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Episode 83 - Shadow puppet of Bima

Shadow puppet of the character Bima (made seventeenth or eighteenth century), from Java

When the young Barack Obama was taken to Java to live with his new Indonesian stepfather, he was astonished to see, standing astride the road, a giant statue with the body of a man and the head of an ape. He was told that it was Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god. But what was a huge Hindu god doing in the streets of modern Muslim Indonesia? The answer is, I think, a fascinating story of tolerance and absorption, a relaxed compromise between religions, unlike any of the other multi-faith societies that we're looking at through the objects of this week. And it's a story that can - almost - be summed up by a puppet, and by the ancient Indonesian art of shadow theatre�

"Shadow puppets veer dangerously close to idolatry. It's a very, very interesting mix of how something so seemingly un-Muslim sits in a community that's very, very Muslim." (Tash Aw)

Throughout this week, the objects I'm engaging with take us into the consequences of the great movements of religion across the world, and the co-existence of faiths around four hundred years ago. Today's object is a shadow puppet from Indonesia, where shadow puppetry is still a celebrated living art form, that's both entirely traditional and also full of contemporary politics. Through this puppet and his companions, we can explore a great religious and political transformation, which began in south-east Asia five hundred years ago, and which still affects the region today.

The puppet in front of me is from the Indonesian island of Java, and it's one of several hundred that we have in the collection. It represents a male character, it stands about two feet (60 cm) high, and he's shown in stark dramatic profile. His name is Bima. Bima has very distinctive, almost caricature, facial features - a very long nose, for example - and he has long thin arms, each ending in a single large claw. Over his body are delicate lace-like perforations, which would have made his shadow even more dramatic during performance. Bima's face is black, but he's wearing gold clothes and brightly coloured decorations. Although he's lifeless and fragile now, about two hundred years ago, Bima would have enthralled audiences in all-night performances at a Javanese court. This kind of performance was known then, and still is known, as the Theatre of Shadows.

As we're going to see in this programme, our puppet's actual shape is the product of one of the most dramatic religious changes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. While Spain was converting the New World to Catholicism, Islam spread across what is today Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines.

By 1600, most Javanese people were Muslim, but the Theatre of Shadows had been a feature of life in Java long before the arrival of Islam. Bima himself is a character known not just in Java, but across the whole of India, because he figures in the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. In Java, though, this Hindu character came to be operated by Muslim puppeteers, and he performed in front of audiences who were also mainly Muslim. Nobody seems to have minded - and the Indonesian Theatre of Shadows has continued to combine pagan, Hindu and Muslim elements right up to today.

Making a puppet like our Bima was, and still is, a highly skilled job, requiring several different craftsmen. Bima is made out of carefully -prepared buffalo-hide, that has been scraped and stretched until it becomes thin and translucent, and it was this material that gave the Javanese name for the theatre itself, �wayang kulit' - skin theatre. The puppet was then gilded and painted, moveable arms were added, and handles were made from buffalo-horn fixed to the body and arms to control its movement. Historically, performances in the Theatre of Shadows lasted throughout the night. Light from an oil lamp behind the puppeteer's head cast the shadows from the puppets onto a white sheet. Some members of the audience - usually the women and children - sat on the shadow side of the screen, while the men would sit on the favoured other side, where the features and colours of the puppets could be seen. The puppeteer, known as a �dalang', would not only control the puppets, but also conduct the accompanying music, performed by a gamelan orchestra.

Mr Sumarsam, a leading dalang in the Theatre of Shadows in Java today, gives us an idea of just how complicated it is to pull off a smooth shadow-puppet performance:

"You need to control the puppets themselves, sometimes two, three or four, sometimes up to six puppets at one time, and the puppet-master will have to know when to give a signal to the musicians what to play. And of course the puppet-master also gives voices to the puppets in dialogues, and sometimes the puppet-master also sings mood songs, to set up the atmosphere of a particular scene. The puppet-master will have to use his arms and legs - all of this to be done while the puppet-master is sitting down cross-legged. I think I would say that it is kind of fun to do it, but also a fairly challenging task. The stories can be updated, but the structure of the plot is always the same."

The stories told in the Theatre of Shadows are drawn largely from two great Hindu Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, both written well over two thousand years ago. They have always been widely-known in Java, for Hinduism, with Buddhism, had been the main religions there before Islam became the dominant faith. Like the Mahabharata, Islam came to Java through the maritime trading routes that linked Indonesia to India and the Middle East. Local Javanese rulers quickly saw advantages in becoming Muslim. Besides any spiritual attraction, it assisted their trade with the existing Muslim world, and it helped their relations with the great Islamic powers of Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India. The new religion brought major changes in many aspects of life but, on the whole, local Javanese culture and belief absorbed Islam, rather than being totally replaced by it.

So the new Islamic rulers continued to patronise the Theatre of Shadows and its Hindu stories, which remained as popular as ever. The audience, then as now, would immediately recognise the Bima puppet. In the Hindu epic, Bima is one of five heroic brothers, whose exploits you can follow today in animations on the internet. Bima is the great warrior among the brothers - noble, plain-speaking and super-humanly strong, equal to ten thousand elephants, but also with a very good line in banter and something of a celebrity cook. One touch of his claw-like nails means death to his enemies, and even the colours that the puppet is painted in carry a message. Unlike the "bad guys" who are often coloured red for vindictiveness and cruelty, Bima is painted in black, to express inner calm and humility. But his shape also tells us that an Islamic influence has found its way into this traditional Hindu art.

This becomes obvious when I take our Javanese puppet of Bima and compare it to another puppet of Bima, made in the nearby island of Bali, which remained Hindu. The figure from Bali has more natural facial features, his arms and legs are in more normal proportions to his body, and his hand has normal human fingers.

Many in Java today would argue that these differences are explained by religion. They would suggest that the traditional Hindu puppets were deliberately re-shaped by their Javanese Muslim makers, in order to avoid the Islamic prohibition on creating images of humans and gods. Stories are told of attempts in the sixteenth or seventeenth century to ban the Theatre of Shadows. Others tell of Sunan Giri, a noted Muslim saint, who ingeniously came up with the idea of distorting the features of the puppets in order to get around the prohibition. A happy compromise that may explain our Bima's odd appearance - his enormous nose and his claw hands.

Today, Indonesia - with 245 million inhabitants - is the world's most populous Islamic nation, and Shadow Theatre is still very much alive. We asked the Malaysian author Tash Aw about the continuing role of shadow theatre today:

"There is a great consciousness of what goes on in the realms of the Shadow Theatre, and it's an art form that's constantly being refreshed, that's constantly being put to new and very exciting use. And, although the body of the works are drawn largely still from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, younger puppeteers are constantly using the Shadow Theatre to inject life and humour, and a bawdy commentary on Indonesian politics, which is difficult to replicate elsewhere.

"Just after the financial crisis in 1997, I remember a virtuoso monologue in Jakarta which roughly translates as - "the tongue is still comatose" or "the tongue is still mute". And in that, the then President Habibie was cast as a ridiculous character called Gareng, who's short with beady eyes, incredibly earnest, but very, very inefficient. So in many ways the Shadow Theatre has become a source of social and political satire, in a way that is difficult for TV and radio and newspapers, because those are much more easily censored. Whereas the Shadow Theatre is much more malleable, is much more in touch with the grass-roots, and therefore much more difficult to control."

But it's not just the opposition who make use of Shadow Theatre. President Sukarno, the first president after Indonesia gained independence, used to identify himself with shadow puppet characters, and especially with Bima - a righteous, mighty fighter, who spoke like the common man, not using �lite language. Sukarno was often referred to as the �dalang', or the puppet-master, of the whole Indonesian people - the one who gave voice, and who directed them in their new state, leading them in their national epic, as indeed he did for 20 years, before being ousted in 1967.

But why is this Bima now in the British Museum? The answer, as so often, lies in European politics. For five years between 1811 and 1816, as part of the world-wide struggle against Napoleonic France, Britain occupied Java. The new British governor, Stamford Raffles, who would later found Singapore, was a serious scholar and a great admirer of Javanese culture of all periods and, like all rulers of Java, he patronised the Theatre of Shadows and collected puppets. Our Bima comes from him. Raffles' five years in Java explain why this particular Bima is now in Bloomsbury, and that short period of British rule explains something else as well ... why the car from which the young Barack Obama saw a Hindu god in the streets of Muslim Jakarta was driving on the left-hand side of the road.

In the next programme, I'm going to be looking at an object which tells a much less happy story of the mingling of faiths. It's a kind of map . . . and it plots what happened to Native American beliefs, when the Spaniards imposed Christianity on Mexico.

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