Traditional Art, Community and Environmental Discourse: Wayang Puppet Theatre in Global Contexts
- Matthew Isaac Cohen
- Catherine Diamond Soochow University
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Puppet theatre (wayang) in traditional communities of the agrarian societies of western Indonesia has long been a means for evoking, dramatizing, addressing and supplicating supernatural beings associated with the natural environment; disseminating information about best practices and taboos in relation to agriculture, forestry and fishing; and defining and reinforcing bonds of community. Ritual dramas performed annually in villages and propitious sites are participatory rites sponsored and attended by communities.
Due to changes in religious belief and practice (particularly Islamization), education, the industrialization of agriculture and commercial fishing, migration and urbanization, the centrality of these wayang ritual dramas and associated local knowledge is etiolating. They are premised on traditional techniques, predictable monsoons and agricultural and fishing seasons – regular patterns thrown into disarray by rapid modernization, climate change and global challenges. Wayang is being sponsored by communities no longer defined by geographical proximity but also involve actively members who participate from afar, such as migrant workers in South Korea. Local traditions survive as heritage but are often no longer “in good working order,” in philosopher Alisdair Macintyre’s terms, as they fail to recognise significant changes.
There exists, however, potential in revitalizing these archaic and residual ritual drama forms and associated myths to address the pressing environmental issues confronting western Indonesia today such as coastal erosion, flooding, sinking cities, air and water pollution. This panel, which emerges from a collaborative research project conducted by UK-based and Indonesian researchers, examines the re-definition of wayang interpretive communities under globalization; residual and archaic environmental functions of wayang; contemporary efforts by coteries of activists, academics, agrarian communities and artists to link wayang to environmental causes; and, more generally, the potential of wayang to comprehend, communicate and intervene in environmental discourses and other global challenges.