Semar’s Bali Holiday: Political Shadow Puppetry

Semar: the Uncle Sam of the Javanese empire

Semar is the Uncle Sam of Java. A frantic ego running between the national id & superego.

A short fat creature named Semar is hobbling around Bali island. To the locals, anything this odd-looking is just another touris.

He’s been pushing es potong flavoured ice in Denpasar down Jalan Kunti. He’s been running a warung diner in Ubud. He’s fought his way across t-shirts. He’s Bali’s little alien Waldo. The farting clown and ousted shadow puppet is not always welcome on the so-called ‘resort island’, however.

When Indonesia was a Hindu empire, shadow puppetry was roughly the same, island-to-island.

The lakon, or cycles, were disseminated from urban centres to the rural kampung, inviting improvisations along the way – much like the oral stories of ancient Greece. As an intellectual entertainment, shadow plays were an outlet for otherwise sacrilegious creativity – like the following creation myth explaining the real world in terms a shadow puppet would understand.

In the beginning, The Holy All-Comprehensive One created an heir: a light in the darkness – and the shadow play was set in flickering motion.

But wait…Hadn’t the darkness been around before light, making darkness the real first-born and heir? Nobody could say, and darkness had too much incentive to be trusted.

This chicken-egg scenario may have befuddled The Holy All-Comprehensive One, though for namesake this has never been admitted.

Finally, they compromised. Light would be allowed to stay in Heaven and its rays would refract in the souls of all living beings. Darkness would be used in moulding matter – anything that casts a shadow. The dark was also incarnated as a humanoid, holy hermaphrodite and sent to Earth. Folks called this ugly sod Semar.

This farting chaperone is a taste of the quirky darkness of local humour. His being tour guide and slave of the five senses (represented by five shadow puppets known as the five Pandawa siblings) really paints a bleak portrait of the human condition. Even though the five Pandawa usually win their battles with Semar’s help, there’s nothing flattering about having this flatulent, hermaphrodite clown as a cosmogonical front man.

Sailing in loudspeakers blasting, the stern and fatherly might of Islam arrived in Indonesia and hoards of shadow puppets bowed to them. Puppet-makers submitted revisions to the sultans, because puppets were no longer allowed to resemble human figures (hence the strange curves of modern wayang kulit). And when the Islamic front made Semar their mouthpiece, Indonesia was craftily beckoned to the Mosque – led by her own five senses. Semar converted, and became the bumbling mascot of this new, Abrahamic monotheism.

Throughout all of this, Bali island remained vehemently polytheistic. They kicked Semar off of the island and out of the lakon pantheon of puppets.

Super Semar

The playful little vector graphic ‘Super Semar’ may be a hint of local pessimism towards some of the political causes this traitor has been made to propagate.

Hindu by birth, when Semar turned to Islam he became a traitor. Now a gang sign of sorts, his painted and printed presence on the Hindu island seems intrusive and unnecessary – though perhaps not to the people sporting it. Detached from politics and religion, Semar may merely stand in place of a provincial flag, meaning no offence.

And if you must decide if something is intentionally innocent or offensive, even when the latter is more likely, the right choice is clearly…?


3 thoughts on “Semar’s Bali Holiday: Political Shadow Puppetry


  2. Pingback: To Imagine is to Cast Shadows: Puppetry & Plato in Indonesia | IGNEOUS BOMB IGNEOUS

  3. Pingback: The Story of Semar: Divine Hermaphrodite – Indonesian Myths

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