New Straits Times, 8 March 1997: "Getting a grip on shadow play."

David Irvine, Leather Gods & Wooden Heroes: Java’s Classical Wayang. Times Editions, 360 pages.

review by Otto Steinmayer

Modern Malaysia has put much distance culturally between itself and its past. Just how much, you can see in the language. Not so long ago, any dramatic entertainment on a screen was wayang. We had wayang gambar, wayang panggung. Outdoor shows in the days when the Ministry of Information still hauled around 16 mm projectors and a bedsheet were wayang padang. I remember my late mother-in-law talking about wayang video and wayang katun. Nowadays we have replaced all these primitive linguistic stopgaps with the true and elegant terms: rancangan, for example, and filem, which certainly expresses the dignity proper to that medium.

    Wayang itself is of course the shadow play. A swathe of white cloth is stretched out on a frame. A swinging lamp with a wick in coconut oil burns behind it. The dalang, master of the show, takes in his hand one of the delicately cut and filigreed puppets, thin sheets of kerbau leather mounted on sticks of the same animal’s horn, and presses it against the screen. The musicians, few or many, strike up a tune, the dalang chants, and the play begins.

    The wayang, or wayang kulit, is indigenous to Southeast Asia, and to China, and is probably thousands of years old, although we first read about it in 10th century texts. The original meaning of the word wayang is disputed. Maybe ‘shadow,’ but some people think ‘ancestor’, and say that the shadow-play was first of all a shaman’s evocation of the gods and forefathers of the tribe. That’s plausible, though I don’t see any reason that it couldn’t have been just as much an entertainment as a rite, no matter how long ago it began.

    David Irvine is an Australian diplomat who served long in Indonesia. His love for wayang and Javanese traditional culture appears on every page of Leather Gods. It is a beautiful book, lavishly illustrated with drawings of the characters of wayang’s populous world, and with many colour photographs of exquisitely painted and gilded puppets from the heirloom collections of the Solo and Yogyakarta kratons.

    Leather Gods is not a scholar’s book. To talk in depth about wayang—you might as well try in one book to talk comprehensively about Western traditional drama. And to the Javanese, wayang is much more than an entertainment, more than merely an art. Wayang for many Javanese is a medium for philosophical and moral thinking, a mirror of the world, a way of interpreting the world, and the central pusaka of the island. Irvine touches on all these aspects of wayang; he can do no more than touch. But as a introduction to the elements of wayang, and as a guide to the characters, stories and themes, Irvine excells.

    The Javanese and Balinese still love their shadow-play, and a good dalang can still make a living at it. Alas, Malaysia too had its wayang until not too long ago. Then the form came under suspicion as being religiously incorrect (what debate about this is going on in Java now I don’t know) and the few aging dalangs put away their puppets. What remnants bigotry didn’t kill have surely been smothered by Astro TV and other techno-delights. I’m afraid that the only wayang kulit most Malaysians have seen is the patch of parody that disgraces a certain cough-syrup commercial. Some performances are still arranged at scholarly venues, and if the studious are eager to see them, they will appreciate Irvine’s guide all the more.

    The stories of Javanese wayang are drawn from the ancient Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. These were early already thoroughly Javanised. The dalang treats the epics as the Greeks did Homer. Many tragedies can be made out of the Iliad, one episode of the huge Mahabharata provides one lakon. Irvine synopsizes the main strands.

    In addition there are other cycles of plays, based on Javanese mythic or more modern history, or—for kids—on the tales of Sang Kancil. The classic form is wayang kulit, with its leather puppets, but there is also wayang golek, performed with three-dimensional wooden puppets, and wayang wong, where the roles are danced by human actors.
The list of characters is enormous. Many of these, the Pandavas and Kuravas chief among them, will be familiar to those who know the Indian stories, others belong to Java. Of these the clowns, servants to Arjuna and other royalty, are the favorites. The Javanese especially love ugly, fat old Semar, who is the Guardian God of Java himself, his divinity belied by his appearance. His sons are just as divine, and just as deliciously vulgar.

    No one fails to read a moral in this, and indeed, part of the fascination the wayang provides for the Javanese is how it operates as a system for the analysis and classification of human character. The permanent theme of wayang stories is the conflict of good and evil. The characters range themselves into good and evil sides, but individually, none of them is free from a mix of the qualities. A noble man can be ruined by his cunning, while a raksasa demon can display heroic virtue.

    Unwillingly I’m sure, Irvine pays so much attention to the stories and characters that he gives the impression that wayang is a desert of dry speech rather than a rainforest juicy with music. A lifetime ago in the US, I played and sang in the Javanese gamelan at Wesleyan University, directed by the learned Dr. Sumarsam, who is also a dalang. Once a year we would put on a full wayang performance, smaller performances happened throughout the year, and I had the honour of assisting at several.

    Music flows through wayang from beginning to end. While the spectators sit down, the gamelan plays an ouverture in three parts, suggesting the three acts of the play. A wayang begins with a scene of an audience at the court of one of the mythical kingdoms, in the vigourous mode of nem. The night moves on, the action progresses to the more troubled mode of sanga, to end joyously in the serene dawn mode manyura.

    Wayang offers the most elaborate assembly of Javanese musical styles. Every variety gets a hearing: chanting with flute, involved halus compositions, and the stock accompaniments to marches and battles. In the clown scenes we liked to play one of the lively popular songs written by the late Ki Nartosabdho, such as “Swara Suling.” For one performance, Pak ‘Marsam did an arrangement of “Singing in the Rain,” to which the clowns danced, opening little puppet umbrellas. Wayang, like Java, absorbs and transforms outside material.

    If it’s impossible to describe music, equally impossible for Irvine to describe the skill of a good dalang, the way he imitates the different voices of the different characters, high and squeaky or low and sonorous, and how he creates astonishing effects by moving the puppets nearer or farther from the screen, swinging the lamp. The extravagant battle-scenes, being played by puppets, appeal to the fantasy and always thrill where live-action kung-fu quickly palls.
To go see a wayang is itself a celebration, a pasar malam with culture. People gather sociably as it gets dark, if in a rural area loaded with equipment, mats and snacks and extra diapers, like people going to the beach. You can get up and wander around, watch behind the screen if you like, go get some peanuts or coffee, smoke a kretek, or snooze until your favorite part shows up. Kids cry, at least until it’s too late for them to keep awake, and people comment on the action. It’s okay to laugh loud at the jokes.

    It’s fun all around, and you may also be moved. Read Irvine and enjoy his pictures, and bear his intro to the basics in mind for the time you too, reader, get to see a wayang.