Staging a trash show
Most of the props look familiar: A white sheet, a sun gun and a jaunty tale-teller whose sage features set the mood for an authentic shadowplay.
Although the characters that jerk and spin their way across the screen resemble traditional wayang characters there are notable differences. The flat features and curly coiffures prompt recognition, though not the colors.
They are too gaudy; they lack finesse. Which suits the message and messenger just fine. For there’s not a lot of understatement in Jumaali’s Trash Theater starring the All New Plastic Puppets of Marvellous Malang, though he prefers to call his knockabout show Dharmakandha.
The ancient Hindu word has so many literal and metaphorical senses that scholars wrestle with the subtleties. Jumaali is more pragmatic; he translates it as ‘good news’.
Ki (the title is a respectful recognition of knowledge) Jumaali, 49, (above with son Damar) looks the part with white turban and black gear. He graduated from Yogyakarta’s prestigious Institut Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Arts Institute) after studying theater.
He started experimenting with puppets more than 20 years ago using the standards – cowhide, goatskin and buffalo leather. All have to be well cured and flexible enough to be cut, shaped, perforated, trimmed, colored and finished with a character.
“I live near a trash dump so there’s no shortage of raw materials,” he said. (The latest published estimates claim Indonesians consume 15.7 billion liters of bottled water a year and sends millions of empties to landfill.)
“The best animal skins needed for wayang kulit are getting expensive and hard to source.
“I got the idea for using plastics when thinking about the way we are treating the environment and wondered if we could use some of the throwaways differently.
“It took a lot of experiments before I learned how to squash the water bottles and keep them flat. I stamped on them, sat on them and hammered them. Now I use a steam electric clothes iron protected from the plastic by paper to smooth them into shape.
“I can make about 50 puppets from a kilo of discards. I then apply a semi transparent paint to add color.”
There’s nothing arty-crafty about his puppets which are known as bolak balik, meaning they can be shown on both sides – but also implying different interpretations. They still look like wrinkled plastic, moving parts hinged with rivets, the lot tarted up to fit a tradition.
The music comes from a tambourine. Dalang (puppet masters) have to be multi-talented – flicking and flying the marionettes, telling the story with verve, sometimes singing and enhancing the mood with sound effects.
When he’s not behind the screen he’s in front declaiming verse in the bluster style now favored in cafes where poets cluster.
Jumaali’s stories include anecdotes about caring for nature and puzzling over lifestyles and religion. He wonders why God didn’t instruct animals to fast like human beings. In one scene the white sheet is filled by an image of a multi-hued blossomy tree, a delight to the eye.
Enter an axeman. The tree falls and vanishes. The feller flees. The screen is empty. No doctorate in conservation required to get the point.
“I give performances everywhere, from foreign embassies in Jakarta to poor schools in the country,” he said. “I think what I do is unique.
“My tales are about our responsibility to nature and maintaining cleanliness, to cooperate and communicates, to be polite and helpful. I hand out the puppets and let the kids play with them. They are not precious and almost sacred objects like traditional leather puppets so can take rough treatment.
“With students I get them to name characters, develop stories and make their own wayang kulit, to develop their imagination. I want to keep art accessible to grassroots people.
“Wayang kulit performances in Yogyakarta are getting elitist, almost feudal. I can’t draw so I had to look for other ways to express myself.”
Jumaali was raised in Malang where his father and other relatives were involved in teaching silat and believes his move into theater was a reaction against the martial arts, though he stresses he was never hurt when his Dad practised.
Jumaali has a crafty family. His teenage son Damar tags along to events involving children and is now playing with characters made from cardboard. His wife Ariyani Pratiwi makes handicrafts from trash.
“We are now in an era where brands are almost sacred and halal (checked for religious purity). Names have become more important than the product and the purpose for which it was designed,” he said.
“That’s something I don’t like so I want to help them expand their creativity. I don’t want to be a lecturer. I say: ‘Please be happy with what you have and not be greedy. Make your own entertainment.’”
Out of the shadows
Wayang probably came from India with Hinduism 19 centuries ago, but developed its own style and character, adding new figures and stories.
Originally performed in the royal courts of Java and Bali the puppets soon clambered over palace walls and into the lives of ordinary folk as a popular pastime. Other islands in the archipelago found wayang appealing so picked up the skills and added new versions.
Jumaali’s puppets may be dismissed by purists but his innovations are faithful to a tradition of adaptation; had the art remained statistic it would not have survived.
In the days before radio and TV wayang performances were a popular means of spreading news and criticising authority in an oblique way to avoid censorship. The shows often lasted all night – they now run for an hour or less depending on the audience.
In 2008 UNESCO added wayang kulit to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, putting the onus on the Indonesian government to ensure the art survives.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 July 2017)