Sixty years ago, the revolution in Indonesia that was backed by puppets

by AFP/Sebastien Blanc, Aug 30, 2005 | Destinations: Indonesia / Jakarta

JAKARTA, Aug 19, 2005 - There was no CNN, no Internet and a high level of illiteracy when revolutionary ferment swept through Indonesia 60 years ago.

The occupying Japanese had surrendered but the Dutch colonialists refused to loosen their grip when on August 17, 1945, the nationalists Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta proclaimed the country's independence.

Historic events were unfolding but with no modern media, how were authorities to tell the population? They turned to traditional puppets from Indonesia's main island of Java.

Called "wayang kulit", this shadow theatre with Hindu origins uses perforated leather figures, manipulated in front of an illuminated cotton screen stretched across a bamboo frame.

Seated cross-legged, the puppeteer, or dalang, animates his puppets by moving their arms using stems made of horn. He adopts the various voices of the characters he plays during an all-night performance that ends at dawn.

Accompanied by a "gamelan" orchestra of gongs, xylophones and other percussive instruments, the puppets sway and dance. Seated on the ground, the audience watches the puppets' shadows.

Some enthusiasts sneak behind the screen to admire the talents of the puppeteer.

"A lot of people were illiterate. Wayang was an important way to bring the news. It was a sort of newspaper," Stanley Bremer, director of the Wereldmuseum of Rotterdam, tells AFP.

On the 60th anniversary of Indonesian independence last Wednesday, this "museum of the cultures of the world" gave Jakarta, on an indefinite loan, a lavish collection of the revolutionary puppets it purchased in 1965.

Twenty years earlier as patriotic fervour bubbled to the surface in the vast archipelago, this centuries-old entertainment was diverted to revolutionary service in an effort to unify the villagers and spur on the nationalist sentiment personified by the charismatic Sukarno.

"It is what we called 'wayang suluh': to educate the population in an informal way about the meaning of the struggle for independence," explains Aurora Tambunan, executive director of the Jakarta government cultural office.

The plays depicted patriotic leaders, independence fighters, civil servants, governors, Dutch colonialists, Japanese soldiers and common people. Photographs snipped from newspapers served as models.

Hatta, who become Sukarno's vice-president, was a prominent figure among the puppets. Charismatic Sukarno was shown standing behind a lectern, in reference to a patriotic speech he made in Bandung city in the 1920s.

This kind of propaganda had been used in the past. Muslim preachers employed the wayang to spread Islam in the 15th century, and the sultans of Java employed the puppets to relate the history of their dynasties.

The gesture by the Wereldmuseum attests to the warm relations now shared between Indonesia and its former colonial master.

The Netherlands on Monday for the first time accepted the date of Indonesia's independence as 1945, ending a dispute that had irritated relations.

Until then, the Dutch had insisted on recognising the date as December 27, 1949, when they transferred sovereignty after losing a four-year war.

The spectacle of the revolution puppets "is rather confronting because it is telling a story not always very nice", says Bremer.

The 160 puppets were insured for 1,500 euros (1,842 dollars) for their trip from Rotterdam to Jakarta. But their real value is priceless.

Raymond Leeuwenburg, co-ordinator of the conservation department of the Wereldmuseum, praises the tiny details painted on the figures made of water-buffalo leather.

"They are very accurate. You can recognize people from Papua!" he exclaims, referring to residents of the country's easternmost province, who have a Melanesian appearance.

The puppets will soon be on display at Jakarta's wayang museum, shown in climate-controlled cases built by the Wereldmuseum to protect the fragile revolutionary heroes from the humidity, heat and pollution plaguing the capital of today's -- very independent -- Indonesia.

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