Tue, Aug 23, 2005 - Page 16 News List

More than just puppets in fight for Indonesian independence

AFP , JAKARTA

There was no CNN, no Internet and a high level of illiteracy when revolutio-nary ferment swept through Indonesia 60 years ago.

The occupying Japanese had surrendered but the Dutch colonialists refused to loosen their grip when on Aug. 17, 1945, the nationalists Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta proclaimed the country's independence.

Historic events were unfolding but with no modern media, how were authorities to tell the population? They turned to traditional puppets from Indonesia's main island of Java.

Called wayang kulit, this shadow theater with Hindu origins uses perforated leather figures, manipulated in front of an illuminated cotton screen stretched across a bamboo frame.

Seated cross-legged, the puppeteer, or dalang, animates his puppets by moving their arms using stems made of horn. He adopts the various voices of the characters he plays during an all-night performance that ends at dawn.

Accompanied by a gamelan orchestra of gongs, xylophones and other percussive instruments, the puppets sway and dance. Seated on the ground, the audience watches the puppets' long and energetic shadows.

Some enthusiasts sneak behind the screen to admire the talents of the puppeteer.

"A lot of people were illiterate. Wayang was an important way to bring the news. It was a sort of newspaper," says Stanley Bremer, director of the Wereldmuseum of Rotterdam.

On the 60th anniversary of Indonesian independence, this "museum of the cultures of the world" gave Jakarta, on an indefinite loan, a lavish collection of the revolutionary puppets it purchased in 1965.

Twenty years earlier as patriotic fervor bubbled to the surface in the vast archipelago, this centuries-old entertainment was diverted to revolutionary service in an effort to unify the villagers and spur on the nationalist sentiment, personified by the charismatic Sukarno.

"It is what we called wayang suluh: to educate the population in an informal way about the meaning of the struggle for independence," explains Aurora Tambunan, executive director of the Jakarta government cultural office.

The plays depicted patriotic leaders, independence fighters, civil servants, governors, Dutch colonialists, Japanese soldiers and common people. Photographs snipped from newspapers served as models.

Hatta, who become Sukarno's vice-president, was a prominent figure among the puppets. Charismatic Sukarno was shown standing behind a lectern, in reference to a patriotic speech he made in Bandung city in the 1920s.

This kind of propaganda had been used in the past. Muslim preachers employed the wayang to spread Islam in the 15th century, and the sultans of Java employed the puppets to relate the history of their dynasties.

The gesture by the Wereldmuseum attests to the warm relations now shared between Indonesia and its former colonial master.

The Netherlands last week for the first time accepted the date of Indonesia's independence as 1945, ending a dispute that had irritated

relations.

Until then, the Dutch had insisted on recognizing the date as Dec. 27, 1949, when they transferred sovereignty after losing a four-year war.

The spectacle of the revolution puppets "is rather confronting because it is telling a story [that is] not always very nice," Bremer says.

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