September 6, 2012


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When we think of puppet shows, we often think of children’s entertainment — humorous and endearing visual narratives with some cleverly disguised moral in the hope that our children will become well-rounded citizens. For me, shadow puppets bring to mind the tried and tested tactics for making your kids “Go the fuck to sleep!” (narration by Samuel L. Jackson not needed) or providing some form of entertainment when the power goes out, especially if that’s a regular occurrence (fond memories of Grandma’s house in the Dominican Republic). So I was surprised to learn that shadow puppetry has been practiced for centuries. The earliest references to this ancient art form have been found on Central Javanese stone inscriptions from the early 10th century, according to Elizabeth Emrich grad, history of art. Emrich was instrumental in the curation of Shadowlands: Arjuna’s Meditative Journey at The Johnson Museum. Here, you will find many colorful and unique representations of this Indonesian tale adapted from the Mahabharata, the famous Hindu epic. The exhibition was curated by students from the Shadowplay seminar taught by Prof. Kaja McGowan, history of art.

The ornately decorated Javanese and Balinese puppets are early to mid-20th century examples of the Indonesian art form of shadow puppetry or wayang. The puppets are made of cured water buffalo hide and horn by dalang, puppeteers who have received training in the art of wayang from a very young age. They are shaped and painted according to each character’s wanda, the aesthetic conventions of the character they are meant to portray — often deities and demigods of the local Javanese or Balinese folklore. Paper-thin and two-dimensional, the puppets resemble meticulously detailed stencils. At first glance, their slender and bony frames almost rekindle childhood nightmares. The imagined silhouette would be something with a slightly hunched back and slitted eyes — vaguely human in shape, but exuding a sinister aura. However, on a closer look, you will appreciate the infinitesimal details that the craftsman probably agonized over for hours. Delicate filigree cut-out patterns adorn their garb and prove instrumental in the real visual delight of shadow play. The puppets are so thin it’s a wonder they don’t tear at the puppet master’s slightest manipulation of a limb. Their colors of black, white, gold and red are vital in understanding the characters’ representation.  A white puppet possess youth, beauty and inexperience. A black-faced puppet indicates the maturity and coveted wisdom attained through many hours of meditation and spiritual connection. A gold puppet exudes the regality and esteem often associated with the black face of spiritual maturity. Representations of Arjuna’s Meditative Journey from Balinese and Javanese culture also include the mediums of embroidered story cloths and paintings that feature recognizably human depictions of Arjuna and the accompanying characters. They also seem to involve more creative license as the colors used like pink, green, yellow, orange and purple contrast with the common earth tones used in painting the puppets.

As for the famous epic, Arjuna’s story is one of spiritual resolve, temptation and filial piety. He embarks on a meditational quest, hoping to gain the enlightenment needed to defeat a rival family. Whilst meditating, he is seduced by seven celestial nymphs. Keeping his resolve, Arjuna continues to meditate. He awakens to defend the most beautiful nymph from the lust of an evil titan, succeeds and is rewarded by being allowed to marry all of the celestial nymphs, and yes, this includes seven times the wedding rites. His sojourn in “paradise” is short, however, as Arjuna decides that he must get back to his earthly family and the responsibilities in that realm. Sounds like a lot to process for your average puppet show? As Emrich explains, these traditional narratives involve characters that the Javanese and Balinese know from childhood, and this appeal extends into adulthood as the narratives evolve in their context and maturity, just as real life becomes more and more hectic, “They’re complicated stories, and the layers of complexity in character interactions become more nuanced as you rack up more of your own life experiences.” It’s almost as if the stories grow up with you.

In this cultural context, the stories and characters are never very far away from one’s life. Wayang shows are usually performed in rural areas to mark important religious and social events such as births and marriages. Traditional shows run all night and are accompanied by live music. The show itself is a multi-dimensional experience, as Emrich explains, “The way the puppets are carved and decorated is actually quite important for the puppet show, especially when they are seen from the shadow side.  Light is stationed behind the puppets, and then the … dalang manipulates them in front of a translucent screen, so that all you see are the shadow outlines of the figures. The filigree becomes a lace shadow, which is pretty amazing looking. The painted decoration on the puppets is important for the audience watching from the puppeteer’s side, so that they don’t see the shadows, but rather the puppets themselves.”

Wayang is enjoyed by all social classes but at the wedding of a wealthy person, formal guests may be invited to sit on the shadow side of the show. I left the exhibit wondering what a wayang show would look like, ultimately deciding that I’d like to be on the puppeteer’s side, viewing the puppets in their true, vibrantly painted forms. I just couldn’t imagine my childhood shadow puppet bunny on such complex a meditative journey. It just wouldn’t feel right.

Original Author: Katherine Carreno