Indonesia: Shadow Theater Can Help Counter Radicalism, Experts Say

By Maeswara Palupi
150606-ID-wayang-620 Puppet master Ki Joko Santoso manipulates puppets in a wayang kulit performance at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, April 4, 2013.

Indonesian art forms like wayang kulit shadow-puppet plays can be used to curb radical currents in society, says National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) advisor Sarlito Wirawan Sarwono.

Negative foreign influences like the Islamic State (IS) have the potential to destroy Indonesia’s social fabric and erode tolerance, according to Sarlito.

"Therefore, we have to counteract radicalism. This effort can be done with local culture such as wayang," he told BenarNews.

Wayang is live puppet theater accompanied by a traditional Javanese Gamelan orchestra. It is a form of storytelling that has existed in Indonesia for more than 1,000 years.

The shadow plays are drawn from the Hindu epics “The Ramayana” and “The Mahabharata” as well as indigenous stories. During live performances, the master puppeteer, or dalang, weaves in commentary on contemporary life and issues along with jokes and songs.

“The main philosophy of wayang is that after a long and hard battle, good always triumphs over bad. It advocates peace and harmony,” said Sarlito who also heads the University of Indonesia Wayang community.

Wayang has its roots in the Hindu culture that predated Islam in Indonesia, but the Wali Songo (holy men) who introduced Islam also used wayang as a vehicle to teach the faith in the 14th century, he said.

Preserving local culture

Wayang is a part of national culture and a source of local wisdom, says, Ibnu Suwondo, a wayang lover.

But these days it is on the decline and unknown to most young children.

"The younger generation should know and learn more wayang stories," Ibnu told BenarNews. “Get to know your people, your local culture."

Agus Syafii, chairman of the Amalia Foundation, an educational institution that works with children in Jakarta, said the potential use of local culture in Indonesia to counter radicalism was high but needed to be tapped as soon as possible.

"A lot of our culture has faded, including wayang. To use wayang to counter radicalism has two positive values – to preserve culture and to combat radicalism,” he said.

"But wayang stories should be adapted to the present era in order to be accepted by the younger generation," he added.

Sarlito acknowledged that traditional art may need some modification and modern touches in order to make it more appealing to young people.

“Puppet shows do not need to last all night; they can be shortened as long as the message is delivered,” he said.

Puppet master

Effective delivery of those messages all depends on the dalang.

"The puppeteer must be able to read the situation – if the audience is bored or sleepy, and also know how to convey messages, including countering radicalism. It’s not easy," dalang Ki Anom Jokangko Dwi told BenarNews.

"Dalangs have to master the story and expand it if necessary," he said.

Part of his job is reading, both history books and current events, he added.

"Wayang reminds us of the importance of character," Deputy East Java Gov. Saifullah Yusuf told BenarNews by phone.

It teaches the community to adhere to good values, such as truthfulness, he added.

"Please compare the conditions in other countries. In the Middle East, it is currently chaotic. The conflict cannot be resolved because there is no puppetry," he joked.


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