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Full Circle

Day 117: Yogyakarta

Michael Palin - Full CircleWhen tonight's performance is about to start, the children sit, legs drawn up, on the floor in front of the screen. Most of the adults are more interested in watching the musicians behind it. Clouds of flies buzz around them in the sticky warmth of the evening as the dalang settles himself cross-legged behind a long white cotton sheet, slips on a chunky old-fashioned neck microphone and selects the first two stick puppets from a long line of them stuck into a length of soft banana palm bark. The lights dim leaving only a large white bulb illuminating the front of the screen and a single green one behind it. A spindly, demonic figure with hands and arms swinging appears. A high, shrill voice comes from the dalang. The bronze gongs start to sound, softly at first, like leaves blown in the wind.

Wayang Kulit is not for the faint-hearted. The stories are based on the great Hindu epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and each performance lasts eight hours, though the dalang can interpret them, edit them and embellish them as he or she wishes. Wayang kulit has been used to disseminate political propaganda and, during the struggle for independence, was widely used to spread anti-Dutch sentiment. After an hour and a half of sustained performance the dalang's assistant slips him his first cup of tea. My head's already dropping. The battle scenes temporarily rouse my flagging spirits. The puppets twist and turn and hurtle about in a frenzy of splits and scissors and somersaults. The musicians join in with grunts and shouts.

As the night wears on Joan assures me that we've done very well. The longest show they usually do for tourists lasts one hour.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 117
  • Country/sea: Indonesia
  • Place: Yogyakarta
  • Book page no: 172

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