By Maria Bakkalapulo – story first published in Songlines in 2007.
Tonight, tucked deep in the heartland is a performance by one of Bali’s most popular wayang kulit – or shadow puppet theater troupes known as Cenk Blonk. With rarely a day off, Cenk Blonk’s theatrical road show always creates traffic jams wherever they set up their screen for the night.
Wayang Kulit is considered one of the oldest forms of story telling in the world. The popularity of these shows in Indonesia, though, has dwindled compared to other forms of entertainment, such as television and video games. Cenk Blonk proves that this traditional art can still draw a huge audience with its mixture of humor and social commentary, especially in the countryside.
It is easy to get lost on the bumpy un-lit roads slicing through endless stretches of rice fields in the rural district of Tabanan, where access to information and entertainment is?sometimes difficult. To make sure we actually found the village, we met up with the troupe at their compound hours before the show. Instruments were loaded into a construction truck marked Cenk Blonk on the bumper, we set off to the village. Following behind in a separate car, we trailed — the truck through the winding, mountainous roads, swerving around the motorbikes as we watched the members clutching and swaying on the back.
The crowd was already gathering around the white screen back lit by oil candles when we arrived. Children sat on their parents laps as vendors began their rounds with drinks and treats. They were here to watch a master puppeteer re-tell the story of Sita’s abduction, an excerpt from the epic Hindu tale of the Ramayana. With the first strike of the gamelan, the performance begins with the Mount Merapi volcano puppet exploding with flashes of red and white light. The volcano smokes with anger as it slaps against the screen making the audience wide-eyed with awe at the simple pyrotechnics. But the crowd is waiting eagerly for the stars of the show – the comedy duo of Cenk and Blonk. These puppets make people laugh and also give 42-year-old dalang (puppeteer) of Cenk Blonk, I Wayan Nardayana Dalang a voice for his social commentary.
At the age of 10, Dalang I. Wayan Nardayana started to cut his own shadow puppets out of paper. I played the characters with a friend of mine and even organized performances. We got to the point where we charging villagers to see our show. I became addicted to it and started to do poorly in school. My father was so angry with me that he burned the puppets. He was convinced that being a dalang was all he could ever do. It wasn?t until 1992 when he finally decided to return to the art of wayang kulit. When the clowns Cenk and Blonk were introduced in?1995, the show became a hit.
Sitting behind the screen, the dalang becomes both Cenk and Blonk, bantering and debating issues from the right and left of the screen. With great attention to the characters gestures, Dalang I Wayan’s voice changes pitch to call special attention to the rampant government corruption and greed in the country. If a lion sees his reflection in the pond and gets greedy an doesn’t want to share what he has with what he thinks is another lion, he will fight the reflection until the death. It is the same thing with humans. Material things never last forever.
Behind him, the gamelan punctuates his message with music as the crowd laughs along with Cenk and Blonk?s comic interpretation on the topic of greed. But Dalang I Wayan emphasizes that it’s not about telling people what to do. ?If you try to lecture to the audience, they will ignore you. They are not all farmers like before. They are teachers, students, business people. They are intelligent, probably smarter than me, in fact. Wayang kulit is in jeopardy because some are stuck in the old ways he says. I am proof that you can support your family by being a dalang because I give the audience what they want.? And by the large numbers that come out to see him, they definitely seem to be listening.
* All Photos by Maria Bakkalapulo. All Rights Reserved
* SPECIAL THANK YOU to Viviana Ang for her contribution to this story.