English helps Indonesia's puppet art out of shadows

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia (Reuters) - Indonesia’s shadow puppetry performances are steeped in tradition, but one artist from the country’s cultural heartland is giving this ancient art a modern makeover by translating it in English.

Shadow puppetry, or wayang, has been drawing crowds for over half a millennium with its distinctly Indonesian music, intricately carved protagonists, riots of color and plots based on ancient fables with their moral messages or stories from religious texts, such as the Ramayana.

Now, puppet master Ki Sigit Sabdo Prijono is hoping to promote this age-old tradition, which has been recognized by the U.N.’s cultural agency UNESCO as a masterpiece of humanity, across borders by making it more understandable to foreigners.

He is also hoping to reach a younger, more Westernized generation of Indonesians who often turn to television, video games and the Internet for entertainment.

“We still use a Javanese wayang story but we tell it in English,” explains 41-year-old Prijono, who first performed in English at the University of Michigan in the United States, where he has worked as a lecturer since 2003.

“There is no problem at all as far as communication as long as people know what wayang is and they know who is Rama and who is Sita,” he added, referring to stories in the sacred Hindu text, the Ramayana, which he enjoys performing.


Prijono hails from a village in Purwokerto, Central Java and his English is basic, but that hasn’t stopped him from conducting performances using mismatched phrases and confused grammar.

Deftly moving his fingers behind the white screen, Prijono enchants audiences with his large selection of puppets, often based on mythological characters, which cast shadows across the canvas to the sound of the gamelan and other traditional musical instruments.

Although its roots are deeply entrenched in Javanese society, Prijono’s colleague at the University of Michigan, Charlie Sullivan, said the English performances are helping to make wayang more accessible to a lot more people.

“I’m very glad we are able to work with that and also that we are able to help the traditional form also stay very strong,” he said. “It’s based on very strong culture and then that culture can also be translated nicely.”

Prijono and Sullivan say there is an increased number of American students attending wayang classes in the United States -- a sign that foreign interest is indeed growing.

And the tourists are also enjoying it more.

“It helps foreigners like me to understand what is going on and it is just more enjoyable,” said Alex Castle, an American who attended a wayang performance recently. “It gives me a better understanding I guess than if it was totally in Javanese.”