Local man keeps Indonesian shadow puppetry alive in Vancouver

Sutrisno Hartana is one of the few puppet masters in the city

Sutrisno Hartana sits down with his shadow puppets. Steven Chang Photo.
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Reported by Steven Chang 

Sutrisno Hartana is one of the few experts in Vancouver practicing the art of wayang kulit, a form of traditional Indonesian shadow puppetry. 

Hartana is currently holding workshops at the Moberly Arts and Cultural Centre in South Vancouver. The workshops are designed for schools and those interested in exploring the art form.

While being one of the few specialists in the city means receiving invitations to teach these types of workshops and to perform, Hartana said the experience can be demanding due to a shortage of resources.

“Bringing the puppets to North America is difficult because the audience might not know what wayang means,” Hartana said. “I also don’t have a crew to accommodate the puppets, so I have to make my own.” 

Despite Indonesia being home to the fourth-largest population in the world, Vancouver has seen relatively low numbers of immigrants relocate from the country. Hartana is one of less than 5,000 Indonesian immigrants living in the city. 

Consulate Officer Firman Priambodo, in charge of information, social and cultural affairs at the The Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia, sai

d that besides Bali, a popular travel destination, Canadians might not know about Indonesian culture. 

Priambodo added that Hartana provides the knowledge and experience to intrigue a local audience. 

Love of puppetry from childhood

Hartana’s childhood in Indonesia was influenced by wayang performances in his hometown. Hartana says he would go watch the performance even if it meant sneaking out after his bedtime. 

“There was no radio or television, the opportunity for social gatherings among villagers only occurred on special occasions,” Hartana said. “Wayang is not only entertainment but also a branch of art, including theatre, music and visual image.”

In 1982, Hartana pursued his interest in the art form by studying performing arts and gamelan music at the Conservatory of Javanese Traditional Performing Arts in Yogyakarta. 

After immigrating to Canada, Hartana earned an MA in ethnomusicology at UBC and a PhD in interdisciplinary studies with art history and visual studies from the University of Victoria. 

When puppeteering, Hartana has to express the puppets’ emotion through shadow with gestures, sound effects and speech. Hartana also illustrates action, conflict and demonstrates moral values for education purposes. 

“From the audiences’ perspective, they can’t see what is happening in the back of the theatre,” Hartana said. “But they can imagine through the power of shadows.”  

Along with his puppeteering skills, Hartana is also a skilled musician.

Also a music man

“Sutrisno is not only the master of the puppets but the master of the gamelan,” Priambodo said. 

Gamelan is a type of music that often accompanies wayang performances. Don Chow, a musician who performs with Hartana, said that gamelan music offers something different than North American music.

“The philosophy and theory of the music are so different compared to western orchestral music,” Chow said. “I was stirred quite deeply when I first heard the gamelan.”

Over the years, Hartana has been established by academic institutions, museums and the The Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia as a prominent expert in Indonesian performance art. He now teaches ethnomusicology at SFU.

“The east and west are learning from each other,” Hartana said. “Right now, there is plenty of information on the web, but how to know the exact culture, the subject and presenting to the audience is a whole different story.” 

History of Indonesian puppetry

Javanese shadow puppetry or wayang kulit, is an ancient form of storytelling that dates back to over 1,000 years ago. 

The performance derived from Indian epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that were introduced to Indonesia during the first wave of Hinduism. The stories were then localized to include Indonesian folklore.

In the state of Java, shadow puppetry was considered a sacred treasure that was only performed in the royal court of Yogyakarta during important events. Shadow puppets were eventually passed down to the public for educational campaigns.

 The puppets used are traditionally made out of buffalo hide for durability. Performances would be held at night in a courtyard and the shadows would be produced by igniting coconut oil in a lamp.

Traditionally, puppets are kept in a wooden box. A puppeteer will tap on the box in order to create sound effects and cues during a performance.

Though the puppets are typically used to cast a shadow, they tend to be ornately decorated. The colour of the puppets can assist the puppeteer in telling them apart when selecting new puppets.

Today, shadow puppet performance remains a popular form of entertainment in Indonesia.

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