Bali Puppet Theatre Festival and Seminar
Sept 22-27 2013
Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
I feel like Swiss tourist Thomas Platter the Younger who in 1599 was in London and described a performance Julius Caesar at the Globe Theatre. Except he did not describe it so much as say it was well done and there was a dance by the performers afterwards and men played women. When you think of what he could have written down…and so it was in Ubud.
It is so hard to know what is important to record, in case the traditions all go down in flames like at the Globe Theatre. Certainly there’s a devotion to flames in Balinese theatre as witness the opening cejak (Monkey Dance) of the Bali Puppet Festival and Seminar where we were worried that the large monkey army was going to set fire to the wooden stage, so enthusiastic and spectacular was the throwing around of burning material, backed by a heavy smell of kerosene.
That may be why this open air theatre at Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets backs onto the water logged rice fields.
Luckily the Bali Puppet Theatre Festival and Seminar wants to become an ongoing event and seems devoted to preserving as much tradition as they can, not just from Bali but across Indonesia and the world. The academic contingent was large, headed by keynote speaker Professor Dato’ Dr Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof (Senior Academic Fellow, International Islamic University Malaysia; Expert (Pakar) University Malalya) who put the case for a deepening investigation of the local traditions underlying wayang kulit in Java, Bali, Malaysia and Thailand. He also spoke about hopes for the House of Masks and Puppets to become a world centre for research.
Alongside the scholarly sessions it was possible to see a large range of intriguing performances that showed a huge range of traditions and methods. There were Phillipino puppets where the head was operated by a strut gripped in the mouth, gently rounded and funny Iranian puppets, and the fabulous Japanese Otome Bunraku soloist whose exquisite female puppets and dark stories of love were accompanied by a wonderfully sombre singer and a sober shamisen player.
There were also marionettes from Myanmar whose personalities shone. They were a bit over knee height and heavy to hold but there is something so winning and alive about the upturned inquisitive faces of these little princes and princesses and dancers.
But it was the local puppetry, with the local aficionados hanging around the stage and peering in at the backstage workings, that was often the greatest attraction. None of this western clearing of the stage of all inessential personnel. Every wayang kulit was surrounded by people having a look backstage, even in those set ups where the dalang (puppeteer) sat with back to the audience. They were crowding in to look at technique and skill. And if the lighting was by oil lamp, the result was like some Eastern Rembrandt, full of rich skin tones and dark shadows.
I had some idea of what to expect, having been primed by some research, a little exposure to Thai theatre forms and the delightful Wayang Kelly done some years ago at the National Folk Festival. But there were unsuspected things like the Wayang Kancil, where animals were the characters and where the dalang was very youthful but superbly confident and a young female narrator and chorus had a hard hitting verve backed by a skilful gamelan orchestra. Then there was the Wayang Potehi, which turned out to be in the tradition of Chinese glove puppets, a clear testimony to the history of Chinese enclaves in Indonesia.
I liked the slowly unfolding pace of the Wayang Nawa Santhi, and the non shadow Wayang Cing Cing Mong where wooden heads rolled from shoulders in battle scenes in a way reminiscent of the hard headed violence of an English Punch and Judy show.
And I was surprised by the Wayang Beber which does not really use puppets at all. Instead the dalang sits back to the audience and holds up a scroll of pictures which is rolled on two sticks as he narrates and the gamelan orchestra plays.
All of this was taking place in the additional context of Ubud’s nightly parade of theatrical choices and for a few days before the conference I made sure I saw enough to be able to identify some forms and stories, catching shadow puppets, monstrous barongs, Ramayana stories and repeated variations on the cejak that ranged from 100-man monkey armies to a tiny group of five monkeys encircling Sita and Ravana under a cunningly used single overhead light.
I had to leave before the end of the conference for the theatre of a family wedding in Sydney, which meant unfortunately missing some of the time devoted to more contemporary takes on puppetry and the uses of modern technology but was able to catch ex Canberran puppeteer Peter Wilson’s talk on the combination of old and new techniques being used to bring the huge puppet King Kong to life in Melbourne as well as his work directing, producing and co- writing Bali Agong for Bali Safari and Marine Park. The huge King Kong puppet may use modern technology but Wilson showed that the skills of the physical puppeteer remain crucial.
Artist-curator-collector Agustinus Prayitno, of Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets mused pertinently before the Festival on the need to value indigenous cultures and to question the adoption of ‘global culture’.  And there is Agustinus Prayitno himself in the House in puppet form shown on equal footing with a puppet Barak Obama.
It’s hard to know what context Thomas Platter was fitting Julius Caesar into. (Something for the tourists in Elizabethan London? An illustration of quaint local customs?) Much tougher now when so much global ‘entertainment’ is on offer. But the Festival and The House of Masks and Puppets exist as a powerful living counter.
Especial thanks to Salmyyah Raheem for her assistance before and during the Festival.
(Both this link and that in footnote 1 do not seem currently to be working. Continuing to search for a linkable reference in English.)