Herald Tribune Asia-Pacific
Indonesia's traditional puppets tackle terrorism and other tough issues

August 31, 2006

BANJARSARI, Indonesia Thousands cram the narrow streets of this Indonesian village to watch an all-night performance by one of the country's most famous puppeteers. But interspersed with ancient tales of gods and demons, they also get a lesson on terrorism.

Asep Sunandar Sunarya's elaborately painted wooden doll Cepot appears on stage and tells his two long-haired sons that strapping a bomb to your back and detonating it is not holy war, it's murder.

"Beware if anyone tells you otherwise," says the puppet, turning his shiny black-and-white face to the hushed crowd. "Remember, people use religion for their own purposes."

Indonesia's traditional puppet theater "wayang kulit," in which the shadows of intricately carved flat leather dolls are cast on a screen, and "wayang golek," where three-dimensional wooden puppets are maneuvered on rods is rooted in the Hindu religion that held sway over the islands before the arrival of Islam more than seven centuries ago.

Despite mounting criticism from hardline religious groups and competition from radio, television and DVDs, puppetry remains the premier form of dramatic expression across much of the sprawling archipelago, which today has more Muslims than any other country in the world.

Like other puppeteers, Sunarya intermingles epic Hindu tales like the "Ramayana" with contemporary political commentary and bawdy humor.

But he believes his main role is to teach, and that means tackling issues that are touching nerves from terrorism to the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"If I ignored these things, I wouldn't be a mature puppeteer," says Sunarya, 51, who realizes that he is walking a fine line.

Most of Indonesia's 190 million Muslims practice a moderate form of the faith, but hard-liners have gained a strong foothold in recent years.

Militants with links to al-Qaida have staged a series of terror attacks in Indonesia, killing more than 240 people since 2002, many of them foreign tourists.

Some of the young men who carried out suicide bombings for the Jemaah Islamiyah group came from villages like Banjarsari on the main island of Java, and police say militants look for recruits in Islamic study groups.

"This is a conservative village," says Rostika, a 38-year-old mother of three watching the puppet show set up in the town's main intersection. "But Asep Sunarya has credibility as an entertainer and a teacher, and even if some people don't like the message, they listen."

Muslim hard-liners not only criticize Sunarya's message but the very tradition of wayang theater because of its Hindu origins.

"Real Muslims should not watch puppets because they contain false teachings and stories of deities that are not in the Quran. It puts people on the wrong path," says Fauzan Al Anshori, an official in Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, a militant Islamic group led by radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir.

Still, Sunarya has gained celebrity status through live national television performances.

Kathy Foley, a professor of theater arts at the University of California-Santa Cruz and an expert on wayang golek, notes Sunarya is making social commentary much like his late father, puppeteer Abeng Sunarya.

Abeng Sunarya, who performed from the 1960s to the '80s, used puppets to criticize the former dictator Suharto's children, whose unbridled greed came to symbolize his authoritarian three-decade reign.

Years later, one of Asep Sunarya's brothers did the same, using dolls to tell the story of a woman who is prevented by her brothers from being king a comment on those who claimed that then President Megawati Sukarnoputri should step down because she was a woman.

The Sunaryas see the job of the dalang, as the puppet master is called, to speak for the "intelligent common person, to tell things as they are and to bring a voice of reason in what is often a very politicized environment," Foley said.

"They are willing to reveal the truth even if it creates enemies, in the government, religious radicals, or other sectors."


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