By the time he was 15 years old, Aneng Kiswantoro had already become a “dalang,” or master puppeteer, in the tradition of the Indonesian island of Java.
Aneng Kiswantoro had more or less been born to the art, as his family had been puppeteers for seven generations and he had been training with his father since he was 5 in his hometown of Yogyakarta—the center of Javanese classical arts and culture.
Now a veteran artist of 28, he performs “wayang golek,” as this type of handheld puppet theater is known, and also teaches at the Indonesian Institute of Arts in Yogyakarta.
Aneng Kiswantoro will give a puppet show at Art Cafe on Saturday night—the first time in recent memory that wayang golek has been presented in Cambodia, said Rahendro Witomo of the Indonesian Embassy.
According to a tradition believed to be at least 1,000 years old, Aneng Kiswantoro performs alone to music, holding one or two puppets, and speaking or singing a story that can range from a chapter from the epic Ramayana to a love story, he said.
While he holds the sumptuously painted and dressed puppets, moving their heads and arms with rods, he also vibrates a metal plate with his foot either gently or hard to punctuate moments in the story.
Puppets are made of wood and leather and their clothes fashioned of colorful fabric.
Although they are done according to tradition, styles may slightly vary from region to region on Java, said Aneng Kiswantoro. For example, he said, “[the character] Petruk holds an ax in Yogyakarta and a kitchen utensil in Solo,” also called Surakarta city.
During performances, Aneng Kiswantoro wears a traditional costume complete with a cap made of fabric and a kris—an Indonesian dagger with a wavy blade. “Dalangs used to carry them for safety,” he said. Now part of the costume, the one Aneng Kiswantoro brought to Cambodia is not a real weapon, but a soft, fake blade in a nice casing, he said.
Aneng Kiswantoro’s visit is part of a cultural exchange project between Cambodia’s Art+Foundation and the Tembi House of Culture in Yogyakarta, which is supported by the embassy and will include four more Indonesian art events this year, Rahendro Witomo said.
The project will also involve Cambodian artists performing and attending workshops in Yogyakarta, said Anton Isselhardt, program director for Art+Foundation. This will start with violinist Uy Tach who will play Western classical music with an international trio in Yogyakarta in April, he said.
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization proclaimed wayang puppet theater a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity in 2003. Cambodia’s large shadow puppet theater, or lakhaon sbaek thom, were also put on the Unesco list in November.