Muddling around through the dusty market place, I suddenly felt I was being watched. Looking over my shoulder I saw a bright little eye. I shouldered aside a wedding cabinet, two man-sized cloisonné vases and an abacus and came upon the owner of the eye. She was a bright blue bird who perched on the headdress of a Javanese stick puppet, also pretty and blue but with long fangs that suggested her character was rather fierce.
Thrilled, I grabbed the puppet and her bird up and tried to back out of the alley I had carved for myself. I saw another puppet actress, Arjuna, with her shrimp tail headress and then the red face and intricately carved headress of the Lord of Troublemaking and over there was Hanuman, the Monkey God with his tail like a fourth appendage… I searched among the incense scented merchandise finding one puppet after another until no more could be found.
These rod puppets are carved by the Javanese master carver who puts his artistic soul into rendering the soft wood head and their fabulous headdresses of the god or lord he is depicting- Rama, Lakshmana, Sinta. The head is mounted on the long, rod-based bodies so it can swivel, and their bodies are handed over to younger members of the family to carve and to attach the arms and legs with their string joints. The family joins in dressing them in the Indonesian batik sarongs and gilt-trmmed collars. Puppet making is a family business, handed down for generations.
The puppet master, the dalang, now gets the beautiful troupe and can stage the epic tales, the Ramayana, the Islamic Menack Cycle and other Persian stories. Performances involve great puppeteering skills and a range voices to suit the characters. It is a revered Indonesisan artform, and I wonder how these carved thespians came to be discarded. Perhaps the allure of watching movies on a iPhone replaced the enticement of a puppet show but I am glad to have all these has-beens of the Wayang Galek theater in my home, where I swear they perform a bit of the Ramayana nightly to the soft drums and little bells of Gamelan music.