On Bali’s north coast the shadow play, or wayang, is in high demand as part of a blessing ceremony for children in their third month of life. In the week I spent with puppeteer Dalang Ketut Merta he performed almost every night, sometimes twice in a row in different villages. But don’t think that just because the wayang is sacred it has to be serious. Merta’s performances are a raucous and raunchy affair where fart jokes, giant penises and Japanese pop songs mix with dragons and gods in tales from the Hindu epics. By pleasing as it does both a divine and human audience, the wayang has managed to stay relevant here despite the ubiquitous presence of television and internet. Merta told me that the crowds have dwindled somewhat, yet in his thirty-five year career he has never had more than a few days off in a row. For him and his crew—two musicians and an assistant—this is a well-worn routine.
The puppeteer and his crew set out at dusk: four people, a box of puppets, an oil lamp, an amplifier, and two metallophone instruments piled into a 30-year old van that roars and coughs up the steep mountain roads.
The stage is constructed anew each night using bamboo and banana logs. The family hosting the show also sets up a temporary pavilion for the audience.
The show opens with the tree of life puppet alone on the screen. The musicians play an instrumental overture that gives the puppeteer a chance to organize his puppets.
The puppeteer, known as a dalang, controls all the puppets and does all their voices, while the coconut oil lamp casts shadows that wave and flicker with life.
Balinese puppetry mixes characters from the Hindu epics such as Bima (right), who speak in an ancient poetic language, and indigenous characters like Tualen (left) that speak in colloquial Balinese.
A female character dances seductively. Puppets not used in the performance are set at the edges of the screen to frame the action of the play.
The two musicians, Windhu and Komang, are father and son. The music they play is specifically for shadow plays and unique to this region, known only by a handful of specialized musicians.
Many children opt to watch the wayang from behind the screen to see the puppeteer at work. An assistant sits just behind the dalang, passing him puppets and fanning his back.
A clown character entertains with a song. The show is in a private home, but it may draw viewers from the entire village.
The puppeteer is also a priest. At the end of the show he uses his puppets to make holy water to bless a child. He is surrounded by offerings, and holds the Shiva puppet to his head before using it to mix the water with a few drops of oil from his lamp.
The child is showered in water and flowers, rice pressed to his temples and forehead, and a length of string placed on his head. The dalang gives the mother instructions for completing the ceremony.
The dalang rests after a long performance. When he was young he would perform up to five or six times a night, returning home at dawn. Now he will only do two shows a day. When he is ready to retire, one of his sons will take his place.