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Wayang Wahyu: Preaching the Bible Through Indonesian Javanese Puppets

Little Khannun performing Wayang Wahyu at an Easter event. Photo by Bhuana Alit Workshop, used with permission.

In the island of Java in Indonesia, Wayang Kulit or sometimes called Wayang Purwa (puppets made out of embossed leather) holds a significant importance in society. Wayang is performed during royal functions, weddings and other important events. Often times, Wayang narrates Indian epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. This is due to the fact that Java was a predominantly Hindu empire before the arrival of Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.

In the 1960s, Timotheus Wignjosoebroto, a Brother from Fratrum Immaculatæ Conceptionis (FIC), a Catholic brotherhood in Solo, Central Java, had an idea to incorporate Biblical sermons in Wayang performances. Wayang Wahyu was born. In Javanese, ‘wahyu’ means revelations.

Wayang has become less popular in recent years among the younger generation who favors Instagram to epic tales performed laboriously by a puppet master (locally called Dalang). However, one young puppeteer is determined to preserve the know-how of Bible storytelling through Wayang Wahyu.

Indra Suroinggeno, who as a Dalang founded the Bhuana Alit workshop, has been conducting workshops among young Javanese to preserve and promote the use of Wayang Wahyu.

Through an interview with this author, the puppeteer shared his views about his work and the future of the art of Wayang Wahyu.

Indra Suroinggeno in front of his Wayang Wahyu. Photo by Bhuana Alit Workshop, used with  permission.

Global Voices (GV): Can you please tell our readers about Wayang Wahyu and what makes it different to other types of Wayang?

Indra Suroinggeno (Suroinggeno): In Indonesia, there are many types of Wayang, Wayang Kulit (puppets made of embossed leather), Wayang Klithik (two dimensional wooden puppets), Wayang Beber (wayang characters painted in scrolls), Wayang Golek (three-dimensional wooden puppets). Wayang Wahyu is made out of leather, inspired by the embossed leather puppet, but instead of having the traditional leather puppet's characters, we use the characters of Jesus and the saints to narrate Biblical stories. The musical instruments we use are less elaborate but include saron gamelan (xylophone-like instrument made out of bronze), kendang (traditional drum), gejog lesung (a large mortar used in farms to remove rice husks), gambang (xylophone-like instrument made out of wood).

GV: Please tell us a little bit about the history of Wayang Wahyu.

Suroinggeno: Wayang Kulit Wahyu first appeared sometime in the 1960s, initiated by Brother Timotheus. Its first mission was to spread Christianity, knowing that Wayang is particularly influential to the Javanese. He transformed Wayang from being a mere performance into a meaningful and teaching platform about life. In time, Wayang Wahyu's popularity declined, even many (Javanese) Catholics are not aware of its existence. That's the reason why we started a (Wayang Wahyu) workshop, we'd like to introduce the spirit of compassion of Jesus through Wayang.

Many Javanese practice Kejawen, a set of ancestral beliefs and practices syncretized with various religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity.

Suroinggeno explained to GV that Wayang Wahyu is an example of syncretism of the Javanese culture and Catholicism.

Suroinggeno: My Catholic name is Fransiscus Asisi Trias Indra Setiawan, but I practice Kejawen. My grandfather was a Siva-Buddhist. To us, God is immeasurable, transcending religious differences in the world. We (the Javanese) embraced new religions.

GV: Your workshop is called Bhuana Alit. Can you define what it means?

Suroinggeno: Bhuana Alit Bhuana Agung. Yin and Yang. Microcosmos, macrokosmos. In our ancestral belief ‘bhuana alit’ is God within our soul. It's a philosophy.  I named the workshop Bhuana Alit because ‘bhuana’ means the world, ‘alit’ means small or children. Bhuana Alit means the world of children, because essentially, we focus on training the future generation of Dalang.

GV: What are the current challenges faced by Bhuana Alit?

Suroinggeno: We don't have a lot of trainers. We used to collaborate with the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI), my alma mater, who train our youth. Also, year after year, parents stopped sending their children to Dalang practice, so they can focus on schools. After all, formal education is priority.

Suroinggeno told GV that in order to refine his puppeteering skills, he will be soon attending Habirandha, Jogjakarta's oldest Dalang school founded by the late Sultan Hamengku Buwono VII of Jogjakarta.

GV: What is your vision for the workshop?

Suroinggeno: I always dream that one day Wayang Wahyu can reach a wider public, and not only the church community.

Wayang was recognized as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003. Its popularity has been declining but efforts to preserve it like the workshops organized by the group of Suroinggeno are giving hope about the future of this art.

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