Balinese puppeteer I Wayan Wija was only 12 years old when he created his first wayang, following in his ancestors' footsteps. (JG Photo/ Katrin Figge)

A Modern Touch to the Traditional Art and Philosophy of Wayang

JUNE 02, 2015

Jakarta. I Wayan Wija was only 12 years old when he created his first wayang, a traditional Indonesian shadow puppet, as taught to him by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. About the same time, he also gave his debut as a dalang, or puppeteer, and he has ever since stayed true to his calling.

The art of wayang, one of Indonesia’s most beloved traditions, runs in Wija’s blood. In his extended family, he says, there are almost thirty people who are involved in shadow play.

“I learn about wayang every second of every day,” he says. “But I still feel stupid in a sense that there is much more knowledge to gain. Wayang is full of philosophy, and the dalang is the heart and soul of the performance.”

As a dalang, Wija not only operates the puppets — usually around 50 per show — but is also the narrator of the play and breathes life into each character with different voices, from sweet and soft to threatening or commanding, using either Balinese or the ancient Javanese language.

Wija, who is often invited to perform abroad — he has traveled to the United States, Australia, Asia and Europe to introduce the art of wayang to an international audience — says that the stories he tells through his plays are often based on the two major epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. But he also throws his own twists and storylines into the mix, for the sake of social and political commentary and criticism.

Wija also creates stories and puppets specifically for children, in an attempt to raise their interest in Indonesia’s rich culture and history.

“The stories I come up with for the kids are easier to handle,” he says. “The new characters I introduce are still based on the traditional ones, but to make it more children-friendly, I often add more animals to the story, so they become more fable-like.”

One can find goats, frogs and even dinosaurs in Wija’s collection of children’s puppets. When performing for children, Wija uses the Indonesian language, sometimes even English, as the country’s younger generation would otherwise have trouble keeping up with the story if it was told in ancient Javanese.

“If I perform for kids, I keep it short, maybe just one and a half hours, compared to the three hours I usually do for, let’s say a Balinese audience,” he says, adding that children don’t have a long attention span and easily get bored.

“But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be introduced to wayang,” Wija says.

To create his wayang puppets, Wija uses different materials, from calfskin to glass. Every puppet is an artwork in itself: intricate details adorn each character, different colors neatly painted onto the leather or glass, taking hours and days of meticulous work — despite the fact that in the end, the audience will only see the puppets as a shadow behind the screen without the many painstaking details.

“When the audience is distracted by the colors of the puppets, they might miss the words of the dalang and therefore the message of the play,” Wija explains. “Still, it is important to pay attention to  puppet-making as well because it is part of the process of the art of wayang. I enjoy it as much as performing — it is all one, you can’t separate them from one another.”

The workshop at Wija’s house in Ubud is part of Conrad Bali’s effort to get actively involved in highlighting Indonesia’s heritage and culture. Through quarterly exhibitions and workshops, the hotel aims to highlight the country’s roots in ancient traditions and art forms.

In addition to the workshop, artworks by I Ketut Sudiana, one of Indonesia’s most renowned wayang masters and performers, are displayed in the hotel’s lobby, including some of his three-dimensional puppets called “Golek Gede.”

“It is a privilege to provide an outlet for this deeply traditional art form to be seen by a wider audience,” says Conrad Bali general manager Jean-Sebastien Kling. “Wayang originated in Indonesia, and we are delighted to connect our guests to an important part of the history, heritage and everyday life of the country.”

With this series, he adds, “we are able to provide visitors with greater understanding of unique customs and beliefs through the eyes of true masters of their craft.”

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