More Than Just a Unique Souvenir
A Piece of Indonesian Culture
If you have ever visited the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali, you would have likely seen puppets, known as wayang in Indonesian, for sale as a distinctive gift or a holiday memento. One of the most popular available for purchase in Bali is the three dimensional, wooden Wayang Golek, also known as a rod puppet. It is easy to understand their appeal as their facial expressions are so animated, their costumes so intricate and the craftsmanship so superb (at least the ones that are not mass produced).
To truly make a talking piece of these lovely puppets when you return home, it is well worth seeing an authentic Wayang Golek performance. However, unless you are visiting West Java this is unlikely, so the next best way to supplement your storytelling skills is to continue reading.
Indonesia has a rich history of puppetry which dates back 1,000 years. Puppet shows were, and still are today, part of many important social occasions such as weddings, births, religious ceremonies and cultural days. Indonesians have a high degree of patience so often performances start at 9:30pm and go until 4:30am, if not longer. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that they are not so tourist-friendly today!
Known as a dalang, the puppet master is considered a consummate storyteller musician, comedian and philosopher. He, along with up to 30 assistants, delivers dialogue using voices specifics to each character. Through an ingenious device called the banana log the dalang can operate two or more puppets at the same time. The dalang also directs a percussion orchestra known as gamelan. View a diagram of how these magical performances are arranged.
Depending on the type of show and the region of Indonesia, the dalang conveys Hindu epics, Muslim legends and Javanese historical tales in an engaging manner. In the case of traditional Wayang Golek shows, the focus is more on mystical beings fighting between good and evil. Fortunately, there is almost always a happy ending!
As Philip Kennicott wrote in the Washington Post, “They are extraordinary works of art even when inanimate; in the hands of a dalang their rudimentary motions take on exceptional subtlety. They strut and mope, bean each other on the head a lot, and enact complex stories while all the time swaying, just a little bit, rather like people on the edge of a dance floor.”
THE MAKING OF A WAYANG GOLEK
Behind the cultural context and pageantry of the performance, the finest wayang golek rod puppets require detailed craftsmanship. Made from light, softwood, the most intricately carved and painted section is the head as it creates the personality for each of the story’s characters. The head incorporates an elaborate headdress and a long neck that can swivel.
After the facial features are completed, the head is mounted on top of a wooden rod. The arms are then carved into two sections; shoulder to elbow and hand to elbow; and then connected by wooden sticks. The construction of the puppets contributes to their versatility, expressiveness and aptitude for imitating human dance.
Watch a family as they start with a stump of wood and proceed to create by hand a magical rod puppet.
There are five different types of characters in Wayang Golek Puppetry: refined; semi-refined; strong; emotionally uncontrolled and special. It is a fascinating cast of characters, so learn more here.
CHOOSING YOUR WAYANG GOLEK
A good place to get a first-hand overview is a visit to the House of Masks and Puppets located in Mas village which is just a few minutes’ drive from central Ubud. This quaint museum houses a collection includes more than 1,300 masks and 5,700 puppets. Surrounded by traditional Balinese villages and rice fields, it is well worth a visit.
You may feel overwhelmed with all the delightful choices, but a practical rule of thumb is not to over think the purchase decision. They are generally sold as couples, so if you immediately fall in love with them then they are the right ones for you! Their heights vary as does the price, but to be authentic buy the larger puppet pairs.
However as they are made of wood, be sure there are no boreholes in which insects may live. You can even give them a gentle tap to see if any wood dust comes away.
If you purchase from a reputable shop, these potential problems will not be an issue. Beware if you buy them from a cheap souvenir shop you may not pass customs inspections on your return home. It would be terrible to turn your new loved ones over to a grumpy customs inspection officer!
PLACES TO SHOP IN UBUD
It can be tempting to buy Wayang Goleks in the markets or mega-souvenir shops that tourist buses typically stop at. Prices will indeed be lower, but the quality will be far inferior and the durability much less than at a more upmarket shop or speciality boutique. It is well worth buying ones that will be sure to impress!
A new gift boutique on Jalan Hanoman, the Taksu Galeria, sells beautiful sets that were hand-crafted by a West Balinese family with a long history of excellence of detailed craftsmanship. The Galeria owners went further by selecting fabrics to match each wayang golek’s personality.
Taksu specializes in 35cm tall Rama and Sita puppets. This loving couple are the main protagonists in the ancient Indian epic poem, the Ramayana, which is one of the largest and most treasured in the world. The romantic legend tells the story of Prince Rama who is married to the beautiful princess, Sita, but they are banished by his evil stepmother to a forest for fourteen years. Wishing Sita for his own wife, a demon king with 10 heads, Ravana, kidnaps Sita. She cleverly leaves a trail of jewelry for him to follow and after an intense battle is rescued by Rama who returns home to be crowned as the king and she the queen. It is one of the truly great love stories with an ever so happy ending. Purchasing one of these couples, each one with unique facial expressions and costumes, could make for an intriguing Valentines gift.
No matter your choice, wayang goleks are some of the most visually attractive memories
of your Bali holiday.