Javanese Shadow-Puppet Play: Bima’s Quest for Enlightenment

Wayang (shadow puppet) performance at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries in Washington, D.C.

The Katonah Village Library is known, among its many cultural offerings, for its Worlds of Music series. On Saturday, March 14, thanks to a grant from the American Indonesian Cultural & Educational Foundation, the library will present a special performance of Javanese wayang (shadow puppetry) by the Shadow Puppet Theater of Java.

The performance will be led by Wesleyan University professor Sumarsam, who has played the Javanese gamelan since childhood and is also a keen amateur dhalang (puppeteer) of wayang puppet play.

Local resident Jack Freudenheim was a student of Sumarsam at Wesleyan in the 1970s. “I loved seeing the Javanese gamelan orchestra perform there,” he said, “and Sumarsam, who was a grad student there at the time, led several shadow puppet performances. Done in the traditional way, they would go on for many hours, late into the night, and it was an entrancing experience.”

Mr. Freudenheim, a Katonah resident since 2003, has helped bring music from many cultures to perform at the library. “Our Worlds of Music series has had wonderful people from the countries of India, Zimbabwe, Japan, Lebanon, Ireland, Brazil and now Indonesia,” he said.

Accompanied by a 12-piece gamelan orchestra, Sumarsam will manipulate the puppets, deliver the dialogue, describe the scene and signal the orchestra to play. Audience members can move in front of the large screen, to view the shadows, or behind the screen, to watch the puppeteer.

Sumarsam provided background about the upcoming performance in an email to The Record-Review.

“The Javanese wayang kulit or wayang purwa (shadow-play with flat leather puppets) is one of the great dramatic forms of the East,” he wrote. “It provides a means of contact with the ancestral spirits and establishes an atmosphere of serenity and balance. It is also a means of educating the young in the wisdom of the culture, and it employs, as a frame of reference, philosophical and mystical ideas.”

Sumarsam explained that the play falls into three main divisions defined by the planting of a tree or mountain in the center of the stage, marking the line between competing positive and negative forces.

“The dhalang is in complete charge of the performance,” Sumarsam continued. “During the performance he manipulates the puppets, delivers all the dialogue in many voices, describes the scene, comments on the meaning — often drawing on events of the day — and signals the orchestra what and when to play.”

A gamelan, using various combination of instruments, is the traditional and essential accompaniment to puppet shows, dances, feasts and ceremonies in Java, Sumarsam wrote. Most of the instruments are bronze: tuned gongs, suspended vertically or horizontally, and instruments with tuned keys, suspended over tubular resonators or a resonant cavity in the base of the instrument. Other instruments include a two-stringed fiddle, xylophones and drums. A full Javanese gamelan comprises two sets of instruments, one in each of two tuning systems.

Sumarsam noted that audience members will encounter rather “strange” puppets, with elaborate carving and colorful ornaments of their attire. The puppeteer operates one or more puppets at a time, by holding the main stick and two sticks attached to the puppet’s arms to make the arms move. There will be various characters, including a prince, giants, clowns, gods and more, and a fight scene.

“In Java, the language for dialogues among the characters and narration is in modern Javanese language sprinkled with old Javanese words,” Sumarsam explained. “In our performance in Katonah, I will present the story in a mixture of Javanese and English. I hope the audience will attend the pre-performance talk. I’ll show different characters and movements of the puppets, dialogues and singing, and gamelan music.”

Wayne Forrest, who is chairman of the American Indonesian Cultural & Educational Foundation, explained why the organization approved the grant for the library.

“We tend to give money to activities that engage the public and involve expert artists from Indonesia. What was very appealing about the Katonah Library’s grant application was that it fit the Foundation’s mission to support quality cultural activities that are available to the public. The Katonah application fits the bill.” He also cited “knowledge of world performance traditions” on the part of Mr. Freudenheim and other World Music Series members as a positive factor in awarding the grant.

The Shadow Puppet Theater of Java performance is at 7:30 p.m., with a pre-show explanation by Sumarsam beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets are $10, $5 for students and seniors.

For tickets and more information, call 232-3508 or visit katonahlibrary.org.

Katonah Village Library is located at 26 Bedford Road, Katonah.

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