The audience sits cozily in front of a stretched white cloth lit from behind. As they wait with anticipation, gamelan music suddenly fill the room. Shadows of puppets resembling human figures begin to enter the stage as the dalang, or puppeteer, narrates epics.
That is the usual scene of the Javanese shadow puppet theater or wayang.
In 2003, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) listed wayang as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity for its elaborate puppets and complex musical style.
But long before Unesco's recognition, wayang had already captured Ki Asman Budi Prayitno's heart. The 77-year-old dalang even founded the Sanggar Nirmala Sari — a studio teaching the arts of wayang and Javanese culture — in Depok, West Java, in 1987. Since then, the studio has given birth to many young shadow puppet maestros.
Ki Asman, as he loves to be called, said teaching wayang's characters and gamelan musical instruments (karawitan) can instill good character traits on children.
"Wayang is often interpreted as wajib sembahyang ('must pray'). There are many moral values that can be taught to the children who come to practice as a dalang at the studio," Ki Asman said.
Sanggar Nirmala Sari had just reopened its doors late February. The studio, however, is teaching children aged 5 to 12 years only due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ki Asman considers younger students are easier to manage, as they are always under their parents' supervision. The children have yet to use complete musical instruments, and they only learn short-duration plays.
Ki Asman sees it is a must to keep the wayang tradition alive as it is Indonesia's national identity. Thus, the veteran dalang dedicated half of his life to teach the arts of wayang to dalang-dalang kota (the city's puppeteer) — a nickname for his pupils. He hopes to nurture the nation's younger generation of shadow puppeteers.