Studying The Ancient Art Of Shadow Puppetry In Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
In Ubud, there are lots of opportunities to enjoy the traditional arts like Balinese dance, masked dances, Gamelan music, shadow puppetry and religious ceremonies.
We wanted to do more with our time here than just enjoy this beautiful place.
We wanted to study how to make the shadow puppets that are hand carved out of hard, dry, raw leather.
The leather is a by product of the meat industry.
The animals are not killed for their leather, but for their meat.
The leather is only used so as not to waste the precious skin of the animal.
I have always been fascinated by shadow puppets, wooden puppets and masked dances, and while traveling the world I have made a point to go see every performance and studio that invites tourists to visit.
Here in Bali, we saw a sign next to the shadow puppets performance studio (called “Oka Kartini Shadow Puppets Performance”) offering classes in puppet making.
We signed up for a private course, which we later extended to total ten hours of study for each of us, spread over two days.
Carving the puppets out of the hard raw leather is a painstaking and very exacting work.
Traditionally, the shadow puppet master sat on the floor, carving the puppets on a thick wooden block.
But for us, the family that has run the shadow puppetry studio for four generations set up two chairs with two thick wooden blocks to do the work.
We sat on a stage/patio at the arts complex that is also their home.
These stages are an integral part of traditional Balinese house design.
The house is not usually one building.
It is a walled complex with an interior garden and multiple small buildings, each with its own patio and a few stages, that are used for food preparation, music performances, to lay down for an afternoon nap, to shelter from the rain while daydreaming, to make art or to prepare offerings to the gods.
Traditionally extended families live together in these complexes, each in their own building, but well to do families no longer live together in the same complex, as they value their privacy more and more.
Putra Nyoman and Cok-In are both talented artists.
Putra is a fourth generation shadow puppet performer who only started making his own puppets twelve years ago.
His wife Cok-In is a talented Balinese dancer.
These dances are unbelievably exciting to watch.
The dancers have control of their head and face muscles in ways that are enviable.
They tilt their heads from side to side, enlarging their eyes while flipping their fingers backwards, in a way that most human hands do not bend.
Cok-In is a member of the royal family, and her father is a master painter, dancer and opera singer.
Her mother is an artist as well, and both of her children are talented artists as well.
Their daughter is a beautiful Balinese dancer, and their son is a Gamelan musician.
We were given wooden mallets made from the hardwood of the tamarind tree, and a set of precision metal chisels.
We had to lubricate the edge of the chisels with a little soap, which was placed at the top of the mallet.
First we had to choose the design of the puppets we wanted to carve.
The puppets are traditionally designed based on the stories from the Hindu classics, like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
Traditionally, shadow puppet performances in the village started right after sunset, and lasted all night long until sunrise,
accompanied by Gamelan musicians. The puppet master had two assistants, helping him with animating other characters behind the screen.
The screen was lit by a kerosene fire lamp, which is still used today, instead of by electric light..
To make the story interesting for the audience of adults and kids who sit for many hours, the classical puppets like the Hanuman monkey, the evil king, the beautifully dressed queen, the witch, Beautiful Sita and the good spirits, are joined by a narrator called Mr. Chang, a Chinese funny man, and his sidekick Mr Blonk.
Mr. Chang and Mr. Blonk are characters who banter with each other, tell all the embarrassing gossip of what is happening in the village, spread funny rumors, or push young teenagers to start thinking of family planning.
Jules chose to carve Mr. Chang, and I chose to carve the monkey Hanuman.
The drawings are done on the hard leather, and then starts the slow process of chiseling by hand, each dot and each line in the sketch.
Because these are shadow puppets, the dots and the lines are very important, as this is how the light shines through the puppets onto the screen.
To make a small line cut requires first chiseling two “Half Moons” (Putra’s term for two half circles) facing each other, and then hammering two parallel lines connecting the half moons, to remove the middle.
To make each tiny dot, we used a half moon chisel which is gently hammered and slowly rotated at the same time, to remove the middle of the dot.
The work is slow, but very rewarding and meditative.
It is hard to sit for many hours hammering away with a wooden mallet using small precision chisels, but the time simply melted away into the illusion that it truly is.
Putra Nyoman, our carving master, has the soul of a philosopher.
While we worked, he sipped ginger tea and told us stories about his culture and shared his life observations.
Yoga and meditation could be practiced by focused concentration that brings you closer to the Truth.
Fishing, gardening, bee keeping, playing music, making shadow puppets, painting, are all ways to quiet the mind and get that inner peace, said Putra.
Every day he makes puppets for an hour and a half, practices a little music, tends to his bee hives, observes the birds visiting his garden, or goes fishing, because everyone knows that fish from the market are not as good as freshly caught fish.
Every now and then, Putra played Gamelan music for us, saying that it helps to shift and change the levels of our minds.
Soft instrumental music helps to take our minds to another realm, said Putra with a smile.
Balinese Masked dances and performances that show masked men arguing and debating ideas, said Putra, tell the stories of the earthly world.
The gossip added makes these stories more interesting to the audience.
Shadow puppetry tells the stories of other mystical spiritual realms. They do not talk about the realms of humans, but of the gods.
After we finished the carvings, we sanded down the leather to produce a smooth surface of the puppets.
Now the puppets were ready for coloring.
At first we wondered why color the puppets at all, since the performances show only their black and white shadows on the screen.
Putra told us that on occasion, they do perform during the daytime in major ceremonies, and that the colorful puppets are then seen and touched by many people who appreciate their beautiful design.
On both long days of studying Shadow Puppet making, we ate our lunch in a nearby restaurant cafe serving mostly raw foods.
The place is always packed with digital nomads, yoga students in fashionable yoga outfits and cool looking people living in fascinating alternate realities.
I love observing people in Ubud or reading the eternal wisdom attached to toilet doors, but that is a story for another time.
Koman was our painting teacher after we returned from lunch.
He produces beautiful color mixes, working with cheap Chinese acrylics that I would never buy at home.
He said apologetically that he used to buy high quality American acrylic paints, but now they have gotten so expensive that he cannot afford to use them.
We first had to gesso the leather with a primer.
Koman uses a house paint primer, which will prevent the acrylics from peeling off and being ‘slippery’ on the oily surface of the leather.
The acrylics have a thick viscous texture, so when painting the puppets we must not clog with paint the holes we have carved.
We had lots of fun taking this course, and I truly hope that you, too, if you come to Bali, take the time to contact Putra and Cok-in to take some of their classes.
They teach Gamelan music, Balinese dance, mask carving, traditional painting, batik painting, and how to make Balinese offerings, all for very affordable prices.
You can contact them at: Oka Kartini Shadow Puppets Performance and The School Of Balinese Arts
On Instagram at: https://instagram.com/okakartiniartscentre?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=
Or at WhatsApp at: +62 878-6057-5571
From Ubud with love,