Indonesian Wooden Puppet Theater of West Java, the Amir Hamzah Stories and the Localization of Islam

How can traditional art forms act as a window on cultural syncretism? Specifically, what can the wayang golek cepak, or wooden puppet theater of west Java, tell us about the different cultures which came into contact in the Indo-Malay archipelago?

Through observing and analyzing the elements of Javanese and Sundanese wayang golek cepak puppets that reveal Arabic, Persian, and Islamic influences, students will learn about how societies incorporate and adapt elements of art forms that originated in other societies
and religious traditions. Students will learn about the concept of localization (syncretism).

Students will be able to:

  • Describe elements of traditional forms o ## f puppet theater in Java.
  • Identify cultural influences from various regions that are reflected in wayang golek cepak, or the puppet theater of west Java.
  • Discuss how traditional art forms incorporate, adapt, and reflect elements of other societies and religious traditions over time.
  • Understand and explore the concept of localization/syncretism.
  • Build visual literacy through analyzing photographs of wooden Javanese puppets.

Two class periods

Visual Arts, Literature and Performance
Laurie J. Sears

  1. Student Packet with background Reading by Andrew Weintraub; Synopsis of “Menak Laré,” or “The Tale of Youth”; and Puppet Analysis Guide
  2. Photos of wayang golek puppets to analyze (see slideshow section on puppets)
  3. Southeast Asia Map: Conversion to Islam
  4. Political Map of Indo-Malay Region
  5. Map Showing Religions of the Indo-Malay Peninsula
  6. Photos of head cloths and how they are worn in modern Indonesia, for enrichment and comparison (on p. 92, “Different styles of headdresses worn by Minangkabau men at a ceremony in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo A. Sutan Madjo Indo”).
  7. Short video clip of dalang (puppet master) Otong Rasta in performance, to allow students to see the puppets in motion and get a sense of the work of dalangs, who are very important figures in Indonesian society.

  1. In anticipation of the lesson, ask students to read the context essay by Andrew Weintraub as a homework assignment. The teacher should also review the essay by Laurie Sears, “Visual Arts, Literature, and Performance” to be able to provide additional contextual
    support in the following discussion.
  2. Distribute to students or project copies of two maps from the set of project maps, Southeast Asia: Conversion to Islam and Political Map of the Indo-Malay Region. Have students locate places mentioned in the Sears and Weintraub essays on the maps, including: Java, Cirebon, Demak, and Kudus.
  3. Consider the concept of localization and syncretism as reflected in puppet theater traditions.
  • Discuss the question of why the wayang golek cepak, with their Islamic and Arabic- and Persian influenced themes and stories, are a tradition associated with northwest Java, especially the area around Cirebon, Demak, and Kudus.
  • Also underscore the Indic influence in Java, already established when Islam arrived, that is seen in Javanese puppet theater through the Ramayana and Mahabharata cycles of stories.
  1. Provide students with a copy of the play “Menak Laré.” Share the reading as a class.
    Discuss themes, characters, and genre through the following questions:
  • In what region is this Indonesian play set? Why?
  • Which skills seem to be the most important for the characters in this story, especially Amir Hamzah?
  • Why do you think it is important that he comes to the aid of the king of Mekah?
  • What level of society do the characters represent? (Think, for example, of Nursiwan, Lamdaur, Munningar, Bastari, Anjali, and Betaljemur.) Why do you think this is? Why do you think people often enjoy stories about people like this? Why would some people
    rather see plays about ordinary people like themselves, who do not have political or military power?
  • Think about what kind of plays and stories endure over many years and sometimes generations: some kinds include history, romance, and adventure. Can you think of any others? Do you see elements of these different kinds of stories in “Menak Laré”?
  • Are elements of different kinds of stories often mixed together in novels, stories, plays, and movies that you are familiar with? What are the different elements of this story that you think would make it attractive to audiences in Indonesia especially? Which elements
    would make the play interesting and entertaining for people in many different countries and societies?
  • How easy was it for you to remember all the characters and follow the action in the story the first time you read it? If it was rather difficult, why? How easy would it be for you to understand this story if you had seen it for the first time in a puppet theater? (Remember that most people in Indonesia do not read the plays; they become familiar with them by
    seeing them performed.)
  • What are several reasons the story might not seem so confusing for people in Indonesia? (Remember that these stories about Amir Hamzah, the wayang golek cepak or menak stories are associated with a particular part of Indonesia, the west coast of the important island of Java; not everyone in Indonesia might be as familiar with them as the people in that region.)
  1. Prepare students to analyze the visual representations in Java’s wooden wayang golek cepak puppets through an introductory discussion of images, themes, and characters in this play. Provide the class with the Puppet Analysis Guide handout and a copy of “Menak Laré.” As a class, have students look at the twelve photos of puppets used in this
    story. Identify each puppet with the character it represents in the play and review the character’s role in “Menak Laré.”
  2. Divide students into three groups. (Multiple groups analyzing the same characters can also be arranged for classes with larger numbers of students.) Each group should be given photos to compare, as indicated below, and to use in completing the worksheet. Have students discuss and record responses to questions and share the information with the
    class as a whole.

    Group A
    Have one group of students compare the pictures of the two female characters, Muninggar and Bastari. Describe them each in detail, paying close attention to their headdresses, the way they are wearing their scarves, and the different kinds of blouses each puppet
    is wearing. What are the social statures of each character? Why do you think their clothing might be different? From what you can see in the photographs, are their faces very different? If you have time, get a picture of one of the male characters from your
    teacher and compare the faces of the two female characters with those of the male character, especially the lines drawn on the faces. Are they similar or different? If they are similar, why do you think this is—what qualities that might be common to both the female and male character, such as youth, innocence, or purity, do you think the puppet makers are trying to convey? Using Weintraub’s characterization of puppet types, describe their eyes, noses, body types, head angles, mouths, and facial colors; and see which type or types these characters belong to.

    Group B
    Have another group compare the photos of two heroic male characters, Prince Abdulmutholib and the hero Amir Hamzah, and another character, such as
    the advisor Betaljemur or minister Bastak. Start with the three characters’ headdresses, noting both differences and similarities. From Andrew Weintraub’s essay, you can tell that headdresses are a very important part of the appearance and classification of
    different kinds of Indonesian puppets. Why do you think this is so? Are hats or headgear as important in contemporary U.S. society? After comparing headgear, notice the detailed work on the costumes of the puppets. Note the different fabrics used for the robes. Now compare the faces of the three puppets. Slight differences distinguish Amir Hamzah from
    Abdulmutholib, while Betaljemur (or Bastak) is very different. Notice the small even features of some of the characters and the exaggerated features of others, the colors and size of the characters’ eyes, the sizes of the mouths, the presence or absence and
    type of mustaches and beards, and the purpose of the lines painted on the puppets’ faces. What do you think these differences are meant to convey? Again, using Weintraub’s characterization of puppet types, describe their eyes, noses, body types, head angles,
    mouths, and facial colors, and see which type or types these characters belong to.

    Group C
    Have another group compare puppets that portray the king and giant Lamdaur of Ceylon, the military leader Umarmadi of Kokarim (a kingdom in Africa), and King Nursiwan, who begins as an enemy of Amir Hamzah’s but is one of his future father-in-laws (remember that Islam permits a man to have more than one wife under certain conditions). Note the
    color of Umarmadi’s face. What do you think this striking color—very different from the white, pink or pale brown colors of other puppets’ faces—is meant to convey? What feature distinguishes the face of King Lamdaur? Why do you think both Lamdaur and
    Umarmadi are distinguished from Nursiwan either by facial color or size of features, including beards and mustaches? Note Lamdaur’s arched headdress. According to Andrew Weintraub’s essay, what influence might this style of headdress be due to?
    (Remember where Lamdaur is supposed to come from. What civilization in the region exerted an important influence on his country? If you’re not sure, take a look at Map 2. Political Map of Eurasia, in the packet of project maps.) What skills are Lamdaur
    and Umarmadi known for—governance, wisdom in political affairs, or physical and military prowess? How is this conveyed through their physical features? (Here students could also compare photos of a character such as the royal advisor Betaljemur.) Use Weintraub’s characterization of puppet types to describe their eyes, noses, body types, head angles,
    mouths, and facial colors; and see if you can tell to which type or types these characters belong.
  3. Once students have shared their worksheet responses, engage the entire class in a whole group reflection on society, art, and change, reviewing the key points below:
  • Both wayang kulit (shadow puppet theater) and wayang golek cepak (wooden puppet theater of northwest Java) are traditional Indonesian art forms, but since Indonesian Independence in 1949, puppet theater performed with wayang golek cepak puppets
    has lost popularity to some degree. The reasons for this are complex and none can be proven with absolute certainty, but Andrew Weintraub, the author of the context essay and an expert on wayang golek cepak, gives some possible reasons for the decline of the art. He also says that a great puppet master of wayang golek cepak theater continues to believe the art form will eventually regain its pre-Independence popularity.
  • What features of the puppets reflect elements of cultures that have influenced Java over time? How does the format of puppet theater reflect traditions of the region? How does this traditional art form reflect localization/syncretism?
  • What makes the popularity of different art forms— music, dance, writing, crafts—rise and fall with time?
  • Can you think of some examples of an art form losing popularity in American culture, or in another society you are familiar with? How about an art form or style that was popular a long time ago, went out of fashion, but was re-discovered and became popular again later? Why do you think this happened?
  • Why do new forms of culture prove more popular at certain times than traditional ones, and vice versa?
  • Can you think of an example of when a traditional art form maintained its basic style but incorporated new elements, or elements from another country?

Students will be assessed on their responses to guiding questions and worksheet responses, as well as participation in class discussion.

Use of visual analysis will support understanding of concepts presented in text. Use of heterogeneous groups will further support diverse learners. Provide students with unit glossary to scaffold comprehension.

  • Have students generate a short play from the script provided for “Menak Laré,” or “The Tale of Youth.” Have each student make a two dimensional representation of one of the characters in the play, in profile, using poster board and colored markers. Require students to utilize Weintraub’s characterization of puppet types in their construction and detail. Mount puppets on dowels for use in a readers’ theater performance of the play.
  • Ask students to research other traditions of other forms of puppet theater, such as water puppets or shadow puppets, found in other parts of Asia. As an alternative, students may research and compare elements of culture and localization/syncretism as reflected in
    puppetry traditions in specific regions such as China, India, Vietnam, Japan, and Turkey, for example.

Herbert, Mimi with Nur S. Rahardjo. Voices of the Puppet Masters: The Wayang Golek Theater of Indonesia. Jakarta/Honolulu, HI: Lontar Press/University of Hawai’i Press, 2002.
This magnificently illustrated book tells the story of ten living masters of the Indonesian wooden puppet tradition. One chapter, “In His Father’s Footsteps,” is devoted to Bandung-based dalang Otong Rasta, friend and longtime colleague of Andrew Weintraub. Otong Rasta’s story emphasizes the family connections in the art of puppet theater and the multiple talents of Indonesian puppet masters (Otong Rasta is not only a dalang but also a musician and puppet carver.)

Weintraub, Andrew N. Power Plays: Wayang Golek Puppet Theater of West Java. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004.
This study is a detailed and lively account of the ways in which performers of this major Asian theatrical form have engaged with political discourses in Indonesia. Wayang golek has shaped, as
well, the technological and commercial conditions of art and performance in a modernizing society. The author uses interviews with performers, musical transcriptions, translations of narrative and song texts, and archival materials to analyze the shifting and flexible nature of the art of the puppeteer. The accompanying CD-ROM includes video and sound examples, photographs, and text. In one video example, students can see Otong Rasta carving a
puppet head.

Wayang Golek: Performing Arts of Sunda; VHS, 23 minutes; Open University, 1999.