Puppet masters at work
Published/Last edited or updated: 23rd January, 2018
You’ve probably seen the ubiquitous Indonesian wayang kulit, shadow puppets, but in West Java the traditional Sundanese form of puppet theatre utilises three dimensional wooden rod puppets known as wayang golek.
As with the wayang kulit, shows are usually performed by one dalang (puppet master) based on the Hindu epic tales, the Ramayana and Mahabarata. The dalang not only manipulates the puppets, but breathes life into them employing a range of emotive voices, often with several characters on the stage at once. This form of entertainment is usually performed at wedding or circumcision parties and performances can last several hours.
The stories are familiar and known to the audience, but a couple of “clown” characters routinely ad lib adding humour or political comment. The puppets are made in small home workshops where traditional craftsmen hand carve, paint and dress the puppets, but as with many traditional skills, this is a dying art as the shows are performed less and less due to the high cost of staging a show. Nowadays, these small works of art are more likely to be bought by collectors than made for actual performances.
Wayang golek make unique handcrafted souvenirs, but even if you don’t particular care to own one, it’s interesting to visit the workshops and see the mastery that goes into producing them. We visited two workshops in Bogor, the home of Pak Dase, and Media Art and Handicraft.
Pak Dase has being making wayang golek, for more than 30 years in the small riverside village of Lebak Kantin, located just north of the botanical gardens. The workshop is simply Pak Dase’s house with his loungeroom the showroom. We didn’t see any of the production at this workshop, possibly as we dropped by unannounced, so if you wish to appreciate the actual making, call ahead. We did however enjoy viewing his extensive collection, much of which is for sale and chatting to Pak Dase about the puppets. Prices start at 175,000 rupiah for small simple puppets and are around 425,000 for more elaborate ones. For something really special, Pak Dase can make a puppet in your likeness—he’ll need a photograph and around two weeks to finish. These unique puppets cost around 3,250,000 rupiah and stand about 75 centimetres high.
Visiting Pak Dase’s workshop can be a little daunting as although it’s marked on Google Maps, there is no signage, but many of the locals know that this is the only reason a foreigner is in their midst. Head to the northern edge of the botanical gardens and cross to the eastern side of the river. Follow the river north until you reach the red footbridge. Cross the footbridge, enter the village and ask for the wayang golek or Pak Dase. A local will take you to his house.
If you wish to see a bit more action, you’ll have to travel a little further: Pak Enday Media runs Media Art and Handicraft about four kilometres west of the gardens in the village of Loji. Here in this slightly larger home workshop we were able to view a number of craftsmen carving and painting the puppets turning a simple block of wood into a miniature masterpiece. Local minibuses (angkutan) run nearby, but Media Art and Handicraft is more easily reached by taxi or ojek.
For travellers venturing to Pangandaran, you may care to visit the larger wayang golek workshops there where the craftsmen also are the dalangs and often perform a small impromptu show, bringing the characters to life with showmanship and surprising realism. Alternatively you can catch a performance as part of the Saung Angklung Udjo show in Bandung.
Media Art and Handicraft: 60 Sirnagalih RT 1/7, Loji, Bogor; T: (0251) 358 808; firstname.lastname@example.org
Pak Dase: Lebak Kantin RT 02/VI, Bogor; T: (0813) 8303 9282; (0812) 9367 4331
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.