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Jakarta Post

Shadow Plays and Sukarno: Sacred Texts in an Age of Independence

  • Ron Jenkins

    The Jakarta Post

Tabanan, bali   /   Thu, August 6, 2015   /  10:06 am
Shadow Plays and Sukarno: Sacred Texts in an Age of Independence

Playful: Dalang (puppet master) Wayan Nardayana, aka Cenk Blonk, holds two wayang characters at his home in Belayu village, Tabanan regency in Bali.

Wayan Nardayana is not only the most popular dalang (puppet master) in Bali. He is also the most provocative.

On an island where wayang shadow puppetry has been revered for centuries, Nardayana combines the political insight of a social activist with the spiritual wisdom of a priest and the comic instincts of a master entertainer.

The many dimensions of Nardayana'€™s artistry were displayed in a performance he staged recently to celebrate the birthday of Sukarno, Indonesia'€™s first president.

The soccer field in Blahkiuh, Badung regency in Bali, was jam-packed with spectators waiting to see Dalang Cenk Blonk, the name by which Nardayana is known to his audiences, derived from the names of the two clown puppets that appear at the end of his performances.

Downfield from the huge shadow puppet stage, politicians were making speeches in praise of Sukarno, but it was clear that the crowd had come to see Nardayana. His fans thronged around the platform behind the puppet screen to watch the dalang prepare.

While his assistants arranged the offerings of flowers and holy water that are essential to the sacred nature of wayang, Nardayana studied quotations from Sukarno'€™s speeches in the 1940'€™s.

'€œSukarno had great charisma,'€ said the dalang, dressed in traditional Balinese costume. '€œHe knew how to use words to inspire action. It is important for today'€™s generation to carry on the struggle for freedom that Sukarno began. That struggle is not over.'€

Nardayana had chosen to honor Sukarno with an episode from the Ramayana that dramatizes an ancient struggle for freedom. He explained that the wayang characters from the old Hindu epics were still important to modern audiences.

He used the character of Bhima, from the Mahabharata as an example.

'€œBhima represents action. He has the will and the power to get things done, not just to dream about things, but to take action and make them real. His power of Angkus Prana comes from gathering together the forces of one'€™s ancestral heritage. He draws the collective strength of his family into his body, and uses it to take action,'€ the dalang said.

'€œIndonesians today can also harness the power of their ancestors to inspire them to take the actions to make their country as strong as the other great nations of the world. Sukarno is one of those ancestors and remembering him is one way our generation can preserve our cultural identity and use it to take the actions necessary to create freedom today.'€

The dalang'€™s ability to make connections between sacred texts, Indonesian history and contemporary reality is at the core of his art.

'€œI have to rise up, now,'€ he says before assuming his place behind the center of the screen. He then improvised a play that wove together references to Sukarno'€™s speeches, scenes from the Ramayana and jokes about the upcoming political elections.

Nardayana breathed life into each puppet with stagecraft fashioned out of earth, air, fire and water. The puppets were embedded in the trunk of a coconut tree and their shadows flickered in the smoky light cast by a flame fed by coconut oil.

Showtime: Wayan Nardayana performs a wayang episode from the Ramayana epic to commemorate the birthday of Indonesia'€™s founding father and first president Sukarno in Blahkiuh, Badung regency, Bali.Showtime: Wayan Nardayana performs a wayang episode from the Ramayana epic to commemorate the birthday of Indonesia'€™s founding father and first president Sukarno in Blahkiuh, Badung regency, Bali.

The audience was alternately entranced by the spiritual power of the Sanskrit chants, tickled by the banter of the clowns and engaged in a discussion about the significance of freedom.

Merdeka is the Indonesian word for freedom that is most closely associated with Sukarno'€™s struggle for independence from the Dutch.

Earlier when the politicians in Blahkiuh shouted out, '€œMerdeka!'€ the response from their audience was a half-hearted echo. When Nardayana'€™s shadow puppets repeated the same word, the audience roared and laughed and pondered its true meaning.

Using a technique that recalled Sukarno'€™s famous appeal to the common sense of the ordinary citizens he named Marhaen, Nardayana spoke the wisest words of his play through the mouths of the clown servants. They were the ones who debated the meaning of Pancasila, the political principles established by Sukarno that still frame the nation'€™s politics.

The varied shapes and colors of the clowns embodied the idea of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, unity in diversity that is Indonesia'€™s national motto. Their jokes overshadowed the plot.

On Sukarno'€™s birthday, Nardayana enacted the kidnapping of Laksmana, a hero from the Ramayana epic. When the clowns ended the show with a flurry of satirical slapstick, Laksmana was still being held hostage by demons. Mirroring contemporary politics in Indonesia, the fate of freedom had yet to be decided.

'€” Photos by JP/Ni Komang Erviani

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