When Yavni came to Bali – for only a few weeks – he spoke of studying shadow puppets as if it were a walk on the beach, a visit to Kuta, a Bintang beer, a Dhyana Pura lady boy: Pretty easy to come by. For me it was more like eight hours of driving in a dump-truck, rejecting the steady advances of a gay puppeteer, only then to get caught in the glare of his poor wife – up to her knees in children.
Before this all began, as a dalang puppeteer’s apprentice, I had to prove that I could sit through anything: Two practice-runs of a story about the Pandawa brothers (in a ceremonial language I don’t understand), the ceremonial unpacking and cleaning of a hundred sacral puppets, and then the aforementioned dump truck experience – all the way to Singaraja [‘Singa’ means lion, ‘raja’ means king; hence ‘Singapore’ – meaning the city / port (‘pura’) of lions].
In the mountains by night, with a view of the dolphin-expelling ocean in the north, after the spell to make the puppets matang or ‘alive,’ the ornate wooden torch was lit behind a stretched canvas and shadows were cast to entertain the two families at a Brahmin wedding. Once the commissioners have gone to bed usually the the edgy part of the show commences – the late night talk show – often dishing out social criticism, a rare break in taboo: when the economically low can poke fun at those up above. Oh but not with my instructor, no; instead, utilizing these ancient figures against their will, the quirky fellow disseminated the importance of social media, Twitter, Facebook, Blackberry phones, BB messenger, hygiene, inquisitive gusto (kecerdasan), and staying in school.
“Jeruk makan jeruk. Wayang makan wayang,” whispered the old lady dadong in the back row, laughing through her missing teeth. “Oranges eat oranges. Shadows eat shadows.”
I had a little understanding of what I had just overheard (an understanding that came on like when two albino, praying mantises attack both of your ears). To speak of oranges with homogenous appetites eludes to homosexuality in the general vicinity. It took me a while to realize that they suspected me – with him – as a couple. It took me a while to realize that this could even be a possibility in the imaginations of others. I had suddenly to make room for the alien concept of their suspicions; and prepare as well to deflect any advances without insulting the quirky Guru.
Back in the dump truck, we coasted down into the interior forests; the puppeteer continued his performance over the CB radio for all truckers in the area – in the smooth language of high Balinese, singing about Bima, Arjuna, long thumbnails, etc. Excited from the four-hour show, his hand kept falling across my shoulders, having to be repeatedly removed like fallen trees off the road.
While the awkward day, which had been my first holiday in months, marked the end of my apprenticeship, I would construct a screen on the balcony of my apartment – and for one year fashion the characters of a bizarre sci-fi comedy, resulting in Sleep Assist: Wake Up Marlow! You will find that the resulting video, as a Canadian script made in Bali, is far removed from any larger geography of aesthetics and tradition, as a result, putting it in that awkward category of that which seems to wish to defy categorization.
Just maybe that’s a good thing!
Selamat menikmati nonton! Enjoy the show, if you’d like.