On December 5, students and a few members of the greater community came together to explore the art form wayang kulít, Javanese shadow-puppetry, presented by students and faculty at the World Music Hall. The piece performed was a traditional one called “Bimå Pakså,” or “Bimå Assumes the Priesthood.” Through music and theater, the piece tells the story of Bimå, brother to a king named Arjunå, who declares himself a priest and teaches from a mountain. The puppeteer (or dhalang) was Professor Sumarsam, an Adjunct Professor of Music. The dhalang not only controls a host of puppets, but also provides sound effects, narration, and some of the singing that is integral to the performance. Sumarsam was kind enough to answer some of our questions about wayang by email.
Argus: Professor Sumarsam, can you give us a brief overview of what wayang kulít is and what role it plays in Javanese society?
Sumarsam: Traditionally, wayang kulít is performed to accompany all sorts of rites of passage (a wedding celebration, the birth of a child, etc.) and community events, such as the cleansing of a village. In contemporary Indonesia, wayang is also performed to celebrate our independence day, broadcast by radio stations and on television, and used as a tool for campaigns of a political party.
A: How did you, personally, become involved in gamelan and shadow puppet performance? What has made you continue to pursue it?
S: I was 7 years old when I started learning gamelan in my village in East Java. Then after finishing junior high, I enrolled as a student at the gamelan conservatory in Surakarta (Central Java). I learned the art of puppetry at the conservatory. Although I trained more as a gamelan musician/teacher, I have acquired enough knowledge to be a puppeteer. I remember my first performance as a puppeteer performing an all-night wayang (usually 9 pm to 5 am), I almost lost my voice at around 2 am.
A: What made you decide on “Bimå Pakså” as the piece to be performed last weekend? Is there a particular reason?
S: In Java, a certain story is performed for a certain event. For example, a story about a marriage of an important character is appropriate for a wedding celebration, etc. The sponsor of the performance discusses with the puppeteer what story is to be presented. Here, I choose the story. I have no particular reason, except that this was the first time I presented “Bimå Pakså.”
A: How has your experience working with the Wesleyan Gamelan Ensemble been? How did that group come about, in any case?
S: Wesleyan Gamelan Ensemble is not really a “professional company,” instead it is a performance study group of Javanese gamelan. Members of the group consist mostly of undergrad and grad students, who have taken a beginning gamelan class. Some students have been in the group for two years or more. There are a number of graduate students and university staff who have been playing for many years (they are our core members). The group is directed by [artist in residence] Mr. Harjito and myself. Mrs. Harjito is always present as a singer in our performances. In order to reach the level of performance you saw last weekend, we have four hours of rehearsal per week (two hours per class on Monday and Thursday evening).
A: So we know there are courses on the gamelan—are there ever any courses that focus on wayang kulít puppetry performance?
S: No, we don’t have any performance course on Indonesian puppetry (I am not sure if there will be students interested in it) but periodically I offer a course called “Music and Theater of Indonesia,” a survey course on traditional music and theater, focusing on Java and Bali. The class spends a considerable amount of time discussing wayang kulít and wayang wong (dance drama based on wayang kulít).
A: Is there anything else you’d like to say about wayang kulít, Javanese music, or anything at all?
S: It has been a challenge for me to perform wayang kulít that can be accessible to our American audience. I choose certain characters speaking in English, to be able to communicate with the audience what’s going on in the story. Noble characters speak in Javanese…Another way to do it is to perform wayang in Javanese with a simultaneous translation, or subtitle, but we don’t have an interpreter who can do this.
A: Just one last question: why are the puppets always so beautifully painted when the audience never sees them?
S: Great question! I am assuming that there has been a progression from wayang with a simple painting to more complicated painting. Actually audience members have a choice to watch the performance from the puppet side or from the shadow side—from the puppet side means that you can enjoy the complexity of painting of the character. In any event, visual art is an important ingredient in wayang. A certain scene of a performance, there is no action, no movement of puppets; instead the puppets are planted on the screen in a stillness, to be enjoyed as painting, with the accompaniment of soft sounding music and narration in stylized language delivered by the dhalang.