Jakarta

'Ondel-Ondel': An almost
extinct Betawi legacy

ELECTRIFYING EFFIGIES: Dancers accompanied by modern electric ondel-ondel (giant effigies) spice up the Jakarta Fashion and Food Festival. Ondel-Ondel, Betawi icons, were once used to protect Betawi people from bad luck but are now often used in the cultural festivities.
ELECTRIFYING EFFIGIES: Dancers accompanied by modern electric ondel-ondel (giant effigies) spice up the Jakarta Fashion and Food Festival. Ondel-Ondel, Betawi icons, were once used to protect Betawi people from bad luck but are now often used in the cultural festivities.

For over 23 years Andi Suwandi has devoted his life to the nearly extinct ondel-ondel, gigantic Betawi "human puppets", witnessing their popularity dwindle in modern Jakarta.

"It's a legacy," said Andi, "I learned how to make ondel-ondel by observing my father."

Currently his wife, in-laws and sons help preserve the art form, making the giant puppets in his studio and house in Bekasi.

Andi usually sells two to three pairs of ondel-ondel every month and more orders during special months, like this month.

"In June, as people are preparing events to celebrate Jakarta's birthday, I can get orders of up to six pairs of ondel-ondel," he said.

A pair of ondel-ondel, consisting of a male and female puppet, takes about a week to make. The process requires patience and good observation, said Andi.

The first step is preparing the puppet's skeleton, which is made from 400-centimeter-by-1.5-centimeter bamboo twigs.

"We weave the twigs to shape the skeleton and use three buckets for the center part, lower part and the shoulders.

"For the shoulders, we make an oval shape which is about 120 centimeters wide," said Andi.

After the skeleton is ready, Andi fills the buckets with fiber so that the puppets are solid.

This process takes one to two days.

"The puppets' masks take the most time to finish. We need to make the mask and plaster them, and then color them. We use goat skin to make the moustache for the male ondel-ondel, so it looks real," said Andi.

The mask of a male ondel-ondel is usually painted in black or red. The puppet is dressed in a black top and sarong. The mask of a female ondel-ondel is usually white.

A pair of "simple" puppets costs Rp 3 million (US$ 341). Customized and more complicated designs are sold for Rp 5 million, said Andi.

Other than making the giant puppets, Andi also prepares the musical instruments for an ondel-ondel show, during which two people inside the giant puppets dance to traditional Betawi music.

The existence of ondel-ondel can be traced back to as early as the 18th century, said historian Alwi Shahab.

"In the past, they were used to protect the community from black magic and afflictions. The two puppets symbolize the spiritual protection provided by the ancestors to the Betawi population," Alwi said .

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, people still commonly put on an ondel-ondel shows during family celebrations held when, for example, a boy in the family was circumcised.

"The ceremony is called penganten sunat or the circumcision of the groom, which elevates the event's importance to parallel that of weddings," Alwi said.

However, now people opt for more modern events like dangdutan (hiring a dangdut band) and movie screenings to celebrate important ceremonies like penganten sunat and weddings.

"If we don't pay enough attention to Betawi culture, which is part of our culture, the ondel-ondel tradition may vanish forever," Alwi said.

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