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  • Inside the Puppet Box: Performance Collection of Wayang Kulit at The Museum of International Folk Art
  • Kathy Foley
Inside the Puppet Box: Performance Collection of Wayang Kulit at The Museum of International Folk Art. By Felicia Katz-Harris. Seattle: Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico and University of Washington Press, 2010. 200 pp., 270 color illustrations, bibliography, index. Paper, $45.00.

There have been many books on wayang kulit purwa of Central Java over the years. This book adds another resource and is most notable in that it primarily documents a collection that was used by a currently prominent figure, Dalang Purbo Asmoro, who has performed in international tours and has risen to prominence as an exponent of Solonese style wayang. He also teaches in the puppetry division at Institut Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Institute of the Arts) in Surakarta. Katz-Harris's introduction gives a quick overview of wayang kulit in visual and performance dimensions: An especially clear section on puppet making is amply illustrated. A brief description of wanda (different forms of the same character, which Katz-Harris translates as "inner mode"), simpingan (arrangement of figures that frames the screen during performance), and dhudhahan (puppets not included in the simpingan during a performance) prepares the reader for the heart of the book: well-photographed images of the sixty-six figures in the right simpingan, the sixty-two puppets of the left simpingan, and the approximately seventy-five that are reserved for the dhudhuhan. This last group may be pulled out because they are used in each performance (such as the clowns and ogres that appear in the flower battle [perang kembang]) or are not part of the system of types (animals, etc.), or are for other reasons reserved.

The book will appeal to collectors due to the clear and well-photographed images of most of the major puppets that are frequently found in a Surakarta kotak (puppet box). Though there are differences between carvers, nonetheless this text will help those interested in iconography. The book will also be of use for those who are trying (as one customarily does in learning wayang) to memorize character names and their brief story details. The figure identifications are more nuanced than the normal wayang book in that Katz-Harris has attempted to identify the maker, place, and date of construction. This is a much better documented "set" of figures than what has been presented in most wayang texts. The book is also of interest for those who study contemporary wayang performance in that it documents what might actually be found in a puppet box of a contemporary dalang (hence we get three versions of the important Pandawa hero Arjuna, two of the monkey general Hanuman, etc.), puppets that are frequently used are found in multiple iterations [End Page 319] to give the puppeteer choices. The text took me back to my own experience of spending numerous hours documenting my teacher's kotak (puppet box), so I could immediately identify each character as he or she entered during a performance.

The logic of the collection is partially disrupted by including a limited number of figures of the more populist dalang, Ethus Susmono (called dalang gila "the crazy puppetmaster"): American viewers will find his semi-realistic figures of Sadam Hussain and George Bush (Fig. 52) facing off from his wayang planet a fun addition. Still these figures used by Dalang Enthus and made by Rasimin disrupt the logic of the general organization: the simpingan and the Purbo Asmoro collection.

The book grows from an exhibit which Katz-Harris mounted at the Santa Fe Museum of International Folk Art in 2009-2010. The book does not include substantive discussion of movement, music, or story (though brief outlines of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are in the introduction). Rather, one gets parts of each character's story in the brief identification of each figure. We generally learn the name of the performer who used it, the artist, the place and date of creation, materials, and size. Some of the figures are beautiful; others are sometimes pedestrian. As with a box of a practicing dalang, there are figures from many makers collected...