16 December 2013
Master of Puppets (and Masks)
Round or elongated, blue or red, funny or horrible, cunning or friendly, carved masks are used to represent different characters the dancers wish to portray as they perform local tales or adaptations of Hindu epics. Those masks undoubtedly become more powerful, more alive when worn during dance performances that I was also lucky to attend. Yet seeing them up close in Yogyakarta’s small Sono-Budoyo museum was a good way to spend a few minutes… taking low-light photos (did I mention that the masks were poorly lit?!).
On the way out, another trait of Indonesian culture awaited me: the manufacture (and, yes, the sale attempt – but it wasn’t as annoying as I thought it would be) of carved-leather puppets (“wayang” in Bahasa, the main language spoken in Indonesia). Watch them closely: they are thin and intricate figures, cut from buffalo hide (that’s the English word for the skin of large animals, forgive my own ignorance) before being painted. The leaf-shaped one you can see in the photo represents the tree of life and is generally used at the end of performances.
On that note, it’s interesting that the concept of a “tree of life” seems to transcend religions and mythologies – among many other examples: the Christian tree of life planted at the east end of the garden of Eden (with some controversy as to whether it’s the same as the tree of knowledge); the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures represented world trees connecting the underworld and the sky; Isis and Osiris in Egyptian mythology are said to have emerged from an acacia tree considered as the tree of life. Speaking of which, I discovered (pre-emptive note: as I was reading on the topic) that acacia trees contain organic compounds called alkaloids which are active on human brains (in plain speak: psychedelic drugs) and which have – of course – been used as part of “spiritual” experiences… what’s this that I’m seeing? A falcon-headed man, right…