Like a laughing Buddha, jovial Agus Gunawan sits on his stoop in the West Javanese village of Pangandaran, surrounded by carvings, tools and chunks of fresh balsa wood. The 51-year-old is pretty unique. Not only is he a third-generation dalang (puppeteer); he is also one of the last remaining craftsmen of Indonesia’s famous wayang golek (traditional wooden rod puppets).
In Indonesia, the two major forms of puppetry are kulit and golek. Kulit is performed in East and Central Java and uses leather puppets to cast shadows on a screen; in contrast, golek features wooden puppets, and is performed primarily in West Java.
Wayang golek is performed for special occasions, such as weddings and birthdays. For those looking to catch a performance, there are shows every Wednesday night at the Kraton palace in the former capital of Yogyakarta.
At any one time, the dalang might operate 12 puppets – picked from his “cast” of around 500 – by moving them along a two-metre log. The stories will usually come from two major Hindu epics: the Ramayana, about Lord Rama’s 14 years in exile, and the Mahabharata, a battlefield saga about warring cousins.
Although it can take someone up to five years to become an experienced puppet maker, he or she cannot necessarily operate the puppets. In the same vein, the dalang cannot always turn his hand to carving.
As both, Agus is a rare breed. “I have to be every character and every voice. It’s my livelihood, my life,” he explains. “I try to teach my son, but he’s only interested in PlayStation. But my nephew, he is learning!”
Clown – Clowns are often colourfully dressed like jesters, with protruding noses and beaming smiles.
Arjuna – Refined characters like Arjuna are given white faces, polite mannerisms and low, melodic voices.
Rahwana – Evil characters like the demon kind, Rahwana, are red or yellow, with fangs and bulging eyes.
This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.