Beyond the Shadow Screen

We'd heard about a shadow play that was happening that evening in the village of Pengosekan, just to the south of Ubud. Pak Wija - one of the most famous dalangs of Bali - was going to be giving a shadow play for the locals in the banjar hall. We drove from Petulu back to Pengosekan as the evening grew dark, and made our way to the banjar hall, which was festooned with the, by now, familar "fish bone" ceiling hangings of palm leaves, cut into decorative patterns.

The importance of the shadow play (wayang kulit) goes very deep in Balinese and Indonesian culture - the shadow play probably predates most dramatic performance with human actors. It has been said that the shadow screen symbolically separates the daily humdrum world of the Balinese from the world of the gods as they play out their eternal battles between good and evil. It is behind the shadow screen that the real business of the universe is conducted - our own world is a pale and inconsequential reflection of the great universal dramas that take place beyond the screen - although these dramas reflect the internal struggles within us all, between right and wrong, of following the virtuous path or succumbing to the temptations of greed. The screen symbolizes an interface between the world of the natural and the world of the supernatural - a veil that can be pierced through meditation and trance - allowing brief visits into the realm of the gods.

The dalang or shadow-master is virtually a channeler, who through extensive spiritual studies and meditation, can bridge the two worlds and bring the dramas of the gods to play in front of the flickering lamp.

It was probably about 9 o'clock when the play started - it was pitch dark outside, and the banjar hall, open to the elements, was illuminated solely by the flickering light from the oil lamp behind the shadow screen. The hall was filled with local Balinese, including lots of families with kids, as well as several westerners who seemed to be mainly from the local ex-pat community.

The play began with gamelan music from musicians behind the screen, and the shadow puppets were taken from their box one by one and waved across the screen. Then a series of trees, palms, and lush undergrowth was produced to create a setting on either side of the screen. Finally the symbolic "Tree of Life" defining major scene changes within the play was waved across the screen, and planted into the banana log that lay along the foot of the screen.

The first characters to appear as the action began were members of the high castes - princes and rulers. They chanted and sang in the ancient Kawi language, used for high ritual and religious ceremonies, and generally not understood by the common Balinese (just as the ancient Latin language is still used today in some Christian rituals in the West). After some time, two other characters were introduced - Delum (also known as Twalen) and Sangut - two lowly clownish servants of the high characters, who speak in Balinese and who serve to interpret the action to the local audience (and who also speak some English for the benefit of the tourists). They also provide comic relief, cracking ribald jokes and having the audience rolling in the aisles in no time (except there were no aisles - the audience just sits on the floor). "Excuse me, my English is not so good", one of them apologizes when he cannot find the words to explain something. "Maybe if I get an American girlfriend my English will improve!".

Despite their clownish activities and boorish manners, Delum and Sangut turn out to be full of wisdom. They deliver fascinating dialogs on the nature of truth, life and death, and what is really important in this world and the next. It reminded me a lot of the morality plays of the early Christian church, where dramatic performances were used to present moral and religious concepts to probably illiterate villagers in a compelling and understandable way. "What is life? What is death?", the characters say. "Life is when the body and the spirit are together. Death is when the body and the spirit are apart. The spirit is what's important. The body is nothing - it is just garbage! Like a cup of coffee. You put coffee in the cup and it's a cup of coffee. You put tea in the cup and it's a cup of tea. It's what is in the cup that's important, that is all".

The story unfolds as we learn that the king, Arji Dharma ("The Teacher of the Truth") is puzzled at the unusual amount of sickness and death that has been occurring in his villages. The animals seem to be attacking the villagers. Is it because they haven't been making the appropriate offerings, or the right daily prayers? He decides to travel out into the country to investigate, bringing with him his faithful servants.

It was quite alright to crawl around the side of the screen to watch the dalang at work behind the screen. The oil-lamp blazed above Pak Wija's head, and was topped up with fresh oil periodically to keep the lamp bright. The puppets are made of buffalo leather, pierced with perforations to give detail to the shadows. Pak Wija's assistants sit either side of him, and pass him the puppets as they are needed, making sure that all their articulated limbs move freely and that the sticks that control their movement are not tangled, and then take them from him once they are done. The dalang punctuates his speech with sharp taps of a wooden ball held in his foot against the puppet box to his left, to add dramatic effect.

After a long and hilarious episode in which the animals are presented, brilliantly constructed puppets, some with strange articulations that make it sometimes seem that they can completely change shape, and a particularly lewd scene involving mating frogs - lots of them! - we learn that the animals have been angered by the amount of pollution that people have been bringing to their environment. "Many many animals killed, and many many fish killed because of poison", spits the king.

Behind the dalang sat the musicians of the gamelan. Normally the shadow play is accompanies by a set of gender wayang - about four metallophones, each played with two hammers and damped with the side of the hand. Tonight was rather unusual - a more complete gamelan was accompanying the performance, including a pair of drummers and instruments of the gong kebyar. The players seemed as transfixed as the audience.

The king, now understanding the dangers of pollution and the importance of preserving the natural environment and maintaining the proper balance between the needs of man and the needs of nature, resolves to put things straight, and returns back to his palace. All is well, the balance is restored.

The action alternates between spoken scenes with little or no music (save maybe for the mysterious slow gentle ding-dong-ding-dong of the genders as the dialog is spoken), interspersed with musical interludes. The musicians laugh at the ad-libs and bawdy jokes, and then pick up the music as the scene ends.

You can just about make out a pair of gender wayang instruments behind the drummer. The music jangled its way deep into the night, and the play finished around midnight.

It was a fabulous and thought-provoking performance, and we felt very privileged to have been able to see a performance by Pak Wija in such a perfect setting. But tomorrow we had to leave on our big trip to north Bali...

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Photos: Astrid, Martin and Julia Randall
All content copyright (c) 2001, Astrid, Martin and Julia Randall