Photo by Dallas & John Heaton
Ubud, the heartland of Balinese culture, is a great place to watch an ancient form of art: the Wayang Kulit, a shadow-puppet show.
The puppet show has been the equivalent of Bali’s cinema for centuries but its underpinnings are religious and the puppeteer, or “dalang”, offers prayers before every performance.
It is believed that he literally brings the puppets to life during the show, which is easy to understand when you see the skills of master-puppeteers such as Ida Bagus Putra Baruna, who I am lucky enough to meet. His one-dimensional shadow puppets, tooled out of water buffalo leather and held up by a wooden or buffalo horn handle, project phantasmagorical shadows onto a screen illuminated from behind by a coconut oil lamp.
“The belief is that humans only see the world as a mere reflection of the real thing,” he says. The puppets are highly stylized, making them easily identifiable, and the stories are also well known. Four clown puppets translate the Hindu sagas of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana into Balinese, adding comment and jokes.
The heat generated by the lamp makes the dalang sweat profusely. Speaking four languages, singing all the lines and operating all the characters while playing music with his feet, he holds a high status in the community. The puppets wait for their turn to perform resting on a banana tree-trunk representing earth and hierarchically aligned.
I ask Putra Baruna about the future of puppetry in Bali. He says: “As long as the Balinese stick to their traditions and ceremonies, puppets will not only survive but thrive. Puppeteers perform at traditional ceremonies and many are also learning English to perform for the tourists. Many big hotels ask us to put on shows. A good dalang can make a good living.”
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