Made Tangkas Harta Wiguna: A child prepares to become ‘dalang’
Twelve-year-old Made Tangkas Harta Wiguna sings in Sanskrit, as he skillfully manipulates two leather puppets whose shadows are projected onto a white screen. Two sets of gender gamelan gongs play shimmering melodies to accompany him. A prompter sits behind him whispering words of dialogue when memory fails, but Made knows most of the story he is performing by heart. The puppets are enacting the story of Guru Daksina, adapted from an episode in the Hindu classic Mahabharata. It is a rehearsal for a presentation that will take place on July 1, when Made represents the region of Badung in the Bali Arts Festival competition for Dalang Cilik, or Child Puppet Masters.
Made, who attends elementary school in Dalung, has only been studying the art of shadow puppetry for one month, but he already has several years of experience performing in traditional Balinese Arja operas, where he has played the demanding role of the clown servant Wijil. This background in singing, dance and improvisation has prepared him well for the demanding role of dalang (shadow puppet master), which requires that he sing and speak the parts of all the characters in each play, which often number over a dozen.
Even though Made sits cross-legged throughout the shadow play, his dance training is invaluable, because each puppet’s movements require him to employ complex rhythmic dynamics that link their gestures to the music, the dialogue and to each other. The characters of Twalen and Merdah, for instance, are a father and son team who tell jokes at the same time that they transmit the ethical principles embedded into every story. Like all fathers and sons, their actions are sometimes coordinated harmoniously, but at other times Made has to show the pair moving in opposition to one another.
In Guru Daksina, the clown servants comment on the actions of the major characters in the story, King Drupada, and his former classmate, Drona, who has become the teacher of the Pandawa brothers, heroes of the Mahabhrata. As children, Drona and Drupada were friends, but when Drupada became king he refused a request for help from the impoverished Drona. Later when Drona’s fortunes improved, he instructed his students, the Pandawa brothers, to conquer King Drupada.
According to Made’s father, Wayan Sudiarta, the moral messages in the puppet play emphasize the importance of respecting one’s commitments to teachers, friends and elders. “I enjoy talking to my son about these issues,” says Sudiarta. “Wayang provides an alternative to other more destructive activities that young people sometimes get caught up in.” When asked why his son chose to study shadow puppetry, Sudiarta replied, “I think the arts are in his genes. Made’s grandfather is the painter Wianta. I am a wood-carver. His great-uncle was a dalang, and so were three or four other members of our family. The arts are in his genes.”
Made’s rehearsal takes place in the courtyard of Gria Suksuk in Sibangkaja, the home of Ida Bagus Mambal, who provides a feast of lawar, duck and sweet rice cakes for all the performers in the wayang ensemble. But before the meal, Made meets with expert artists who have watched his show and offer feedback to help him improve his techniques before the competition. Ketut Kodi, a professor at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (ISI) in Denpasar, and a master performer of shadow puppetry, gives Made valuable tips on the art of bringing puppets to life. “The king should always be placed lower than the priest,” advises Kodi. “And the position of the puppet’s arms should not be too proud.” Kodi demonstrates each suggestion with precise gestures that recreate the action of the play as if he is holding invisible puppets. Kodi also suggests that Drona address King Drupadi as Wicitra, which was his nickname when he knew him as a child. Every detail is important.
The critique takes place on the Bale Kelod (Southerly Pavilion), the location for all ceremonies regarding the passages of human life from childhood to adulthood to death. Made is experiencing an informal ceremony that will assist him in the passage from apprentice to master shadow puppeteer. Near the pavilion a large bat hangs upside down from a tree branch, spreading its pointy wings, as a caged crow caws loudly. None of this distracts Made from focusing intently on the lessons given by Kodi and the other experts that have watched him perform. Later he is asked what is the most important lesson he hopes to convey to the audiences who watch his performance of Guru Daksina. Made answers simply, “The story is about how important it is to respect one’s teachers and one’s elders.” The father of the child dalang overhears his son’s reply and smiles.