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“The Island on the Middle” The Domains of Wayang Golek Menak: The Rod-Puppetry of Central Java

  • Robert S. Petersemi


Before my performance of wayang golek menak (a rod-puppet performance of Islamic legends) Pak Narto, my teacher in Central Java, was trying to dress me for the role of a dhalang, the puppeteer of a wayang. He tugged down on the batik sarong, already wrapped low about my waist, and pulled at the dress hat and jacket that pinched my head and bound my shoulders, as if he could have concealed that I was anything more or less than a large American in Javanese dress. That evening, in the village of Gombong on the South coast of Central Java, I would perform a demonstration of wayang golek menak. I had only arrived a few months before to undertake my research with Pak Narto and was hastily prepared to perform for a celebration surrounding the wedding of his wife's cousin. After my brief demonstration, there would be an all night wayang performance by Pak Narto's brother, Pak Kuswanto.



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1 The word wayang (pronounced why-ahng) is used to mean any form of traditional theatre in Java and Bali, involving people, masks, or puppets. For the puposes of this paper, wayang is used to refer to the practices in the puppet theatre on the South coast of Central Java. Javanese words such as wayang, dhalang, and gamelan can be either singular or plural depending on the context.

This performance took place on 23 May 1988. The majority of the research for this article was conducted over a nine month period in 1988 funded by a Fulbright Grant and was concluded during a one month stay in January 1992. The article has been developed from my masters thesis at Brown University “Umar and Amir: The Iconography and Ethos of the Rod-Puppetry of Central Java” (1992). I am greatly indebted to John Emigh as my thesis advisor and to Kathy Foley and Laurie J. Sears for their helpful comments.

2 I use this comparison not to quality my position as a performer, but to characterize the role of the dhalang and nature of “domains” in wayang. By domains I am referring to John Emigh's use of a category of ideas established by cultural associations, or founded on emic units, “The Domains of Topeng,” Art and Politics in Southeast Asian History: Six Perspectives, ed. Robert van Nial, Southeast Asian Paper 32 (Manoa: Univ. of Hawaii Ctr. for Southeast Asian Studies, 1989), 65–94.

3 Anderson, Benedict, Mythology and Tolerance of the Javanese, Cornell Indonesia Project no. 37 (Ithaca: Cornell Modern Indonesia Project, n.d.).

4 Keeler, Ward, Javanese Shadow Plays, Javanese Selves (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1987), 158.

5 Prawiroatmojo, n.t., n.p.i., 1980, 185.

6 Keeler, 268.

7 Kawi, an ancient form of Javanese, serves a similar function in wayang. As Ward Keeler notes, Kawi is not a conversational language and, when spoken in a wayang performance, usually is a redundant statement that does not add signification to the narrative. Instead, Kawi inserts a pause while audiences try to grasp its obscure meaning. This causes a “split second delay between sound and sense, which is pleasurable,” 231.

8 There may be a connection between semu and what Eugenio Barba has observed in other performance traditions as the “pre-expressive” state. This is where the performer's body becomes “dilated,” exhibiting a potential for activity; see Barba, , The Secret Art of the Performer: A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology (London: Routledge, 1991), 186–9.

9 Robson, S. O., “Kakawin Reconsidered: Toward a Theory of Old Javanese Aesthetics,” Birdragen tot de taal–, Land en Volkenkunde, 139, 2/3 (1983): 293–4.

10 McVey, Ruth, “The Wayang Controversy in Indonesian Communism,” Context, Meaning and Power in Southeast Alia, eds. Hobart, Mark and Taylor, Robert, SEAP (Cornell: Southeast Asia Program, 1986).

11 Sears, Laurie J., “Aesthetic Displacement in Javanese Shadow Theatre: Three Contemporary Performance Styles,” The Drama Review, 33, 3 (1989): 122–40.

12 Scheduler, Richard, “Wayang Kulit in the Colonial Margin,” The Drama Review, 34, 2 (1990): 2561.

13 Anderson, Benedict, “The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture,” Culture and Politics in Indonesia, ed. Anderson, Holt and Siegel, (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977).

14 The legendary origins of wayang golek menak are recorded in the Sastra Miruda by KBH Kusmadilaga of Surakarta. Written in the 19th century, this text relates the legend of the Wali Sunan Kudus who, in 1583, created wayang golek specifically to perform the menak stories.

15 Pigeaud, Theodore G., Literature in Java (Hague: Ninjoff, 1967), 214.

16 Pigeaud, 214.

17 Ng., R. M. N.Poerbatjaraka, Tjerita Pandji dalam Perbandingan (Jakarta: Gunung Agung, 1968), 410–11.

18 There is some evidence to suggest that the menak tradition developed out of an association with rural Islamic mysticism. Space prohibits me from detailing this evidence, but suggestion of some association can be found in Kumar's, A.L.The ‘Suryengalagan Affair’ of 1883 and its Successors: Born leaders in Changed Times,” Bijdragen tot de taal-, Land en volkenkunde 138, 2/3, (1982): 251–84.

19 Kunst, Jaap, Music in Java: Its History, Its Theory, Its Technique, 2 vols. trans. Loo, Emile van (Hague: Nijhoff, 1949).

20 For a more in-depth discussion of the relation of the musical structure to the dramatic play divisions see A.L. Becker. A more detailed description of the menak dramatic structure can be found in my masters thesis “Umar and Amir: Iconograghy and Ethos of the Rod-Puppetry of Central Java” from Brown University (1992).

21 All of the examples of technical effects described here come from the puppet chest of Pak Siswotaryono, who is presently the most active dhalang in the area of Kabumen. For a more detailed description of the technical inventions surrounding the wayang golek purwa of West Java, see my article “The Role of the Raksasa,” The Drama Review, 35, 2 (1991): 129–39.

22 Reynard, John, Islam and the Heroic Image: Themes in Literature and the Visual Arts (Columbia, SC: South Carolina Univ. Press, 1993), 6263.

23 The geographical correlation between menak stories and the modern world was first expressed to me by Pak Narto in April 1988. The word “zombie” was his own translation for me of the Javanese word moloekat: a servant to a higher power that is either evil or benign.

24 This distinction made between the magical and the mystical is made by R.M. Sarsita in Mangkunagoro VII's discussion on the symbolic meaning of wayang (translated by Clair Holt 1993): 3–10.

25 This description is based on a video recording made in Prembun of a demonstration by Pak Ruiswanto, on 2 January 1992.

26 Umarmaya berdandanan

Jimat sekti soda yawus ri nakit

Gulu badhong mas mancur

Gelang kering lawan kanan

Pedang Wilah

Lawan Sabuk tali datu

Caping ira Basunanda

Jimat Kasang cipta dadi O.

This suluk was recorded by Narto, Pak in “Sulukan Wayang Golek Gaya Bapak Sindu Jotaryono, Kabumen,” Seminar Paper MS, Adademi Seni Karawitan Indonesia, no. Induk 174681 (1983), 18. The translation into English is my own.

27 Ronkel, Ph. S. van, De Roman van Amir Hamza (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1895), 239.

28 Ronkel, 673, 614 and 673.

29 The only English translation I was able to locate of an Arabic Hamza story was a very condensed version of the death of Hamza, Amir by Knappert, Jan, Islamic Legends, 2 vols. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1985): 404–5 [no specific source cited by Knappert].

“The Island on the Middle” The Domains of Wayang Golek Menak: The Rod-Puppetry of Central Java

  • Robert S. Petersemi


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