Recently, I was fortunate enough to get invited to sit backstage at a shadow puppet play (wayang kulit). I have seen a few of these traditional storytelling productions from the other side of the screen, sitting on the ground amidst thousands of enthralled audience members, while my husband gets to sit in the back.
The puppeteer (dalang) is I Wayan Nardayana (stage name: Cenk Blonk) probably the most famous puppet master in Bali. He is the rock star of puppet virtuosity. I have met him several times and I can tell you that he is charming and somewhat alluring. His puppet shows are not only hugely popular, they are also enormous undertakings that involve dozens of assistants, helpers, musicians, singers, technicians and workers. And – I love this detail!- there’s this one guy who sits near Nardayana during performances whose only job it is to gently wipe the sweat off his face and neck with a piece of cloth!
The dalang is a storyteller. He narrates the tale, moves all the puppets, says their lines, gives different and unique voices to all the characters, and provides the gamalan orchestra players with their cues. (Now you know why he needs a sweat-wiper.) The dalang is also an educator and a thought-provoker. He typically tells an ancient Hindu story from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, interlinked with current events. Vaccines, post-traumatic stress disorder (from terrorist attacks), the economic crisis, safe sex, you name it, he’ll weave it in.
These interludes are usually delivered by short and stout clown-servants, who are routinely much wiser than their masters. The clown bits are the people’s absolute favorites. They’re like Shakespearean clowns, or like Laurel and Hardy, as my father rightly remarked after watching for a few minutes. The crowd cheers, hollers and hoots. I understand only a few words here and there, if I’m lucky and if I pay close attention. However, I can tell what kind of jokes the clowns are telling by the noise the audience makes. The more perverted the joke (or the more subversive), the louder the crowd’s roar. I guess that’s universal.