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Shadow Puppet of Bima

Shadow puppet, from Java, Indonesia
AD 1600–1800

When the young Barack Obama was taken to Java to live with his new Indonesian stepfather, he was astonished to see, standing astride the road, a giant statue with the body of a man and the head of an ape. He was told that it was Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god. The reason why a huge Hindu god was being portrayed in the streets of modern Muslim Indonesia is a fascinating story of tolerance and absorption, a relaxed compromise between religions unlike any of the other solutions to the problems of multi-faith societies that we have been looking at. And it is a story that can in some ways be summed up by a puppet from the Indonesian shadow theatre, a celebrated art form that is living but ancient, utterly traditional but also full of contemporary politics. Through this puppet and his companions, we can explore a great expanse of religious and political transformation which began in south-east Asia 500 years ago and which still affects the region today.

The puppet shown here, one of several hundred that we have in the collection, dating from over 200 years ago to the present day, is from the Indonesian island of Java. It stands about 70 centimetres (30 inches) high, and represents a male character in stark dramatic profile. His name is Bima. Bima has very distinctive, almost caricature facial features – a very long nose, for example – and long thin arms, each ending in a single large claw. Over his body are delicate lace-like perforations that would have made his shadow even more dramatic during performance. Bima’s face is black, but he is wearing gold clothes and brightly coloured decorations. Although he is lifeless and fragile now, once he would have enthralled audiences in all-night performances at a Javanese court. This kind of performance was known then, and still is known, as the Theatre of Shadows.

The puppet’s actual shape is the product of one of the most dramatic religious changes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. While Spain was converting the New World to Catholicism, Islam spread across what is today Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines, and by 1600 most Javanese people were Muslim. But the Theatre of Shadows had been a feature of life in Java long before the arrival of Islam. Bima himself is a character known not just in Java but across the whole of India, because he figures in the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata. In Java, though, this Hindu character came to be operated by Muslim puppeteers and performed in front of audiences who were also Muslim. Nobody seems to have minded, and the Indonesian Theatre of Shadows has continued to combine pagan, Hindu and Muslim elements right up to the present day.

Making a puppet like our Bima was, and still is, an immensely skilled job, requiring several different craftsmen. It is made out of carefully prepared buffalo hide, which has been scraped and stretched until it has become thin and translucent. It was this material that provided the Javanese name for the theatre – Wayang Kulit – ‘skin theatre’. The puppet was then gilded and painted, and movable arms were added and handles made from buffalo horn fixed to the body and arms to control its movements.

Historically, performances in the Theatre of Shadows lasted throughout the night. Light from an oil lamp behind the puppeteer’s head cast the shadows from the puppets on to a white sheet. Some members of the audience – usually the women and children – sat on the shadow side of the screen, while the men would sit on the favoured other side. The puppeteer, known as a dalang, would not only control the puppets but also conduct the accompanying music performed by a Gamelan orchestra.

Sumarsam, a leading dalang in the Theatre of Shadows today, gives us an idea of how complicated it is to pull off a smooth shadow-puppet performance:

You need to control the puppets themselves, sometimes two, three or sometimes up to six puppets at one time, and the puppet master will have to know when to give a signal to the musicians to play. And of course the puppet master also gives voices to the puppets in different dialogues, and sometimes also he sings mood songs to set up the atmosphere of different scenes. He will have to use his arms and legs – all of this to be done while he is sitting down cross-legged. It’s fun to do it, but also a fairly challenging task. The stories can be updated, but the structure of the plot is always the same.

The stories told in the Theatre of Shadows are drawn largely from two great Hindu Indian epics – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, both written well over 2,000 years ago. They have always been widely known in Java, for Hinduism, with Buddhism, had been the main religion there before Islam became the dominant faith.

Like the Buddhism that inspired Borobudur around 800 (see Chapter 59) and the Hinduism that created the Mahabharata, Islam came to Java through the maritime trading routes that linked Indonesia to India and the Middle East. Local Javanese rulers quickly saw advantages in becoming Muslim: besides any spiritual attraction, it facilitated both their trade with the existing Muslim world and their diplomatic relations with the great Islamic powers of Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India. The new religion brought major changes in many aspects of life, but on the whole local Javanese culture and belief absorbed Islam, rather than being totally replaced by it.

The newly Islamic rulers seem to have gone along with this – they actively patronized the Theatre of Shadows and its Hindu stories, which remained as popular as ever. The audience, then as now, would immediately recognize the Bima puppet. In the Mahabharata, Bima is one of five heroic brothers (you can follow their exploits today in animations on the internet) and the great warrior among them – noble, plain-speaking and superhumanly strong, equal to 10,000 elephants, but also with a very good line in banter and something of a celebrity cook. One touch of his claw-like nails means death to his enemies.

The Bima puppet’s black face expresses inner calm and serenity, unlike depictions of the ‘bad guys’ in the Theatre of Shadows, who are often coloured red for vindictiveness and cruelty. But his shape also tells us that an Islamic influence has found its way into this traditional Hindu art. This becomes obvious if we compare our Javanese puppet of Bima, with its caricature nose and claw hands, and another puppet of Bima made on the nearby island of Bali, which remained Hindu. The figure from Bali has rounded, more natural facial features, and his arms and legs are in more normal proportions to his body. Many in Java today would argue that these differences are explained by religion; and that the traditional Hindu puppets were deliberately reshaped by their Javanese Muslim makers in order to avoid the Islamic prohibition on creating images of humans and gods. Stories are told of attempts in the sixteenth or seventeenth century to ban the Theatre of Shadows; others tell of Sunan Giri, a noted Muslim saint, who ingeniously came up with the idea of distorting the features of the puppets in order to get around the prohibition – a happy compromise that may explain our Bima’s odd appearance.

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A puppet of Bima from Bali shows more naturalistic features

Today Indonesia, with 245 million inhabitants, is the world’s most populous Islamic nation, and the Theatre of Shadows is still very much alive. The Malaysian-born author Tash Aw describes the continuing role of shadow theatre:

Even today there is a great consciousness of what goes on in the realms of shadow theatre. It’s an art form that is constantly being refreshed, that’s constantly being put to new and very exciting use. And, although the body of the works are drawn largely still from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, younger puppeteers are constantly using the shadow theatre to inject life and humour and a sort of bawdy commentary on Indonesian politics, which is difficult to replicate elsewhere. Just after the financial crisis in 1997, I remember a virtuoso monologue in Jakarta which roughly translates as ‘The tongue is still comatose’ or ‘The tongue is still mute’, in which the current President Habibie was cast as a ridiculous character called Gareng, who is short with beady eyes, incredibly earnest, but very inefficient. So, in many ways shadow theatre has become a source of social and political satire in a way that is difficult for TV, radio and newspapers to do, because those are much more easily censored; the shadow theatre is much more malleable, much more in touch with the grass roots and therefore much more difficult to control.

But it’s not just the opposition who make use of the Theatre of Shadows. The former president Sukarno, the first president after Indonesia gained independence from the Dutch following the Second World War, liked to identify himself with shadow-puppet characters, and especially with Bima – a righteous, mighty fighter, speaking like the common man rather than in elite language. Sukarno was often referred to as the dalang, the puppet master, of the Indonesian people – the one to give them voice and direct them in their new state, leading them in their national epic, as indeed he did for twenty years before being ousted in 1967.

But why is this Bima now in the British Museum? The answer, as so often, lies in European politics. For five years between 1811 and 1816, as part of the worldwide struggle against Napoleonic France, Britain occupied Java. The new British governor, Thomas Stamford Raffles, who would later found Singapore (see Chapter 59), was a serious scholar and a great admirer of Javanese culture of every period and, like all rulers of Java, he patronized the Theatre of Shadows and collected puppets. Our Bima comes from him. That short period of British rule explains something else – why the car from which the young Barack Obama saw a Hindu god in the streets of Muslim Jakarta was driving on the left-hand side of the road.

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