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Semar, a jester (panakawan), approx. 1960

Semar, a jester (panakawan), approx. 1960

Semar, a jester (panakawan), approx. 1960. Indonesia; West Java. Wood, cloth, and mixed media. From The Mimi and John Herbert Collection, F2000.86.154.

Semar is the father of the jesters. According to Javanese lore, he is a brother of the god Shiva as well as a god in his own right. He acts as an advisor, attendant, and companion to the heroes of the Javanese renditions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, great Hindu epics. His name is derived from the Javanese word samar, which means “vague” or “obscure.” This quality is expressed in his androgynous appearance: He is both man and woman in the mythological realm.

The jesters of wayang are of Javanese origin and do not exist in the Indian epics. They usually appear around midnight, at the climax of the performance, to provide emotional support for the heroes, and in comic interludes that often include crude humor. Semar, for example, is known for breaking wind and constantly crying “Ambung! Ambung! Ambung!” (“Oh my!”). Not surprisingly, the jesters have a special place in the hearts of the Javanese. In Indonesian rod puppet theater (wayang golek), they represent the voices of the gods, of the puppet master (dalang), and of the people—conveying both episodic commentary and the contemporary concerns of the audience.

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