March 29, 2012

0160 INDONESIA (Java) - Wayang puppet theatre (UNESCO ICH)

Although is only the 13th largest island in the world (and the 5th in Indonesia), Java is the most populous (with 135,000,000 inhabitants), hosting 60% of the Indonesian population. Much of Indonesian history took place on this island, which was the center of powerful Hindu-Buddhist empires, the Islamic sultanates, and the core of the colonial Dutch East Indies, but also the center of the Indonesian struggle for independence during the 1930s and 40s.

Despite its large population and in contrast to the other larger islands of Indonesia, Java is comparatively homogeneous in ethnic composition, the majority consisting of only three ethnic groups, two native (the Javanese and Sundanese), and one immigrated from Madura to the north east coast of the island (the Madurese). Because of its location along ancient trading routes between the Far East and the Middle East, the culture of Indonesia is a complex mixture between original indigenous customs and multiple foreign influences, the most important being Indian, Arabic, Chinese, and European. As a result, each of the 300 ethnic groups who live in the approximately 17,508 Indonesian islands, developed over centuries their own cultural identity.

One of the most original cultural manifestations in Java and Bali is wayang (literally "theatre" or sometimes "puppet"), the term being derived from Javanese word for shadow (or ghost). A unique form of this traditional theatre, employing light and shadow, is wayang kulit, designated by UNESCO, in 2003, as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, under the name The Wayang Puppet Theatre.  The puppets are handcrafted from leather (kulit means skin), carefully chiselled, and supported by buffalo horn hided and mounted on bamboo sticks. When held up behind a piece of white cloth, with an electric bulb or an oil lamp as the light source, shadows are cast on the screen. Wayang kulit plays are based on romantic tales, especially adaptations of the classic Indian Mahabharata and Ramayana, but also on local happenings or other indigenous secular stories. Of course, the stories ends always with the victory of good over evil.

I find it extremely interesting that this form of theater was born from a need. As you know, in Islam the display of God or gods in human form is prohibited, so when this religion began spreading in Indonesia (now more than 90% of the Javanese are Muslims) wayang was forbidden, even for kings. Previous, when Hinduism arrived in Indonesia from India, it changed the wayang in order to spread their religion, mostly by stories from ancient Sanskrit epics. The Muslims wanted to do the same thing, so to observe the law and keep in the same time wayang, the religious leaders converted the wayang golek (rod puppets) into wayang purwa made from leather, and displayed only the shadow instead of the figures itself. Wonderful.

The genius behind the entire performance is the dalang (the master puppeteer), who sits behind the screen and narrates the story (he decides the direction of the story), accompanied by a traditional orchestra (singers and musicians who play complex melodies on bronze instruments and gamelan drums). A very interesting and personal description of a play you can read here.

Among the main characters who are used in stories are the five Pandava brothers, ie Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva. Arjuna, the one depicted on the postcard sent by Rere (thanks from the bottom of my heart, Rere), whose name means "bright", "shining", "white" or "silver", is the son of the king of gods, Indra, and Kunti, wife of king Pandu of Kuru. I feel that I start to "lose" you, so I will not continue with the details, which you can find here, anyway. I add only what is written on the postcard: "Extremely handsome, frequently attracts many women. Very skillful archer, he even called as Jishnu the Undefeatable. He owned a magnificent bow Gandeeva and divine arrows Pasupata."

Today, wayang is both the most ancient and most popular form of puppet theatre in the world, and I don't think there is anyone who wouldn't like to see such a show. The puppet figures differ from a place to the other, the ones from the city of Surakarta (Solo) and city of Yogyakarta, in Central Java, being most famous and the most commonly imitated. Bali produces more compact and naturalistic figures, and Lombok has figures representing real people. The handwork involved in making a wayang kulit figure that is suitable for a performance takes several weeks, with the artists working together in groups. This postcard was published in Malang, a city in East Java, so likely that the puppet depicted in the image is from the same area.

The stamps are also wonderful, both being part of a series of 4, Year of the Dragon (Naga Tahun), issued on January 15, 2012.

sender: Yenny Rere Andreastuti (direct swap)
sent from Balikpapan (Indonesia), on 13.03.2012
Wayana puppets postcard collection / Malang

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