One of the coolest parts of the Javanese culture is an ancient puppet show tradition called Wayang Kulit. A UNESCO recognized piece of Indonesia’s heritage, this tradition has been in existence for over 1,000 years. Accompanied by Gamelan music, a puppet master places these ornate and beautiful puppets against a screen to tell the stories that have been passed down over the centuries. These shows often last all night long, beginning in the evening and ending just before the sun comes up.
While living in Batu with my previous host family, I would occasionally join my host dad, who was definitely old school Javanese, in watching parts of these shows on television. Now, despite everything I wrote above, the show is also pretty boring. One guy moves puppets around while other guys bang on enormous xylophones. When my host dad would turn it on, I would spend 20 minutes or so watching with him and then excuse myself to bed. However, that didn’t diminish my enthusiasm to see a live performance.
During training a few of our fellow volunteers had shows come to their villages, but we did not. For nearly 10 months I had been waiting to get the invitation to one of these things and it finally came in January. I had just finished telling a friend at school how I was yet to see this, when another teacher walked in and said, “Will. Wayang Kulit. [our village name]. Tonight.”
Amy and I left our house at 10pm and headed down the road toward the music. The tent was setup in front of someone’s house (I later learned that the show was in celebration of the house owner’s daughter’s wedding). Before reaching the tent, though, we encountered what can only be described as a cross between Shakedown Street at a Phish show and the Daniel Boone Pioneer Festival. You could buy any DVD you wanted (as long as it was karaoke or a horrible American movie, likely featuring Vin Diesel), your children could play in the sad ball pit, you could eat the Indonesia equivalent of funnel cake, or play some game that resembled fishing for rubber ducks. There were two blocks full of these things before you got to the performance tent.
When we finally made it to the tent, we found several hundred people watching. We stayed way-off to the side, but quickly started seeing a number of people we knew and began making new friends. We were fed by these new friends and saw some of our village students’ parents. Soon we were being encouraged to move to the front row, but we politely declined, knowing that would lock us into a few hours of sitting there. We were tired and there was no way we were making it to dawn.
Seeing the performance live was everything I thought it would be. A little boring, but fascinating to be able to share this experience with our community, repeating an experience that has occurred over the last millennium.