Indonesia's Renowned Puppetry Hangs on by a Thread

by Gregg Jones
The Dallas Morning News
May 16, 2001

JAKARTA, Indonesia—Hour after hour in the sweltering equatorial heat, Sugiri patiently labors at a table in the tiny front room of his south Jakarta house.

And every week or two, from the surrounding piles of water buffalo hides and sticks and grommets fashioned from buffalo bones, he lovingly brings to life another colorful character of the wayang kulit—Indonesia's renowned shadow puppets.

In one way or another, Sugiri's life has revolved around the world of traditional Indonesian wayang.

"I was five years old when I learned how to paint the puppets," said Sugiri, who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name. "My parents taught me how to make the puppets from leather when I was about seven."

Now 47, Sugiri does much more than make the puppets. He's also a well known dalang, or puppeteer, carrying on a family tradition that goes back more than 300 years. "This has been passed down from generation to generation in my family for 10 generations," said Sugiri. "All my family and relatives can play dalang or play the instruments."

But although the wayang kulit retains a hardcore following on Java, the world's most populous island and the center of Indonesian politics and culture, the traditional puppet shows are struggling to maintain their popularity in an increasingly urbanized country awash in foreign soap operas and other cultural imports. Some Indonesians are fearful they are fighting a losing battle to save their signature art form.

"You can count with your fingers how many young people want to learn about wayang," said Daniel Ray, curator of Jakarta's struggling Wayang Museum. "Young people now are interested in the shopping mall, McDonald's, Pizza Hut. They're not interested in their own traditional culture."

That may be an overstatement, but wayang is an endangered art, many Indonesians say. In a country of 210 million people, there are only a few schools left where students can learn how to make and perform with the traditional puppets.

Sugiri has tried for years to open a puppetry school in Jakarta, but he hasn't been able to line up the necessary financial backing, he said. So he works full time in the financial department of the Wayang Museum, and spends his spare time making puppets or performing with them.

Dwindling Interest

Indonesia's economic crisis of the past four years has hastened wayang's retreat, making performances too expensive for many Indonesians. Many villages can't afford to hire wayang troupes as often as in the past, and at least one troupe has disbanded so members could look for other work, said Ray.

Continued on Next Page >>



NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.