[A Memoir] The Art of Shadow-Playing: Character within Character

Amytha Kresna Dewi

I’ve never known how much power the intricacy of narrative and glorious visual imagery could hypnotize you beyond reality while tantalizingly lured your entire mind into a moment of transcendence; until shadow puppets happened and the rest is history. Slow dance within shadows and mysteries, majestic harmonization combining prominent vocals with golden instruments, orchestrated by one single individual who manages to tie up all the strings together and gives the story life, through his narration. Dalang[1], for lack of better description, is a genius. One particular name stands out, without having to dig much inside the cluttered mesh called ‘memory’ despite it taking me way back in time from 12 years ago. Ki Manteb Sudarsono doesn’t have a reputation as ‘the evil dalang’ for nothing.

A celebration. Small town tucked inside eastern part in Java has its inhabitants spilled all over the main streets leading up to the city hall. Not one face in the crowd looks unhappy; their hometown is getting older but it’s alive with joy and screams of happiness. The popular attraction is finally displayed by arguably the most famous puppeteer in that era, it’s almost a sin if you miss it.

3 a.m., sleep-deprived 8 year-old girl among 30 to 40 something government sires and security misters. She got no peers to play with, or at least one who’s awake anyway; however, she hasn’t lost the glow in her eyes. You might ask, what kind of parents let their daughter stays up until the crack of dawn? Little Amytha Kresna would smile up to you and says,


My dad knows I’d rather be there, accompanying him to answer an invitation by the city mayor, than be at home sleeping soundly inside the safe haven of my own bed. It has been ongoing father-daughter bonding time, ever since we moved to this small, “marble” town somewhere in East Java, to watch shadow puppets’ shows whenever we had the chance.

I was 7.

The legendary Ki Manteb Sudarsono comes a year later.

It took me several researches and an hour of pondering to remember what was the play, or “Lakon”, which stuck to me after years had passed and the Dalang himself already got married for the seven times.


Mustakaweni will not ring a bell if you’re only familiar with Ramayana and Mahabharata[2], yet she’s the most badass characters I’ve ever seen being portrayed in a play. She’s a princess whose father was murdered by Arjuna[3] (yes, that infamous Casanova from Pandawa[4] in Mahabharata) and currently has an urgent mission; trying to get revenge on him.

How would a princess goes up against a famous knight who has the lightning God, Betara Indra as his real father?

She wished upon ‘pandita’ (a person who belongs to the highest caste in Hinduism, “Brahmana”) to be given shape-shifting skill.

This is where everything becomes exhilarating, especially from the visual and proves how Ki Manteb Sudarsono exceed in the art of shadow-playing.


Shape-shifting means, that the character he personates, is impersonating others. Can you imagine portraying a conman in shadow puppets setting where it’s one-dimensional screen with only two hands handling all the characters and the weapons involved?

Mustakaweni changes shape into other characters without so much as a stop or pause; you literally see her form fades and flies up on the screen to be replaced by the character she’s masquerading as within seconds. No blank space nor background intermezzo, so does the change in mannerism and voiceover. He literally flips the shadow puppet figure upside down and replaces it in no time.

It’s mind-blowing to see a play that basically relies on personification, uses a personifying skill to be the main driving plot.

The best part?

Mustakaweni was conned by Arjuna’s son, Bambang Priyambada in the same manner she has everybody fooled: he shape-shifted.

I always prefer to watch shadow puppets live because the ones they aired on television are shown from the perspective of the Dalang, when if you watch it live, you get to see it from the other side just like how it should be done: Wayang, which means “shadow” in Javanese. Being on the front row for “Lakon Mustakaweni”, I remember feeling terribly delighted, not to mention the free-flow warm cup of ginger drink and sweet tea. That’s right, folks; I’ve done “cabut malam” and “pulang pagi”[5] before it was cool. The best part always happens during 1 to 3 a.m., when the action goes down displaying different plot twists.

This snippet of past time feels like a reminder that yes, indeed; something you can’t move on from even after a thousand full moon has passed on (ahem, more than a decade, I mean) actually exists.

Word Count: 886 words


[1] Puppet master, or puppeteer, of traditional Indonesian shadow puppets performance.

[2] Two most-featured and popular wayang stories in Indonesia’s pop culture scene.

[3] The third children in Pandawa brotherhoods, he’s a prominent character in Mahabharata; is notoriously known for his good looks, skill in archery, and relationship with lots of women.

[4] The five brothers who are center characters in Mahabharata, they are princes of a country called Astina. Later on, they’ll fight for the throne of Astina against their one-hundred cousins called “Kurawa”.

[5] Indonesian “hip” phrases among youngsters which means ‘sneaking out at ungodly hours’ and ‘come home only when the sun rises’.


education.asianart.org/explore-resources/background-information/role-puppet-master-dalang-indonesia. The Role of the Puppet Master (Dalang) in Indonesia.

infobimo.blogspot.co.id/2011/10/biografi-dhalang-ki-manteb-sudharsono-h.html?m=1. Biografi Dalang: Ki Manteb Sudarsono (H. Manteb Sudarsono).

www3.petra.ac.id/eastjava/culture/pandawa.htm. Tokoh Pandawa Dalam Kesenian Wayang.

m.jpnn.com/news.php?id=109291. Pernikahan Ketujuh Dalang Manteb “Oye” Sudarsono.

kompasiana.com/hersantov/mustakaweni-hilangnya-jamus-kalimasada_54f36cac745513a02b6c7558. Mustakaweni (Hilangnya Jamus Kalimasada).

www.fsmitha.com/h1/ch05d-ind.htm. Epic Hindu Literature: Rhamayana, Mahabharata, and Bhagavad Gita.

The “marble’ city in East Java is Tulungagung, the biggest marble stone producer in Indonesia.




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