Wednesday, December 21, 2011
83. Shadow Puppet of Bima (NOT ON DISPLAY)
I quite like this object, although I admit a great failing—I’ve never been to an Indonesian shadow-puppet performance. Presumably there are occasionally opportunities, here in Seattle, to enjoy this kind of theater, and for some reason I’ve never gotten organized. The puppet on this podcast represents Bima, the Hercules/Samson/Thor comic strongman hero of the Mahabharata, and would have been used in all-night puppet shows, projecting shadows on a white sheet. Women and children sat on the far side and watched the play of shadows; men in the audience sat on the side with the puppet and enjoyed watching its careful painting and operation. MacGregor speaks with a famous contemporary Indonesian shadow-puppeteer, who says of his trade, “it’s fun, but it’s complicated!” I bet—operating up to six puppets in a given scene, doing all the voices for the dialogue, and somehow conducting a gamelon orchestra at the same time (and occasionally singing, if that’s needed).
Historically, one of the things that’s odd about this particular situation is here’s a Hindu character, playing a big role in the culture of an Islamic country. Indonesia (this puppet comes from Java, which we last visited when they were building the great Buddhist temple at Borodbudur) became Islam during the age of the Ottoman and Mughal Empires, mostly because that made trading with these huge nations easier. But the shadow-puppet theater and the Hindu stories, mostly Mahabharata and Ramayana derivatives, were already hugely popular. So Indonesia’s new Islamic leadership encourages them to stylize the characters even further, to get away from the Islamic prohibition against depicting the human form; that’s why Bima has claws instead of hands, and why his figure is so strange. (On the next island over, Hindu/Buddhist Bali, the Bima puppets look more like human beings.) I suppose the interaction of current religion and popular, ancient story here parallels the situation when a Christian writer takes up the story of the pagan Beowulf...or when Catholic Italian opera composers do stories from Greek myths.
The other thing that’s very fun about this shadow-puppet tradition is how subversive it still is. MacGregor points out that it’s much easier to censor tv and radio, communication channels which are central and federalized, than it is popular traditions like theater on a small scale (or the internet, for that matter). So, even to this day shadow puppet plays play a role in public discourse about current events in Indonesia—and the clever politician or ruler is the person who knows exactly how much slack to give them in the theater. You want them to parody you, only a real ruler is worth mocking. But of course you want a certain kind of mocking. Bima is so loveable and fun, so popular, there’s unlikely to be much satirical bite in a parody involving him.