Obama at Javanese shadow puppet show, Asia Society

Wayang Obama, photo by Elza Ruiz

President Obama made a surprise cameo appearance at the Asia Society’s production of a Javanese shadow puppet show  — a Wayang Kulit — by dhalang Ki Purbo Asmoro with Gamelan Kusuma Laras on Manhattan’s upper east side on Friday night (March 16).

As a translucent strip of water buffalo hide, upright if not as nimble on his tusk-bone rods as flesh-and-blood Obama is on the campaign trail,  the puppet Obama popped up among a trio of clownish Javanese street-types. At first they addressed him with awe, one bowing to kiss the President’s ring. But then he turned assertive, urging — admonishing! — President O to spend US money on arts and education, not on war.

The puppet president said he would. Gongs struck and bells rang, a deep bass drum thumped, women sang in the highest range of human pitch, a haze of whistles, wavery flutes, bowed strings sounds or maybe just overtones arose over the gaggle of musicians sitting crosslegged at bottoms-up brass kettles lodged firmly in low, carved wood frames. The musicians hammered short, repeating note patterns on the xylophone-like metal slats, banged on slender barrel drums and struck cymbals.

memnbers of Gamelan Kusuma Laras, directed by I.M. Harjito; photo by Elza Ruiz

The audience would have become raucous if we’d been at one of Java’s traditional seven-hour wayang kulit extravaganzas, outdoors family overnight picnics held in fields, fairgrounds, village squares, parks, schools, really anywhere. But then we’d have been sitting on the far side of a screen to watch the puppets’ shadows, rather than in theater seats at the elegant Asia Society edifice on Park Avenue. We wouldn’t have watched the shadow-side of the show on a big tv screen at the lip of the  stage.

No simultaneous English translation would have been projected above the puppet stage of the dhalang’s multi-voiced characterizations depicting Bima’s Spiritual Enlightenment and quest-search from forest floor to the ocean depths. There’d have been no live webcast of the event (I assume it will be archived eventually at AsiaSociety.org/live). We’d have been in Java or Bali.

Indonesian wayang kulits and performances by gamelan orchestras aren’t frequent in NYC, and though this one was spectacular, it required a stretch of the imagination and suspension of residents’ inherent impatience to enjoy. Obama showing up during a comic interlude spelling relief from the Bima plot lent the evening its liveliest moments.

Ki Purbo Asmoro, dhalang (puppet master), photo by Elza Ruiz

A dhalang, the puppet master, is supposed to be adept at improvising such bits of social commentary as well as philosophical speculation and dramatic variations; dhalang Purbo Asmoro is, according to Asia Society’s program notes, “at the forefront of the modern, classical interpretive treatment” of wayang. Reportedly he both embodies the 900-year-old traditions of the form, which has been recognized by UNESCO as a “masterpiece of human heritage,” and also adopts contemporary innovations, while standing above recent trends to trivialize the art or render it unfamiliarly avant-garde.

However, the story drawn from the Hindu epic Mahabharata is neither familiar to most Westerners nor compelling to audiences conditioned to fast-paced editing and computer generated imagery. Bahasa Indonesia is incomprehensible to most Americans so Asmoro’s inflections, asides and word-play were lost on us (Kathryn (Kitsie) Emerson is amazing at the simultaneous translation, howver, keying it into the computer as quick as Asmoro spoke) . The tale’s humor and puppets’ knockabout tiffs seemed roughly as sophisticated as a Three Stooges routine. Time didn’t have our accustomed pace.

Yet the shadow theater and gamelan experience is worthwhile precisely for taking us from our usual entertainments. For a while I sat in a front row, two yards at most from the orchestra, and became immersed in the shimmering net of sonic ribbons and knots, dynamic intensities and relaxations created almost exclusively by the synchronized percussion.  If I didn’t understand the puppet master’s nuances, I could admire his handwork, commanding stick figures to bob and weave, strike poses of pride and humility. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat concentrating on psychological realism, but no one suggested that I should be.

With audience members coming and going, people of all ages walking up onstage to view the puppets as they’re viewed in Java and Bali, shadows on a screen, a welcomed informality reigned.

Wayang Kulit at the Asia Society, wrong side of the screen; photo by Elza Ruiz

The Asia Society provided food and drink and places to sit and chat outside the theater, in emulation of the festive, neighborly atmosphere wayang kulits create at home. In shadow puppet and gamelan shows, there is apparently no fourth wall.



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  1. says

    I am glad you made it to the wayang. I thought I’d just add a couple of clarifications. In Java the audience actually does watch from the same side as the puppeteer and gamelan. Ki Purbo Asmoro is emphatic that we presented the performance as it is done in Java. There are different physical contexts in which you can see a wayang in Java. In a village or in fact in a stadium. In all cases though it is the combination of story, philosophy, ritual, music and humor that make for the entire performance. The musicians must be nimble to follow the dhalang’s cues which is quite a challenge.

    • says

      Thanks for your clarification, Rachel. Re which side of the screen people watch from, I was relying on testimony from my brother, who served in the State Dept. for three years in Jakarta and travelled widely throughout Indonesia. He mentioned that shadow puppet shows might be seen anywhere — schools, office buildings, etc. — because the stage itself is so easy to put up.

      • rachel cooper says

        Yes, that is true as well. Wayang Kulit in Java is often seen in the context of some sort of celebration—a wedding, circumcision, however when I lived in Jakarta I saw it at Senayan with thousands in the audience, and maybe felt a bit like attending a sermon— not that is was didactic but that people wanted the philosophical vision that comes from a good dhalang. Interestingly in Bali it is the shadow side that is watched by the audience and it does tend to be in a village setting. I have never seen a stadium performance of the Balinese Wayang, which usually has a smaller gamelan ensemble as well.

  2. Joseph Getter says

    Thank you for the write-up on our performance. I’d also like to note a couple of clarifications. While it is true that gamelan performances aren’t especially frequent in New York, there are at least three groups in Manhattan alone: Gamelan Kusuma Laras (http://kusumalaras.org/), a Javanese group that performed at this concert; Gamelan Dharma Swara (http://www.dharmaswara.org/), a Balinese gamelan also based at the Consulate of Indonesia; and Gamelan Son of Lion (http://www.gamelansonoflion.org/), a group specializing in new music for gamelan. All give performances around and outside of NY, and all include members active in various other genres of music-making.

    About the recording link given above, it is to a gamelan from Bali. Our wayang and gamelan is from Java, and in many ways these two musical areas are quite distinct, with different performers, histories, tunings, instruments, puppets, stories, performance contexts, etc. To make an attempt at an analogy, the two areas are as alike and different in somewhat the same way as, for example, New Orleans jazz and New York jazz. Moreover, there are several styles of gamelan in both Bali and Java, and our performance was a representation of the style from Surakatra, a city in central Java. Here is a link to one of the very few high-quality, commercially available audio recordings of music for wayang kulit from central Java: “Shadow Music of Java” (Rounder Records CD, http://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Music-Hardo-Budoyo-Ensemble/dp/B0000003A7/).

    An addition: the musicians in this concert also featured members of Mayangkara, a gamelan group created by Purbo Asmoro, the dhalang (and they, too, have a website, at http://www.purboasmoro.com/Mayangkara.php). It was a real treat and privilege for us in Kusuma Laras to share the stage with these eminent musicians who were so skilled, knowledgable and sensitive.

    • says

      thanks for the clarifications, Joseph — I should have myself explained that Gamelan Semar Pegulingan, to which I linked, is Balinese, not Javanese. It happens to be my favorite gamelan recording, which is why I linked to it rather than a Javanese example, as Gamela Kusuma Laras performed that night. Several years ago I wrote liner notes (after some extensive research) for several albums of gamelan issued by CMP Records (http://www.artist-shop.com/cmp/), among them:Gamelan Sekar Tunjung/The Music of K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat, Kusuma Sari/Gamelan Batel Wayang Ramayana and I think Gender Wayang Permarwan/Music for ‘The Mahabharata’; among my first published articles is one I did for the Chicago Reader in the ’70s on the gamelan brought to the U.S. for the Columbia Exposition in 1893, beautifully restored at Chicago’s Field Museum, and performed on by a class of civilian volunteers who gathered weekly. It must be a thrill — treat and privilege — to sit among the gamelan instruments; it is certainly a thrill, treat and privilege to see and hear it all.