In Indonesia, a popular form of theater is the ancient wayang or shadow puppet theater. Puppetry masters, called dalang, train in their arts for years and are spiritual leaders of the community. The duties of a dalang are intricate and are considered vital to ensuring the protection and well-being of society.
Dalang are typically men, and the profession is usually handed down from father to son. Some modern dalang families stretch back generations, although the social status associated with the position attracts many young men not from family dynasties. An apprenticeship lasts several years, and includes training in healing and drastic meditation techniques meant to build stamina, as a typical wayang performance can last up to nine hours.
In a wayang performance, the dalang sits behind a cotton screen, with a light source above him. Soft wood logs, traditionally made of banana wood, sit between him and the screen. During the performance, the puppet master can stick the rods of the puppets into the soft wood, holding them in place. To his right sits the puppet chest, which the puppet master uses as a drum during the performance, hitting it with a special wooden mallet. Usually, he also has a cymbal-like percussion instrument at his feet, that he uses for emphasis or to cue musicians.
The order of entrance by puppet characters is strictly controlled. The first puppet to enter is always a representation of a mountain or tree of life, called the kayon or gunagun. Demon or evil characters must always enter from the left side of the screen, supposedly coming from the demon world. Wayang night-long plays are often timed specifically, with the entrance of Rama, Arjuna or a similar hero character coming exactly at midnight.
Wayang plays are usually tales from the two major Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Each of these tales carries morals or meanings, and a dalang must judge which tale is appropriate for a particular performance. It is often his job to contextualize the plays, making them not only retellings of history but relevant to current community, national or world situations.
Puppeteers have considerable social status in Indonesian society, and are often attributed with healing and spiritual powers. As they represent the voices of the gods and iconic religious figures, the puppet masters are sometimes considered conduits between the world of gods and the world of men. They are also highly revered for their manifold artistic abilities by the community. In a typical performance, the dalang must not only have the stories memorized and provide all voices, but also must invent comedic and often politically relevant dialogue, sing traditional songs, and conduct any additional musicians.
Shadow puppet plays are frequently requested during periods of community turmoil or disaster. Audiences who attend a wayang performance are said to be temporarily warded from harm, and shadow puppet theater is also believed by some to have the ability to exorcise evil influences. The ability of the puppet master to discuss social and political problems through interpretation of the play is also highly respected, and dalang’s are considered to be important mediators in difficult times.