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Dalang, The Puppet Master

October 22, 2008

Wayang Kulit shadow puppet performances are part of Indonesian village ceremonies. The tradition and plays are very old and come from the Ramayana. The dalang, the puppeteer, or the puppet master, manipulates the puppets, speaks their parts, and coordinates the puppets’ actions with the music.  He plays all the characters using many voices.

The puppets were complete artworks in themselves. Painted in minute detail, they also sported networks of intricate cutouts, adding depth to the projected shadows of stylized gods and demons. They moved at pivot joints, skillfully manipulated by the Dalang (puppet master). And being of leather, they were durable enough to show off near acrobatic moves in the fight scenes.

The dalang must be almost super-human. Performances can be up to nine hours long and for all that time the dalang sits cross-legged, telling the story and providing a voice for each puppet character; singing; moving the puppets; directing the gamelan orchestra and adding sound effects. The dalang must memorise lengthy dialogue and also be able to improvise about the local social and political situations. He may use up to 100 puppets in one performance. It is no wonder that the dalang is not only a respected and skilled artist, but is also thought to have a special spiritual dimension.

During a performance the dalang will sit cross-legged in front of the screen, holding a kechrek or rattle with his right foot, and using it to strike the kotak or box just to his left almost continuously, accompanying the story and guiding the orchestra.

A wayang performance usually takes place at night, often starting after 9:00pm and continuing until dawn – as much as nine hours! This is a social occasion for the audience, and a chance to relax with friends and family. Since they often know the traditional story well, they may sleep, eat or talk during the less exciting parts. A typical performance may be held as a celebration or major community event. Families come to the performance prepared to spend a long time enjoying each others company as well as enjoying the story.

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. The dissemination of these messages still draws large crowds to wayang performances. Yet only around 10 people graduate each year with a dalang major from ISI, with many dropping out before graduation due to difficulties in finding performance materials or for financial reasons.

Many dalangs are born into the profession and learn by working from early childhood with their parents. Although many dalangs are male, there are a few female dalangs. Being a dalang is a lifelong calling, passed down through particular families.

 

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