Beyond the Shadows: The Dalang's Story
From palace grounds to the heart of Indonesian society, wayang kulit, the ancient art of shadow puppetry, has woven itself into the very fabric of the nation. This remarkable cultural tradition is more than just a performance; it is a living testament to Indonesia's history, spirituality, and artistic finesse. Offering a unique glimpse into the process that happens before the performances, we are introduced to the mastermind, the dalang.
The ability they possess to convey a variety of actions during the performance is a knowledge that not just anyone can acquire. Dutch anthropologist Heuze claims that a dalang serves as a priest in the veneration of ancestral spirits. However, the common definition of its original Javanese term is that a dalang is someone who holds a position to spread knowledge—ngudal piwulang. In charge of giving the puppets a soul, wayang kulit performances are conducted in Javanese combined with dialogue, narrations, and sung poetry, accompanied by gamelan and pesinden, and they typically last all night from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.
Given its tremendous importance as one of the numerous cultural treasures of ancestry, this is regarded as a form of art. Therefore, universities like the Indonesian Institute of Art Yogyakarta offer comprehensive training in pedalangan art. A dalang should be proficient in a number of skills, including antarwacana (the ability to distinguish the voices of each wayang character in a dialogue), enges (the ability to differentiate dialogue between wayang characters who already have families and those who don't), tutug (the ability to always use the character's dialogue in the story as a whole and never shorten it), and kawi (the ability to understand the Kawi language used to explain other names of the characters), etc.
As such, before a performance, which is usually held for special occasions, a ritual tradition must be observed. As mentioned in the book "Sejarah Pedalangan", written by Soetarno, Sarwanto, and Sudarko, a wayang kulit performance is a means of worshiping ancestral spirits. The most commonly heard ritual is called Ruwatan, which is performed before the dramatic act based on the story of Bathara Kala, who chases its prey, the Sukerta people. This ritual serves as a reinforcement repellant as well as a means to drive away the spirits of Bathara Kala itself. According to local beliefs, the ritual of Ruwatan protects humans from various dangers that exist in the world.
Several items are required to carry out the ritual, including offerings such as water from seven sources, jajanan pasar (traditional pastries), plants, rice, corn, sugar cane, tumpeng, clean clothes, coins, and most importantly, a pair of cawisan—wedang putih (a kind of warm beverage usually made from nuts in the form of porridge) and wedang kopi pahit (bitter coffee)—which are served. Although the meaning behind why specific items are served is unclear, Dr. Argo Twikromo from Atma Jaya University Yogyakarta states that offering a sesajen is an act of respect and protection of the well-being of others. In the context of old Javanese traditions, this form of offering was a form of gratitude for the blessings that had been obtained; however, in modern days, sesajen has been redeemed as an offering to spirits instead. In contrast to Dr. Argo Twikromo's statement that life is a harmonious relationship between humans and nature, both visible and invisible, which therefore needs to be respected.
The wayang kulit performance is said to be the culmination of the tradition, following the ritual tradition. To strengthen the soul and mind, performers recite mantras that combine Sanskrit, ancient Javanese, and modern Javanese languages before commencing the performance. This practice aims to prevent any unwanted disturbances that may be invisible to the human eye. In "Over den Zin van Het Javaansche Drama," W.H. Rassers, a Dutch scientist and journalist who has research and journals about Javanese culture, stated that these disturbances could manifest in the form of the stage's collapse and the possibility of injuring the dalang. The performance then continues for hours, and the audience is advised to remain polite. However, it is important to note that these traditions performed by the dalang can also vary depending on the type of occasion, lakon (drama), and beliefs they adhere to. The modern dalang may simply recite a prayer from their own beliefs, especially when presenting a light lakon.
Beyond the white fabric of the stage, there is the mastermind behind the mesmerizing world of wayang kulit. A dalang whose sole dedication to a spiritual journey and a celebration of Indonesia’s vibrant cultural tapestry is carried out with thorough commitment and strength. The all-night-long drama that a dalang has to follow through is more than a spectacle; it is a form of loyalty that weaves the essence of a tradition that needs to be maintained. As the final curtain closes, the echoes of the mantras linger along with the warm embrace of the wedang putih, the bitter companion of the bitter coffee, and the heartwarming traditional snacks. The culmination of a tradition ends harmoniously between humans and the forces that shape their existence.