- Women in the Shadows: Gender, Puppets, and the Power of Tradition in Bali by Jennifer Goodlander
Jennifer Goodlander received a Fulbright fellowship to go to Bali, Indonesia, where she apprenticed herself to a shadow puppeteer (dalang). In doing so, she followed in the foot-steps [End Page 228] of countless young men—most of them sons of dalang, carrying on their families’ occupational specialization from time immemorial—but very, very few women. In this book, she recounts her experiences as a fledgling dalang and as a researcher interested to see what a few women’s forays into a previously exclusively male domain might portend.
Goodlander brings to her account a number of different approaches. First, she takes us through the often taxing steps that studying to become a dalang imposed upon her, primarily in the form of one-on-one lessons she had with an established male performer. Like many practitioners of performing arts, martial arts, and other physically demanding genres, she insists upon the bodily rather than cognitive dimensions of her training. “Embodiment” has become a term of art in a number of fields in recent decades, and at points, Goodlander is at pains to make readers aware of the complex physical coordination that learning to perform entailed—not to mention the sheer stamina that performing this particular genre requires. A performance usually lasts a few hours, and the dalang manipulates puppets, directs musicians, speaks all the parts, and provides narration; in sum, the dalang performs energetically without a break for the duration.
As if this weren’t demanding enough, it is a peculiarity of Balinese shadow plays, relative to cognate forms in Java and Sunda (to the west of Bali), that the dalang must often produce a very loud roar-like sound, something that places great demands on a man’s vocal cords and would appear prima facie to be impossible for a woman to produce. Goodlander doesn’t tell us much about how she addressed this particular challenge. But she makes it clear that the linguistic challenges were also daunting, since in Balinese shadow puppetry (wayang), when the dalang speaks as narrator or when he speaks for invisible beings (gods, spirits, etc.) and high-status characters (princes and even ogres), he uses an obscure version of Middle Javanese called Kawi, which survives in old texts but is no one’s spoken language. Only low-status characters (servants and other flunkies) in Balinese shadow plays speak intelligibly, in contemporary Balinese. We are not actually told, but I assume that when Goodlander performs for anglophone audiences, she keeps the requisite phrases in Kawi but substitutes English for Balinese in the rest of a performance.
A dalang’s success depends not just on mastering the physical and vocal demands of performing, but also on establishing and maintaining good relations with gods and spirits. Balinese assume such invisible beings exist without being so bold as to say anything much more specific about them. What matters is not what you know about them, but rather that you demonstrate your respect for them. Goodlander recounts without irony or distance the ritual steps she undertook under the guidance of a specialist in order to show such respect, and she notes the growing confidence this gave her, suggesting that she came to accept as ontologically valid Balinese understandings of a dalang’s relations with unseen spirits. In this, she resembles a great many performers the world over who assure their spectators as well as themselves that the sources of their ability to attract and sustain attention are deeply mysterious and mystifying. The mystery of how they achieve what they achieve as artists induces them to reach for explanations that are more or less mystical.
Another strand in Goodlander’s project concerns gender. She is well aware that as a woman learning to perform shadow plays, she is entering what is usually considered male turf in Bali, and she has the impression that conservative Balinese disapprove not only of...