Don’t pull my strings – Wayang museum, Jakarta

Next on my list of places for sightseeing in Jakarta was the Wayang Museum (‘wayang’ is ‘puppet’ in English). Puppet shows are still very big in Indonesia. My guide told me that a long time ago common people were not educated and could not read or write. The only way to teach or entertain them was through puppet shows.

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As soon as I walked into the museum a well dressed man appeared by my side. He propelled me to the front of the queue and demanded a foreigner ticket. I was a bit uncomfortable because other visitors had to wait longer, but on the other hand it saved me some time.

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This man introduced himself as Aldy – master puppeteer. Aldy announced that he would be my guide for  the day and he didn’t expect any money from me. His offer sounded good to me, and I agreed. His English was excellent, which helped me to understand the explanations.

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Majority of the puppets on display  were from epic stories like Ramayana and Mahabaratha. Since I have been to India a few times and I already knew basic stories and the main characters.

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Puppets greatly varied in size. Some of them were huge like in front of the museum, some were really small. The long gallery from the entrance to the main showrooms was lined with Rama, Parvatti, Ganesha and other characters.

 

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Further down in one corner were puppets related to fights for independence. Some stories were based on real events, happening during struggle against colonisators and internal wars.

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Women also participated in those fights and rightfully had their own display.

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Puppets can be three-dimensional like dolls or flat cut-outs. The stories were always based on the battle between good and evil. And the good side would always win in order to give hope to the viewers.

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This puppet is a bit more elaborate with restricted arm movement. Maybe it’s just me, but they are not very pretty.

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Wayang museum presents puppets from all over the world. Two large rooms are filled with “international” characters.

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On this display there are puppets from Kerala, South India.

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These dolls are from China.

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This unicorn was born in America. It is a marionette.

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Marionettes were more popular in Europe than in Asia. Here is a collection of puppets from France.

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Typical British Punch and Judy.

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People, licing in Indonesia, grew up with Unyil, Cuplis, Usro, Menik, Meilani and Pak Raden . They are the characters of Unyil, one of Indonesian most- loved puppet shows on TV.

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Every day at 3 pm at the adjacent theatre the staff runs a short show. The price for this show is included into the tickets.

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This was a very old show booth, which is occasionally used these days as well. If there are important visitors at the museum (not me, of course) or a special religious event, then this booth is very carefully transported into the theatre.

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My guide Aldy came from family of puppeteers. His grand great father was traveling all over Jawa with his puppets. Since then it has been a family business and tradition. Aldy himself produces puppets, writes new stories and runs the shows.

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After we finished a tour of the museum he offered for me to visit his studio. Maybe it was not really wise, but I followed him through some narrow alleys and dirty corridors to the back street about 5 minutes from the museum. I was not even scared, to tell the truth. We walked into a small room and he closed the door. This was his kingdom. And he was The Puppet Master.

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Aldy explained to me a whole process of making puppets and showed the basic processes.

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He buys cow hide and leaves it to soak in some acid to remove fat and tissue. After that he stretches it over a wooden frame. He repeats this process a few times . After that the hide becomes strong, stiff and is ready for manufacturing.

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Any wrong movement and the whole piece can be ruined. After the design is punched through, Aldy colours in the characters.

The most popular piece is The Tree of Life or Gunungan. It has two sides: good and evil. The good side is colourful, cheerful and displays positive characters. It is very pretty.

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The other side has an evil face, it must not be seen by people to avoid bad luck.The Tree of Life usually is placed near the wall with a candle behind it. When light is on, the shadow on the wall looks just amazing, it’s like a lace.

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This puppet is made using the same technique, but with moving arms and head. The joints are pretty flexible which helps to express emotions.

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Aldy did did not have a candle at the workshop, but he strategically placed a table lamp to show me the desired effect.

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The most popular set of 3 puppets and a wooden stand cost anything between $20-$300 ( any currency accepted). Aldy is not only a skilled craftsman and actor, he is also accomplished salesman. Because only at this stage I realised that the whole “I am your guide, no pay” phrase was a trick to sell me his puppets.

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To encourage me to spend real money Aldy showed me some photos of  diplomats, politicians and royalty posing together with him. He also told me that seven years ago he visited Monash University in Melbourne with his show. I still would not commit to spend real money on puppets. To reinforce his stories he showed me a visitors book  where among important guests was a comment from an Ukrainian couple. I got excited, as it was like a blast from the past. I knew that city very well.

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I was a bit disappointed with his tactics, but this is his business and he needs sales to support his family. It’s not his fault that I am still naive and gullible.

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I did not want to leave as it was really interesting place. Hundreds of puppets in different stages of making were poking from everywhere.

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I could not make up my mind and as it was my last day in Indonesia, I had limited amount of Indonesian money left. Finally I made a decision and bought the whole set,  which is proudly displayed on my mantelpiece. It is authentic, very beautiful and is a great conversation starter. When I really want to impress my visitors, I light a candle behind the puppets and let them admire the shadows.

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When I came back from Indonesia my boss asked me which  places I managed to squeeze into this short visit. As soon as I mentioned Wayang Museum, his eyes lit up and he asked if I met Aldy. I was a bit surprised, to say the least. According to my boss  absolutely the same scenario happened to him last year with a “special” visit to the workshop and the same stories. He also bought the same set.

So, if you ever go to Indonesia, spare some time to visit puppet museum and say hello to Aldy from me.

 

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