Shadow-puppet theatre

The shadows of the puppets are thought to represent the spirits of the ancestors, and the puppeteer has been seen as a kind of spirit medium. For 1000 years, shadow plays have used plots from India: the Mahabharata and Ramayana, stories which are also popular for dance drama.

In Bali shadow plays happen in the daytime as a purely religious offering to the gods. It is the night time plays, used for ritual purposes (tooth filing) which are humorous and communication: in these plays, clown characters make sure the audience is getting the point of the action. Balinese shadow plays are an education in Balinese values, as well as religious form.

Here we see a comic scene from a play for tooth-filing to show puppeteer's skill. (Remember the puppeteer only has two hands.) The puppeteer is called Anak Agung Gede Agung and the play is The Pandawas Have a Tooth Filing Ceremony.

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By contrast, in Java shadow play is slow, lasts all night, and is a spiritual event, if not a religious one: the stories are from India, but remember: Java is 90% Muslim, statistically. The plays are held for rites of passage, including circumcision, selamatans, and for broadcasts. Experimental shadow plays are also produced at art theatres in the cities. The puppeteer does all the work, but has an assistant to hand him puppets he cannot reach. The endurance of the puppeteer is quite considerable, and people say that in the old days he would neither eat or drink in performance. He would however take opium before the performance. Today's puppeteers might drink tea or coffee during the performance. Nonetheless, they are regarded as having strong spiritual powers, although they are no longer spirit mediums. In both Java and Bali, these puppeteers are also social critics. They may be used to promote Government policy such as birth control -- but they also make jokes about the Government. In the 1960s, many were arrested for being communists.

 Masks and human puppets

Longstanding traditions may offer performance to the spirits, as well as providing entertainment for humans. In some cases, human beings represent the spirits. Some people have described masked dancing as dancing a spirit -- or being danced by it. We need to be careful not to treat all of these masked forms as possession dances, however. Local people make very fine distinctions between genres, contexts, and types of altered states which may or may not occur in dramatic and ritual performance.

Dramatic performance takes place at rituals, but also serves as an entertainment and as a demonstration of artistic skill. In Bali, dancers learn to dance the roles which fit the masks.

 Topeng Sidakarya or Pajegan

This kind of masked drama has a number of masked roles, all danced by one man. Here we see the dance of the 'good king' (Raja Manis). This genre ends with the mask of the old man "Know all and do all" who exorcises the community of dangerous influence.

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I Ratu Gede

In Bali, ritual and staged performances purify the community, cleansing it and protecting it from the influence of disruptive forces. In a village in South Bali where I did research, these giant puppets circled the boundaries of the village for two weeks every 210 days. The black faced man represents the indigenous demonic king of Bali -- my host had an obligation to carry him and walk barefoot, for several hours -- and the white-faced woman is the Chinese woman he married. These puppets represent male-female, original ancestors, and also ethnic diversity. The masks were won in battle with the neighbouring kingdom, so the performance expressing harmony and community is actually using props which are war trophies. The sacred masks are kept in the lineage temple, and blessed in a ritual before being used. I was told that previous anthropologists had been unable to photograph them. I prayed in the templed before filming. This short clip was filmed in the district of Gianyar, Bali, in August 1992) by F. Hughes-Freeland. It shows one of the rituals for the temple's annual celebration (piodalan) in which the temple's sacred protective beings are being brought back to the temple after having been taken down to a spring by the river for their annual purifying bath. In front of I Ratu Gede you can see the dangerously powerful mask of the disruptive Rangda, wrapped in a neutralizing and purifying white cloth. The performer of Rangda is at risk of being possessed by the power of the mask, but this does not normally happen to the people bearing the puppets on their shoulders.

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