwatakawaca will not heed them and vows to accomplish the impossible by conquering the heavens and taking Supraba for himself, but hears tell of a mortal, none other than Arjuna, who stands in his way. Niwatakawaca demands that the mortal be brought to him and sends his troops heavenward.
The ensuing battle scenes brought out a wonder in all and were infinitely more thrilling than any clash on screen or stage. To this end, Purbo kept the action sonically rich with the clanging of the keprak, metal plates played by the feet for the sake of emotional punch and as a means of signaling the gamelan players to match his timing.
Facing certain death amid this clamor, the gods call upon Arjuna, but first test him with three temptations, all of which he passes. Arjuna is promised great rewards for his dedication and battles with Niwatakawaca, using Supraba to bring out his weakness: an amulet in the roof of his mouth that becomes exposed when he laughs with pleasure at the seeming success of his conquest, only to fall prey to Arjuna’s arrow.
In between all of this was a comic interlude. Utilizing only a fraction of the usual 60-plus minutes, Purbo showed off his improvisational flair with a few good-natured jabs at Cornell (“founded on a lonely hill in the middle of nowhere”) and its gorges (“which now have fences”). These, along with a surprise appearance by an Obama puppet (“Look at his shoes,” says a groveler. “Made in Indonesia?”), had us laughing at every turn before Purbo waxed thankful on the efforts of those without whom wayang would never have been “something for the world to own.”
In context Purbo’s performances can last for hours, sometimes through the night, and I doubt anyone in attendance would have complained had he done so. In this regard he is clearly a holistic thinker who takes his audience into consideration: everything from the sounds to the visuals must fit like wing to bird and beyond like bird to sky. And although between performances at home and abroad Purbo teaches at the Indonesian Institute of Arts, I would venture to say that his performances are equally instructive in what they say about life. In his own words: “The mission of wayang is to present moral messages. The entertainment aspect adds spice to the moral aspect, the main values in life: loyalty, heroism, messages for good.”