By Rebecca Kulik
It started, as tourist stories in Indonesian metropolises often do, with my driver. I had enjoyed walking down an actual sidewalk for ten minutes when I came to the center of the Jogjakarta Old City. There, the sidewalk ended in a tunnel through which only vehicles were allowed to go. Thus, stranded, I turned to one of the becak drivers.
I can’t help but feel sorry for these drivers. The first one I took, driven by an old man, I paid 4 dollars for—way more than the going rate, but his progress had just been so slow. They’re wiry men, their lives spent pedaling pedicabs behind motorbikes. And they love tourists because we overpay them. I wanted to walk, but I had to get in, and then I was at the driver’s mercy.
All cab drivers used to tourists, from the little pedicabs to the giant SUV taxis, have their stops. Shops, hotels, venues, places they’ll take you, places they know just enough English to describe to you, and places they’ll drive you to before you ask, necessitating pointed comments and quick gear shifts out of parking lots.
So, as we drove towards the Jogja Water Castle (which had 2 inches of water), I was not remotely surprised to hear the driver ask “you want to see shadow puppets?” My knee-jerk denial was foiled because it was not a serious question: he was already pulling into the shadow puppet workshop. The workshop was actually a converted home, and on the front porch sat two men, bent over half-made shadow puppets.
It’s such a strange way to tell a story, by making a shadow on a screen. I’ve been fascinated by it, the wayang of Indonesia. Wayang are puppets, and in Indonesia have long been an essential part of storytelling. Some are dolls on sticks, some are people (dancing is called wayang orang, literally puppet people), and some are pieces of wood or leather carved and held up to be used as shadow puppets. But in Sulawesi there are no wayang, puppets—in fact, as far as I can tell, there’s no storytelling tradition. True, I had seen the puppets as decorations in shops around other Javanese cities. Yet what faced me were not delicate decorations, but real leather being carved into shapes by expert hands.
Wayang Kulit are made by taking a slice of leather and shaving piece after piece off, creating tiny inscriptions and delicate carvings, each one precisely rendered to depict a particular character. Those who deal in Wayang can tell at a glance which character out of the hundreds from the shadow plays has been placed before them, but amateurs like me can have trouble telling whether a character is male or female. Seriously, as far as I can tell, the genders are identical except that the male usually have bare chests.
I ended up craning my neck over the shoulder of first the carver, then the painter. I took photo after photo, asking questions in my poor Indonesian and nodding in completely fake understanding when the shop owner answered in painfully accented streams of totally unintelligible words. Seriously, the Javanese accents are no joke, and people there talk way too fast. I understood nothing, but I kept trying.
The owner took me inside and showed me the different puppets, telling me how long they took to make (anywhere from a week to two months). At one point, I asked whether he knew how to play the shows. He said no, but I should wait a moment, and walked off.
I stood around awkwardly for a moment, and then was ushered to take a seat. There were four stools arrayed before a sheet hung in the middle of the shop, which I had glanced over without seeing, too busy staring at the puppets that lined the walls. I realized now that it was a stage for the ancient plays.
Music started, piped through a loudspeaker. The shop owner sat down next to me, lights came on behind the sheet, and a man started playing the drum as another man’s silhouette sat down behind the curtain. Then the first puppet began whirling through the air.
In this man’s hands, the flat pieces of leather came to life. They bobbed up and down, their arms whirled as they fought, they did backflips when he threw them into the air in circles and caught them in one sure hand. The hero Arjuna fired arrows, one after the other, then was laid down so that demons could stand and be struck by the shadows of war. The shadow puppets danced, the drum played, and the Javanese words of the Ramayana were spoken for an audience of two. In fact, soon the shop owner wandered off, and it was only me, a smile splitting my face and my camera clicking whenever I remembered I was holding it.
When the story ended and I applauded like a child, I was ushered behind the curtain. The puppetmaster was a small middle-aged man, painfully short by American standards, his muscled arms bulging out of his red t-shirt. He showed me the faded pieces of leather he had used, and as I fingered them wonderingly he asked if I’d like to sit down where he had been, under the light, among the puppets.
And there I was, kneeling on the floor, being showed how to hold a shadow puppet, how to flick the arm to symbolize one puppet striking another. I improvised a puppet slowly moving across the shadows, and behind me I heard the puppetmaster striking the drum in time to my movements. My hands on the wooden crosses, my pure joy evident across any language barrier.
I bought two copies of the puppets I had seen fighting. When I finished paying and had my bundled prizes, I offered the puppetmaster two fifty-thousand rupiah bills. He only took one. There’s nothing for validation of your experience like having overpayment be refused at a shop.
I met the becak driver, my new best friend, and waved goodbye to the wayang workshop.
About the author: Rebecca Kulik is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Telaga, Gorontalo. She graduated from Grinnell College in 2014 with a degree in history.