Get Your Gamel-on

Puppets, Hinduism, and native Javanese music came together last Saturday at Hyde Park Union Church during a performance of wayang kulit, a Javanese shadow puppet play. Where a white-robed choir might usually stand there was instead a gamelan: an ensemble of more than twenty musicians playing an assortment of instruments, all in rich colors of red, gold, and black. In place of the pulpit was a white cloth screen, behind which sat the dhalang, or puppeteer. He ran the show, manipulating the intricate shadow puppets, cueing the gamelan, and giving voices to each of the characters. Even so, he had little control over the musicians, who had to improvise their accompaniment. The audience also had more input than usual, as they answered the dhalang’s questions and crowded up front to watch closely as he told the story of “Dewa Ruci,” an excerpt from the Hindu epic “Mahabharata.”

The University of Chicago Central Javanese Gamelan collaborated with Friends of the Gamelan to put on the show, one of the two or three performances they stage each year. Their members include students, professors, and people from all over Chicago, each of whom is expected to learn to play most (if not all) the instruments in the ensemble. As undergraduate Morgan Wirthlin explained, “Gamelan is not as set as Western music. It’s more communal; there’s a give and take.” That means xylophones, drums, gongs, strings, and vocalists call and answer each other, creating a multi-layered sound that is unique.

Traditional cultural performances can be inaccessible to general audiences, a fact of which the dhalang seemed well aware. Midiyanto S. Putro is renowned for his ability to transcend the typical barriers by incorporating both Javanese and American topics into his shows. After beginning a conversation in what was presumably Indonesian, one of his characters observed, “It’s beautiful when you speak your language, but no one can understand.” That’s why he switched to English for the humorous exchanges, many of which dealt with other differences between Javanese and American culture. One point of conflict has to do with names, since their length or lack of a surname would prevent some Indonesians from getting a bank account or passport. Likewise, the show itself would normally last all night but was condensed into one- and two-hour performances, apparently only because “there’s no public transportation after ten.” Despite some accommodations for American audiences, Putro continued to speak and sing intermittently in Indonesian and Sanskrit. The latter is unintelligible even to Javanese audiences, so it is meant for more than straightforward communication. Like the gamelan’s many layers of music, it defies definition, which is appropriate to the dhalang’s traditional role as an intermediary with the spirit world.