At least once in your lifetime, especially if Bali is one of the stops on your journey, you ought to discover the radiant experience of a Wayang Kulit performance (shadow puppet play). The Island of the Gods is a treasure trove of cultural events and ceremonies, but these plays are among the most dazzling shows you will ever enjoy. My initiation into the world of the Wayang, one of the most complex and skill-testing undertakings, took place sometime ago at the Puri Lukisan Museum in Ubud.
One of Bali’s leading puppeteers, I Wayan Wija performed Sutasoma, the story of a noble prince who leaves the comfort of his palace to seek enlightenment within the world. He narrated the story in Balinese, Indonesian and English, adding comical twists throughout the show.
Along with the other attendees, I settled down in front of a white screen, waiting for the show to begin. After what seemed like an interminably long time, the puppets came to life – held as they were behind the backlit screen. Shortly after the show began, a thought began to gnaw at me: What was going on backstage? I felt sure that the real action was taking place on the other side of the screen, and that I was merely observing the ‘sanitized’ or diluted version out front. I craved the real thing, with all the nitty gritty, backstage messiness and mayhem.
I quietly gathered my bag and sandals, excused myself as I traipsed over peoples’ legs, and around to the side of the backstage, kneeling down on the outside of a red padded bench. And that is where, quite simply, the magic came alive in front of my eyes:
Wayan was seated cross-legged, an open wooden ark on the ground to his left, the toes of his right foot clasping a wooden peg that he would periodically knock against the ark’s side. Two assistants sat on either side of him; with puppets splayed out in front of them all – possibly more than 100 in total – on the ground, and a few lodged into the tops of three thick banana-tree stalks that lay on the ground in front of them.
A jug of oil hung above Wayan, with flames shooting up from charcoal pieces; one of the assistants would rise every so often to refill the jog and pour oil onto the charcoal – using a concave piece of stalk.
Slightly behind Wayan and his bevy of puppets sat a small troupe of gamelan musicians – who, when not playing, would smoke, drink kopi, check their cell phones or nod off.
A tokek suddenly sounded – and the musicians went giddy.
Wayan would flick his puppets against the back of the screen, ululate or chant in various tones, all the while planning ahead to the next scene: Unbeknownst to the audience out front, he would lean over to an assistant (in between his utterances) and muffle a command for a given puppet – animal or human – and the assistant would search feverishly for the requested character.
At one point, towards the end of the show, Wayan motioned to something in his sight, silently requesting his assistant to hand it to him. Without skipping a beat and letting go of puppets in his left hand, Wayan’s right hand was suddenly laced through the handle of a tambourine, then he straddled a djembe drum to his side and off he went – adding his musical accompaniment to an already cacophonous performance.
It was, simply, a breathtaking sight. I had all but forgotten that the show was intended for viewing on the OTHER side of the screen. But given the large number of viewers that had slowly migrated to backstage by the end, it was perfectly clear where the most incredible show was taking place. I already knew that I had a front row seat to the best show in town.
Is it any wonder that I discovered that which was hidden behind the screen, out of sight to most of the guests? In Bali, life is comprised of Sekala and Niskala – the seen and the unseen. I feel fortunate to have heeded the call to cross over to the unseen. I was also lucky to have revealed to me the true heart and soul of the show; not just of the wayang kulit, but one of the most time-honored and ingenuous of local performance traditions.T