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The Role of the Puppet Master (Dalang) in Indonesia

Entar performing Bambang Somatri

Entar performing Bambang Somatri, from Voices of the Puppet Masters: The Wayang Golek Theater of Indonesia by Mimi Herbert (2002). Photograph by John Marston. Reproduced by permission.

Asep and his troupe before a performance at Ancol

Asep and his troupe before a performance at Ancol, a recreation center in North Jakarta, from Voices of the Puppet Masters: The Wayang Golek Theater of Indonesia by Mimi Herbert (2002). Photograph by Maria Farr. Reproduced by permission.

Entar performing Bambang Somatri
Asep and his troupe before a performance at Ancol

The first photograph shows Asep Sunandar Sunarya, a famous Indonesian puppet master (dalang), known for his humor and innovative puppet creations, sitting with his troupe in preparation for a performance at a recreation center in North Jakarta. Rod puppet (wayang golek) performances are sponsored in conjunction with blessings held to celebrate weddings, circumcisions, rituals honoring one’s ancestors, and occasionally exorcisms (ruwatan).

The dalang (puppet master) is a master musician, an epic storyteller, a dancer of dolls, a comic wonder, a deep philosopher, and a political pundit all rolled into one; some dalangs have the power to do exorcisms and other traditional ceremonies. In essence, a conduit of the knowledge embedded in the traditional epics of wayang (puppet theater), the dalang connects the community with its cultural history and with the spirit world. Wayang performances are conducted as much to honor the ancestors and appease the spirits as they are to acknowledge living relatives during a family celebration. Therefore, the early part of a performance in particular is seen as a way to summon one’s ancestral forces. Similarly, at the end of a performance, the dalang says, “The flower has been picked, may its fragrance spread,” meaning that the audience has received knowledge from him and, it is hoped, they will use this knowledge to the benefit of the community.

A dalang is invited, along with his troupe of musicians and singers, to perform episodes from one of the great Hindu epics—the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. In the case of wayang golek menak performances, the dalang uses three-dimensional rod puppets to tell Muslim stories; other repertoire includes stories derived from historical Javanese tales. Performances take place from 9:00 pm to 4:30 am and are traditionally conducted outdoors on a raised platform covered by a canvas canopy. During the performance, the dalang sits cross-legged in the center of the stage, behind a banana log that rests horizontally on wooden stands. He remains in this position, facing the audience, during the entire performance. Invited guests sit on the ground facing the stage while uninvited persons are allowed to sit behind the performers. Wayang golek performances hold appeal for all members of the village, teaching universal messages of morality, voicing political opinions of the common people through the jester characters, and entertaining with dramatic puppet fight scenes, music, and singing.

A puppeteer usually begins training in wayang performance as a boy of ten or twelve, traveling with his teacher, who is often a relative. The apprentice dalang (catrik, meaning “disciple”) acts as an assistant, anticipating his teacher’s needs by pulling and preparing the correct puppet during performances for the dalang to pick up while also closely observing his teacher’s technique. The dalang teaches his student the structure of a performance, which begins with a court scene, moves on to clowning, and climaxes in battle. He encourages the student to be conversant with the musical repertoire. As the student progresses in his training, the dalang will ask his student to do short afternoon performances or allow him to do a single scene during night performances. When the student has gained some experience, the dalang will encourage someone who seeks a performance to allow the student to do it in his place. If the performance is successful, other invitations to perform will follow.

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