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Javanese Import: a play of light and shadow

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In the villages of Java life is monotonously regular. On the equator the sun rises and sets at nearly the same times every day of the year, and dawn and dusk last only a few minutes. By early evening the sky is pitch black. Few of the homes are electrified, and most light is the kind that moves. Swinging gas lamps and darting beams from passing motor scooters send shadows wandering across palms, through gangways, and over rice fields. It's spooky enough at dinnertime, but late at night radios are turned on full blast for the wayang puppet plays and the sounds of gongs and wooden drums and the voices of ancient gods and heroes bounce off the bamboo walls of every house.

In east and central Java shadow puppet plays, or wayang kulit, are the most popular entertainment and the puppeteers are the top celebrities. When they come to a village for a show, they often drive in late model Mercedeses. Their popularity is hard-earned. A good puppeteer knows dozens of traditional plays and is an expert musician, erudite scholar, and outrageous comic. In performance, he is expected to entertain a crowd for eight hours straight, from late night until dawn, taking the parts of over 100 different characters, all with distinctive voices and mannerisms. The puppeteer also conducts the musical accompaniment. He's like a person who knows all the Shakespeare plays by heart and performs them solo while conducting an orchestra behind his back.

The puppets themselves are carved from the skin of Indonesian white water buffalo. They are brightly painted and perforated with pinholes in filigree patterns. Seen up close, they look solid, with motifs as intricate as those of a Persian miniature. When they're held behind the white linen screen of the stage, however, they look as if they were fashioned from fine lace. The puppeteer moves them between a bright flame and the screen, to and fro and from side to side to side. An ensemble of percussion instruments, the gamelan, accompanies the play. In battle scenes, the action gets frantic and the orchestra clangs metal to metal.

The puppet show's plays and characters are drawn from the two great Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, in which the balance of the cosmos teeters in conflicts between good and evil. Order, however, is the value Javanese hold above all others, and in the end it prevails. The puppet raised at the conclusion of each play is the Tree of Life, representing the natural harmony of all things.

Indonesia is an archipelago with 200 million people, and Java is its most populous island. Yet things Javanese are hard to come by in the U.S., even in multiethnic Chicago. That was not always so. During the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Dutch government, then Java's colonial overseer, transplanted an entire Javanese village and 130 villagers to the Midway. "The Java Village was one of the smash hits of the fair," says Dr. Bennett Bronson, a curator at the Field Museum. "There were puppet plays and gamelan music, and a very popular group of Javanese women dancers, who people found extremely refined and attractive." The Field Museum inherited the remnants of the Java Village after the fair, including a full complement of gamelan instruments, now considered one of the finest gamelans in the world. Bronson believes that the love affair with Javanese culture that began then was cut short by American isolationism.

Perhaps reflecting Americans' lack of interest in Indonesia, the Field Museum has kept much of its Javanese collection from public view. It did have its spectacular gamelan restored in the early 1980s, but even that's been perilously ignored since (its frames are so weak it can no longer be played).

To commemorate the centennial of the Java Village, the Field Museum--together with the Indonesian consulate, the University of Chicago, and a group of local gamelan enthusiasts--is presenting a rare American performance of a wayang kulit play accompanied by a full gamelan and chorus. The puppeteer, Sumarsam (Indonesians often have only a single name), is one of the few English-speaking stars of wayang. He is also a professor of music at Wesleyan University. In the Javanese tradition, he will weave a satire of current events into a traditional story. Veering from tradition, the play will last under two hours. It will be preceded by a lecture given jointly by Bronson, Sumarsam, and anthropologist Carolyn Johnson. They will discuss both wayang and the history of the Java Village at the 1893 world's fair.

The Indonesian shadow puppet play and gamelan orchestra performance takes place Saturday, September 18, at the Field Museum, Lake Shore Drive at Roosevelt Road. The lecture begins at 10 AM in lecture hall 2, and the performance at 1 in the James Simpson Theater. The lecture and performance are free with regular museum admission, $5 for adults, $3 for children, students, and senior citizens.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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