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Jennifer Goodlander, Women in the shadows: Gender, puppets and the power of tradition in Bali

Peter Worsley
p. 261-264
Référence(s) :

Jennifer Goodlander, Women in the shadows: Gender, puppets and the power of tradition in Bali. Athens: Ohio University Press, xv-199 p., 2016, Ohio University Research in International Studies, Southeast Asia Series No. 129. ISBN: hc: 9780896803039, pb: 9780896803046, pdf: 9780896804944.

Texte intégral

1The Balinese wayang kulit, the author informs her readers, is both social event and sacred ritual. Jennifer Goodlander’s book is an account of her experience, as a woman and foreigner, learning to perform the Balinese shadow theatre. In it she describes how, under the experienced eye of her teacher, the dalang I Wayan Tunjung, she acquired the multiple skills which a dalang must possess, as playwright, storyteller, actor, comedian, director, singer, as musician and conductor of music, producer and priest, and commentator on Balinese religion, literature and local, regional and national politics. The relationship with her teacher she describes was on occasions a sensitive one requiring physical contact between male teacher and female student as he positioned the novitiate dalang’s posture, arms and grasp of the puppets to manage the correct movement of the puppets in performance. It is also one in which there could be tensions because the teacher’s reputation is seriously at stake when the initiate dalang’s training has reached a point when the first public performance is to take place. Her account of this process in a series of detailed but lively anecdotes is accompanied by insightful observations relating to the place of the wayang kulit in Balinese culture and society. The role of dalang has long been a male preserve and women by their very nature, Balinese believe, are unable to undertake the onerous physical and spiritual tasks, which the performance of the wayang kulit demands. Consequently, the appearance on the scene of women as dalang has given rise to controversy and resistance. Throughout, the observations and theoretical insights of an extensive range of scholars in a variety of disciplines inform Jennifer Goodlander’s discussion.

2The author draws on the cosmological distinction which Balinese make between “Sekala: the visible realm” and “Niskala: the invisible realm” to frame her account of the paraphernalia, performance practices, and what she describes as the rituals and ceremonies necessary to give performances of the wayang kulit. In the first part of Goodlander’s study entitled “Sekala: the visible realm,” the author analyses her own lived experience of acquiring the skills required to perform as a dalang. She describes how she copied the example of her teacher, his coaching and the constant practice she required to master the skills to enable her to “dance” each of the puppets, a dance which reaches its apogee in the final act of a performance when exceptional skill is required to manipulate multiple puppets in scenes of battle. Here she introduces discussion of the aesthetics of performances of the wayang kulit: taksu, masolah, kehidupan or “liveliness” and “balance.” Taksu, she explains, is a power that enables the puppeteer to integrate the character of each puppet within himself or herself and so to dance (masolah) the character of the puppet in a lively manner, one in which a balance is realised between the qualities of refined (alus) and brutish (kasar) and conveyed to the audience iconographically, and by the movement, postures, gestures and vocal quality of the puppets. She goes on to explore the character of the clowns, how comedy functions as a vehicle for social commentary in a performance and how the dalang is freed from the restraints that inhibit discussion of controversial topics in the arena of public affairs. Comedy is the vehicle for social criticism and it is comedy, which most attracts the full attention of audiences.

3The wayang kulit requires puppets, the box in which they are stored, musical instruments, a screen and oil lamp for a performance. Various factors contribute to the value of each of these objects and their contribution to a dalang’s status as performer. The box in which puppets are kept, for example, provides a performance with credibility and authority because of its size, the quality of the wood from which it is made and its resonance when the dalang strikes it with the hammer (cepala) in performance, the traditional character of any decoration it bears, and, as it is passed down from generation to generation, its worth as an heirloom possessed of spiritual power. The quality of the puppets, like that of the box in which they are stored, is also crucial and is judged by their ease of manipulation, the quality of the leather from which they are made and how long they will last, as well as their carving and the shadow they cast in performance on the screen. Antique puppets, which are aged are also considered to be possessed of spiritual power. Puppet makers (tukang wayang) take their designs from existing puppets. However, as the author explains, the tradition in which they work allows for variation in the size, carving, colouring and decoration of puppets of the same character. The tradition of the wayang kulit in Bali follows certain conventions and structures but variations in performances ensures that the wayang kulit has remained relevant to contemporary Balinese life and connected to the greater structures of power and the maintenance of gender hierarchy in Balinese society.

4In the second part of Goodlander’s study, “Niskala: the invisible realm,” she turns her attention to the wayang kulit as ritual. Here she describes in considerable detail her own consecration as a dalang, how before her first performance, she was encouraged to consult a balian who determined the day of her consecration and the number of sources of tirta or holy water, she was to visit to present offerings before her consecration and that of her puppets in the house temple of a dalang and advisor, ritual processes intended to achieve an existential transformation in the person of the dalang. There were offerings to provide her with confidence and the physical strength to perform and holy water placed on her tongue to provide knowledge and wisdom.

5As the author argues, the consecration of a woman as dalang subverts the ritual hierarchy which presupposes that the role of dalang was for men only. However, as she also points out, the place of the tradition of the wayang kulit within the larger power structures that govern the hierarchy of gender relationships in Balinese society has ensured that women who are consecrated dalang continue to confront resistance to their practice as dalang. Goodlander provides brief life stories of five women who are dalang. Two of these women grew up in families in which there were performing dalang, They pursued their training as dalang at state institutions, supplemented by further training with village and family support and now teach in high schools and perform only occasionally. Two others whose training as dalang was also obtained in state schools and colleges have taken advantage of this training to pursue careers as well known performers as condong, female attendants, in Arja and Drama Gong. The fifth, whose father, brother and husband were dalang, acquired her interest and training in wayang kulit within her family. She decided to perform only after the death of her husband and there was the need to find a means to support her family.

6The accounts of these womens’ lives document the impact which expectations of the role and comportment of women in Bali has on their practice of this ritual art. They spoke of their performance as a hobby and the courage and organizational skills required to manage the little time they had available to train and then perform because of the expectation that, as women, they had to be responsible mothers for the upbringing of children, to earn money and for the vital business of preparing offerings for daily and special rituals. They spoke further of the impact that expectations of their comportment—that they would behave politely and in a refined and gentle manner—had on their capacity to perform freely the role of comedian and public critic and to overcome the “social, vocal and physical differences” between them and the predominantly male characters women have to perform in a convincing manner, especially to vocalize the roles of brutish characters and the penasar or clowns. One also spoke of the ever present need she had to manage her performances around what Balinese regarded as the monthly ritually “polluting” event of her menstruation and the taboos which surrounded it.

7Jennifer Goodlander’s book is an important contribution to our understanding of the Balinese wayang kulit. It provides readers with valuable insights both into the remarkable experience of one foreign woman who trained and was consecrated to perform the wayang kulit and especially of the controversy which continues to surround the practice of Balinese women as dalang.

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Peter Worsley, « Jennifer Goodlander, Women in the shadows: Gender, puppets and the power of tradition in Bali  »Archipel, 98 | 2019, 261-264.

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Peter Worsley, « Jennifer Goodlander, Women in the shadows: Gender, puppets and the power of tradition in Bali  »Archipel [En ligne], 98 | 2019, mis en ligne le 11 décembre 2019, consulté le 16 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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