A Life in Shadows

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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.