To Imagine is to Cast Shadows: Puppetry & Plato in Indonesia

Plato's cave allegory sketch

“Remember your fears…In the cave?” says Yoda.

Plato’s allegory of shadows on the wall of a cave came again to my mind as lately I’ve caught a few Indonesian shadow puppet performances – like yesterday’s epic three-hour practice performance of a story from The Mahabrata.

(The five Pandawa brothers were planning a ceremony. The thousands of Kurawa brothers were set on stopping the procession. The Pandawa show the audience the best way to deal with the Kurawa – non-violently (with fewer battles than usual).)

The gentle characters win. The Pandawa have their ceremony. The roughians lose – as a directive coaxing human evolution; a push in the right direction that affects even those who sleep out the performance, it’s said.

In Plato’s famous philosophical allegory – as in wayang kulit puppetry – only the object that casts the shadow is real, and worthy of attention. Here in Bali, puppets are not just real – as in wooden and leather (and ornately painted many colours) – but are possessed and channelling the mythological persona they resemble. And on days like Tumpak Wayang, these marvellous clairvoyant mouthpieces need to be worshipped, showered with offerings, and kept away from women – whom could be magically impregnated.

Though I’ve pinpointed smidgens of sarcasm in the national language (in Java, the storytellers’ lips skew when they say ‘I am so very smart and handsome’), there’s almost no room for playing pretend, otherwise. (Funny isn’t it? Throughout two years studying film and television, advice oft reiterated: We’re not playing pretend!)

Coba kamu bayangkan itu. Try and imagine that.

The word imagine (bayangkan) being the verb-form of shadow.

Interestingly, puppeteers on the island of Java often direct the screen away from the audience, meaning the audience gets to see the colourful puppets perform – as well as their shadows (much more interesting). Sometimes, women are sat facing the screen while men watch the actual objects in motion – and the actions of the beloved dalang travelling puppeteer and oral-storyteller.

Women get the illusion. Men get the reality. Though everyone’s free to step out of their roles and imbalance their entire social circles at any time.

On the island of Bali, however, Hindus prefer to watch wayang like a movie – not even peaking behind the screen.

The only one without a shadow? You won’t ever even see Sang Hyang Tunggal, ‘the one with many names’; the immortal creator from the myth detailed in the book Wayang Purwa: Shadows of the Past, and my previous post about one very political shadow puppet (named Semar). Only mortals cast shadows.

There being no cinema here in Ubud (nor McDonald’s / KFC), the idea of adapting big-name films to be performed as shadow puppets against a goat-skin screen makes for some fun, idle chatter.

Shadow that!


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