Each show tells the story of part of the Ramayana — the Hindu epic story — sung in Old Javanese. (Although Hinduism didn’t take hold permanently in Java, its stories have).
We were there to watch the first segment of the story: where Rama and Sita meet in the wood in the land of the giants, and Sita is tempted away from the others and kidnapped.
The puppets are made of ox-skin, and have incredibly intricate detailing, as well as being carefully coloured according to the character’s identity and alignment.
I don’t pretend to have understood what was going on at all, and to be honest, I struggled not to laugh at some of the scenes — I think it’s because I’ve always seen puppets and shadow puppets as figures of comedy, and I also couldn’t understand the language, so found it hard to work out who was who.
As interesting as the puppets was the orchestra themselves, many of whom also performed at the Sultan’s Palace. There were around a dozen spectators, all tourists, and we kept getting up and tip-toing around to where the orchestra were, especially when the shadow puppets were slotted into a permanent position and the vocals, which of course we didn’t understand, took over the narrative.
The performers were clearly aware that we didn’t totally understand what was going on, and were happy for us to snap away and even invited us to sit next to them and join in the music. I sat next to a man playing a large brass xylophone, but I was hopeless at following his melody: I couldn’t sit comfortably enough, and I was too nervous to follow the pattern!
We left halfway, after an hour: we were getting up at 3.30am the following day, and without a clearer understanding of the narrative, we weren’t as engaged as we could have been in the story. But that didn’t mean we didn’t enjoy it. It was so calm, so passionate, and quite magical.
Here is a video: