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An IU Bloomington professor creates -- and performs with -- Balinese shadow puppets

Jan. 10, 2013

Meet Jennifer Goodlander and, if you’re lucky, she’ll show you one of the brightly colored and intricately carved puppets she’s mastered use of through her studies of an ancient Balinese art form -- wayang kulit, or shadow puppetry.


Goodlander became interested in traditional Balinese shadow puppetry while studying for her doctoral degree on a Fulbright Fellowship in Indonesia.

But watch her give an actual performance, and you’ll only see the puppets through a thin cloth screen. That’s because the show -- and all the magnificence of those works of art -- is meant for the gods. As part of the human audience, your eyes are allowed to see a mere shadow of the story.

Goodlander is an assistant professor of Theatre History, Theory and Literature in the IU Bloomington Department of Theatre and Drama, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. She became interested in traditional Balinese shadow puppetry while studying for her doctoral degree on a Fulbright Fellowship in Indonesia.

“I’d only intended to spend a little time in Bali,” she said. “But I never ended up leaving.”

She went back the next summer, where she met renowned “dalang” -- or master puppeteer -- I Wayan Tunjung, and became his student. Tunjung followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, and his heritage includes more than 200 intricately carved puppets represented by myriad different figures. Such an heirloom collection is particularly important to a dalang because the older a puppet, the more spiritual power it contains.

The two became fast friends. When the opportunity arose for Goodlander to perform at a festival, he insisted she undergo the ritual initiation necessary to become a dalang herself and helped her establish her own set of puppets.

Performing wayang kulit is a complicated process, and one that might seem confusing to inexperienced audiences. The dalang not only physically manipulates the puppets and gives them voice, but also cues the orchestra while creating and narrating the entire plot, which might follow the storyline of a Hindu epic, a Balinese myth or another historical tale.

Goodlander described a typical performance as “mostly improvisational” while following a set structure: “Scene one might include the laying out of a problem, while scene two introduces the bad guys. Scene three would be the battle.” Puppets that enter the stage from the right tend to be righteous characters, while puppets that enter from the left are evil, monstrous or somehow less refined.

The end result isn’t so much good overcoming evil, as a Western audience might expect, but more about “the world coming into balance,” she said. “You can’t have good without evil, so it’s really about these two things co-existing and creating a harmony.”

Perf at Pram

Goodlander during one of her first-ever wayang kulit performances in Ubud, Bali, for a group of friends from the village.

A full performance by Goodlander in the U.S. might go on for more than an hour. But in Bali, where audiences are less constrained culturally to stay in their seats and might come and go several times during a performance, a show can go on for several hours. Regardless, a single show is a full mind and body workout for the dalang.

“It’s really good exercise,” Goodlander said with a chuckle. “I’m usually drenched in sweat when I’m finished.”

Goodlander has performed wayang kulit in Bali as well as New York City, Michigan, Kentucky, Illinois and Ohio. She’ll perform in Bloomington March 3 at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, 416 N. Indiana Ave.

She earned a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary arts from Ohio University, an MFA in theatre from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a bachelor's degree in theater arts with a concentration in women’s studies from Kalamazoo College. This is her first year with the Department of Theatre and Drama, where her research area includes Asian performance as it intersects with gender studies, ethnography, performance studies, postcolonial theory, visual culture studies and transnational circuits of performance.

She’s currently writing a book, tentatively called “Women in the Shadows: Gender, Puppets and the Power of Tradition in Bali.” The project draws on her own experience as a dalang and interviews with other female dalangs and artists, and posits that “tradition” in Bali must be understood as a system of power that is inextricably linked to gender hierarchy.

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