10 September, 2007


Shadows we are, and like shadows depart.
Pump Court sundial
It's almost five o'clock in the morning, and I've just woken up.

I've been sleeping for the best part of an hour, fitfully, on a hard leather sofa overlooking the ballroom floor at the Royal Festival Hall. The gamelan is still playing against the wayang kulit (shadow-puppetry), as it has been since eleven pm, and will be until seven. The star singer, Sukesi, seems to be chanting my name, over and over. Even if not, the sound of her voice is horrendously beautiful. Six hours of droning bells, gongs and voices are not natural on a man's ears—but all the better. Something turns in me, a switch. I pull myself up and wander about—it is as if I am floating above the noise—an intense feeling of elation and freedom. I can't even hear the gongs any more.

This is not, in some sense, an authentic performance. Ness and Prawirohardjo, in their 1980 introduction to Wayang Kulit, paint a vivid batik of a traditional Javanese recital:
More often than not, the air is festive and in a word, pleasantly chaotic. Many of the onlookers will come and go from the performance area as they wish, participating in those points of the play which they find interesting. Many will quietly engage in conversation over sweet Javanese tea, often gossiping about the characters in the play as if they were real. Children will usually position themselves as near the dalang [puppeteer] as possible, imitating his play and voices with paper versions of the wayang kulit puppets. Through their play they are learning as generations before them have learned of the great traditional stories of wayang kulit. There are always some who choose to doze off after the first hour or so, to be awakened with a jolt by the raucous clanging of the fight scenes. The air is laden with the piquant aroma of kretek, Indonesian spiced cigarettes, succulent sweets and snacks of food sellers around the performance area.
At the RFH Wayang Kulit, where I spent the tail-end of Saturday, and the entirety of predawn Sunday, the performance took place in a rather clinical interior, with industrial inflatable cushions lining the floor, stout white columns, a nondescript bar offering pints, coffee and sandwiches, and a hundred-odd punters in various states of waking. But despite its dull setting, the show did feature the cream of Javanese and British gamelan talent: the dhalang Ki Purbo Asmoro, the drummer and director Rahayu Supanggah, two first-rate pesindhens (singers), and a small host of percussionists, all in natty costumes. The group performed 'The Building of the Kingdom of Amarta', a story very loosely adapted from early chapters of the Mahabharata. Ki Purbo burbled the dialogue incomprehensibly—in Kawi, I presume—using his feet to clatter and jangle metal plates, cueing the gamelan-players, and with his hands manipulating leather puppets against a screen. Here he is from the orchestra-side, centre:

This, meanwhile, is a tiny fragment of performance from the shadow side, where about half of tonight's audience are sitting, a much greater proportion than is traditional in Java:


Here the epic's prime hero Arjuna, on the left, sizes up against arch-baddie, the Goliathesque Cakil. I wish I'd got a more exciting part on film. Possibly the biggest laughs were drawn by a motorcycle-puppet, which Arjuna's brother Bhima 'mounts' in lieu of a chariot. The wayang was studded with these moments of incongruous modernity: a snatch of some jazz standard starts up out of nowhere during an interlude, someone mentions Harry Potter, and cigarettes, and Ki Purbo jokes about erectile dysfunction. The whole thing is translated, in real time, on video-screens, by an American in the thick of the orchestra. Nobody cares about her grammar, although a small titter goes up when she renders 'blind' as 'bling'. This occurs only a few minutes into the proceedings—five hours later, no one would have batted an eyelid.


The story is not deep. When Peer Gynt goes into the wilderness to confront demons, he encounters the riddle of existence itself—the Great Boyg. (PEER: Who are you? VOICE: Myself. Can you say the same?) But that is urbane 1860s proto-existentialist Europe masquerading as a fairy-tale. The real fairy-tale does things differently. When Bhima, second son of Pandhu, and for tonight the chief protagonist, goes into the forest to confront demons, he encounters only ogres and spirits, the antithesis of alus (cultivated) Bhima, and overcomes them with ease. On a motorbike. The commentator tells us that the battles are an allegory for Bhima's inner conflicts (naturally), a parallel that will become more explicit, towards the end of the Mahabharata, in Arjuna's dialogue with Krishna about metempsychosis and the strife of the soul. Likewise, Clifford Geertz, in his classic 1957 essay 'Ethos, World View, and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols', quotes a Javanese interlocutor to the effect that:
Well, in the wajang the various plagues, wishes, etc.—the godas—are represented by the hundred Korawas, and the ability to control oneself is represented by their cousins, the five Pendawas [including Arjuna and Bhima] and by Krisna. . . the wajang is full of war and this war, which occurs and reoccurs, is readily supposed to represent the inner war which goes on continually in every person’s subjective life between his base and his refined impulses.
Finally Bhima encounters his demon-double—whose name, damn it, I forget—and with whom he is equally matched. They struggle awkwardly together, each puppet spinning back from the other, or somersaulting in ritualised agony, before the demon casts a 'poisonous fog' (or 'magic net') over Bhima—Ki Purbo achieves this effect by superimposing a tree-shaped puppet (you can see this in his left hand, above) over Bhima, in such a way that its diffuse penumbra envelops the smaller, sharper shadow of the hero. It's a neat effect. At some point Bhima is rescued by an ogress, Arimbi; but I was asleep during that. At least, I think I was.

The story is not deep, and at any rate, you're supposed to know it beforehand. As Ness and Prawirohardjo point out, these legends have been cultural touchstones for generations in Java. And that was one of the problems with Sunday's performance: few of the punters knew a damn thing about the Mahabharata, let alone its wayang kulit adaptation. I asked one of my acquaintances there why they kept referring to Bhima as 'Bratasena'. (It turns out that the latter is just his name as a youth.) His response was, 'Which one is Bhima?' The material is so alien, and the names so long and hard to remember, that appreciation of narrative goes right out the window. And it's not just that—we effete Londoners are not accustomed to rambling gamelans going on for eight hours, nor to the pure texture of the song, nor to sleeping through a performance—we're used to paying close attention to a subtle plot for two or three hours, not to wandering in and out of focus over the course of a night. We are, I suppose, not alus enough: we will not take our time. This is why our appreciation of the wayang kulit—and appreciate it we did—could only be superficial and second-hand. For it was not so much participatory as downright mystifying, and of course, extremely tiring. And at best, magical, in the undiluted sense of that word: theurgical. The applause, when it comes, lasts.


At six the mallets are beserking marvelously, and I stumble outside for some air. In morning twilight the Thames is a sight for sore ears: calm, cold, untroubled, and so silent. I get up on the Golden Jubilee Bridge with my camera; there's another person, way down the bridge over the wide water, and we take pictures of each other inadvertently, tiny and distant against the vastness of the steel. Perhaps he does not even see me.

It is as if I have emerged from a cave. One wonders, in fact, if Plato had ever seen a wayang kulit performance when he composed the seventh book of the Republic. 'Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.' Plato knew the power of music on a man's soul, which is why he was so determined to control the musicians in his projected city.

Geertz writes that, in the wayang kulit, 'the shadows are identified with the outward behavior of man, the puppets themselves with his inward self, so that in him as in them the visible pattern of conduct is a direct outcome of an underlying psychological reality'. In the dim morning there are no shadows yet. Except, perhaps, myself. Part of me is still floating, still elated and free. Lily is sleeping at home; I will wake her gently when I return, soon, but for now I'm alone. . . yes, for the moment, not quite part of the world.


MW said...

Very nice post. I'm quite envious as I've always wanted to see a live gamelan concert. The closest I've ever gotten is a performance of Phillip Glass' "Einstein on the Beach" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984. I know ~ not quite the same but still a protracted (5 hours, NO intermission) musical event & pretty spectacular. A similar trance-inducing experience perhaps?. No, yours sounds more ... well, relaxed.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks. The Glass sounds fun; I haven't heard that piece, but have heard others, though only on disc.

Mind you, the wayang did get pretty heated at times.

sidarta said...

"I presume—using his feet to clatter and jangle metal plates..."

The dalang knocks the puppet box with a piece of wood using his foot, usually right foot.

For Balinese shadow puppet

Conrad H. Roth said...

According to the programme, 'the puppeteer uses his foot to jangle metal plates', but I'll take your word for it.

Pretzel Bender said...

I liked this post a lot. It sounds like you had a religious experience. More London ethnographies please!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks. Funny you should say 'ethnographies', as I've just added a couple of bits from your favourite, Clifford Geertz.

Gawain said...

Bhima is my favorite character -- not the one I want to imitate, of course, one wants to be Karna or Arjuna or Yudishthira -- but for pure entertainment it is hard to beat simplistic and kind giant with anger management problem.

The east tends to mystical interpretations of the stories while western criticism prefers to focus on morality; and these differences are stressed by the likes of Cliff; but unduly so, in my opinion. I don't find Javanese audiences different from western ones, except that they make allowances of drifting attention, which is necessecity in 8 or 10 hour performances. Of course, my mind often wonders in 90 minute western films, but thats another story.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Geertz adds: "the average [Javanese] man ‘enjoys’ the wajang without explicitly interpreting its meaning."

Gawain said...

well, cliff really isn't bad. the problem is one of emphasis, i think. western theater is capable of all sorts of interpretations, hindu and buddhist ones as well as Christian or pagan ones (consider: is Oedipus about fate (emphasis more common in the west) or is it about self-knowledge (which would be an emphasis more common in the east)?) i am tempted to say that it is the multiplicity of possible meanings that makes this kind of theater such a powerful art form east and west -- not any particular one interpretation of it.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Conrad, I feel a strange social pressure to finally give in and learn more, experience more of this music and art.

I have resisted the gamelan for quite some time, mainly because when I was composition student, people constantly went to this music for inspiration, and for no good reason, this bugged me, and I've stayed away ever since.

There must be something going on here in Toronto like this. When I find it I will report. Thanks again for this.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Delighted to hear it--I look forward to your report!