WAYANG PURWA - WHAT THE CHARIOTEER KNEW
There are shadows.
The people in the courtyard are dressed neatly, some rather formally. A few are wearing dark green and brown patterned batik, but most of the women are somewhat more brightly clothed. The darker and plainer hues are old-fashioned, traditionally upper-class.
The children among the crowd are casually garbed, and seem perhaps more alive (or lively) because of it. A voice from beyond the screen gives a high pitched chant to a background of metallic instruments and subdued interlocking rhythms.
Imperceptibly the tempo speeds up, then with a sudden clangor the two people whom everyone has been waiting for make their appearance.
Those being a grossly fat short fellow with a pug nose and a humongous rump, and his gangly flabby son with a long proboscis.
KYAI LURO SEMAR, KYAI PETRUK
The dhalang introduces them.
“Here is Semar, the lowly servant, also known as Kyai Luro - the venerable elder. And indeed he is venerable, for he is the master of deep knowledge, and represents all things to all people, yet he is also entirely the opposite of those things. Does he seem old? Then he is young and full of life! Fat and misshapen? No, he is the most loveable of men! Coarse and rather dull? Far from it, he is the oldest of divine beings, older even than the heroes, the very first creation that sprung from the dream of the deity! Consigned to earth to serve his distant kin in disguise, he comes with his son Petruk, possessor of the impressively twitching nose."
To many Javanese, Semar and Petruk are much more important than any of the actual heroes of the play, for they speak the common language, and comment with sharpness and humour about events, throwing everything into focus. The obese dwarf Semar is in fact the preserver of their Island, whose presence predates Hinduism, far predates Islam. And though he and his family serve royal masters, who are the knights and gallants of the tales, Semar and his sons are the true owners of the narrative - without them there would be little excitement, scant humour, no clarity.
They are ugly and unrefined, but their misshapen forms hide their true natures.
Semar, Petruk, sad-hearted Nalagareng of the twisted leg, and, in Tjirebon, the third of Semar's sons, Sekar Pandan - whose neck is obscenely long because he got caught in a tree during his precipitous descent from Suryalaya - are the companions of royalty, true to themselves, forthright, and wise without pretense.
THE CATTLE PEN OF KURU
Wayang kulit (shadow theatre) for the most part retells the chapters of the Mahabharata, that being the conflict between the five Pandawa brothers (Yudistira, Bima, Ardjuna, Nakula, Sahadewa) representing the side of good, and their cousins the hundred Kurawa, who are NOT on the side of good. There is still a measure of virtue and righteousness on the other side, and there are flaws among the Pandawa and their host - nothing is black and white, and the tale is more complex than the mere premise. The only thing simple about it is that through trickery the Pandawa were cheated out of their inheritance, and spent several years wandering in exile.
Although Ardjuna and Yudistira are the ideal men in the stories, comparable to the knights of European tales, there are two other characters who are often much more admirable, because they are less than perfect - Bima the giant, second of the Pandawa brothers, and his half-demonic son Gatot-Katja, begotten of Hidimbi the ogress.
This being late at night, Gatotkatja is now at his most powerful. Unlike his father, he is somewhat less encumbered by rigid righteousness, but he is much more humble and likely to sympathize with others.
At the culmination of the epic, in combat on the field of Kuru, he is the fighter most feared by the Kurawa, and it is his death which Duryodana their king most fervently desires. Gatotkatja's distant kinsman Karna slays him at Duryodana's command by wielding the divine weapon which can only be used once - and thus loses the war for his own side, as there is now nothing that the Kurawa have to counter Prince Ardjuna.
Note: Both Bima and his son have an elongated claw-like middle finger, symbolic of momentous deeds.
The great war took place centuries ago, and all who were there have died, and been reborn, and died again. The warriors who perished on the battlefield, the survivors and their companions, the five Pandawa who after their victory finally travelled to the north seeking answers, King Yudistira and the faithful dog he would not enter heaven without. They are all gone.
Yet at times the heroes of that age live once more and their spirits come among their descendants. The shadow-play invites them back, and shows the audience how one is supposed to face life and conduct oneself; the story-teller wielding the puppets channels their vibrant intelligences and guides the forces unleashed by the performance.
This is séance, and totemic enactment. By reawakening the ancient champions, the present is changed and controlled.
Gallant Gatotkatja never really died - all you have to do is think of him, and there he is.
Later the audience will drift off, leaving only a few people still in the courtyard, drowsing while the dhalang chants the confrontation that is the focus of this particular tale. The side of good will win, significantly while most people are asleep and unaware. Only the players of the bronze instruments will hear the details and the significance of events.
At last, in the hour before dawn, the knights and their entourage triumphantly march back to Indraprasta. The music quickens: the master of the tale, voicing Semar, sings exultantly, and the slumbering few before the screen awaken and stretch.
The performance lasted all night; it ends when the dhalang chants the closing invocations, putting the spirits to rest and returning the sacred enclosure created by the play back to the world of men.
The incense that burned all night flares briefly at the final tip of the coil, then even that spark fades to white.
Wayang is entertainment, philosophy, exorcism, and a reforming of the world.
Plus wit, eloquence, and the representation of ideals.
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