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How Wayang storytelling is changing

Wayang is a centuries-old Javanese tradition, but this style of puppet theatre is undergoing serious change. Kathryn Emerson shows this based on the work of Purbo Asmoro. PhD defence 28 June.

Purbo Asmoro is a well-known puppeteer (dhalang) whose fame extends far beyond Java. His Wayang performances can last a whole night, from sunset to sunrise. They are very popular among the Javanese people themselves as well as among tourists.  

Rock music and fireworks

‘Although Wayang performances have been a firm part of Javanese tradition for centuries, they are in a process of change,’ Emerson, a PhD candidate of Southeast Asian Studies, explains. ‘As an example, in the past a story might have been about fire, whereas now it will be about electricity. And some modern shows even use rock music or fireworks.’

To the point

Emerson, who has worked for Asmoro as a translator,  believes that the changes in Asmoro’s work are much more fundamental and go beyond the purely cosmetic.  ‘Asmoro always makes sure that his stories get straight to the point. He knows he can reach his audience more directly if he starts with an exciting opening scene and if there is a clear theme running through the performance.’ That’s a serious change in comparison with traditional Wayang performances that always started with a long-drawn-out scene set in a Javanese court.

Key theme

Emerson: ‘Take the Mahabharata epic, for example, that originated from India. It starts with the introduction of the main characters, who first discuss at great length a party they intend to give. Then the musicians play a long solo on the traditional gamelan, and the main characters also go on a journey. It’s not until around midnight that you’ve worked out what’s going on: angry King Jarasandha is aiming to dominate the country.’ In Asmoro’s alternative version, one of the main characters has a vision about the cruel king early in the story, which makes clear immediately what the theme is.

Good compromise

As early as the 1970s other puppeteers were experimenting with similar ideas. They tried to reduce the enormously long performances to a show of just an hour. The public were not amused: a true Wayang performance should last the whole night. Asmoro has come up with a good compromise: a lengthy performance which can be used as entertainment at weddings and other ceremonies, but with a more exciting plot. And the gamelan players? In Asmoro’s shows their role is simply to support the story.

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