02/18/2022, 15.23
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Muslim scholar against 'wayang', Indonesia’s traditional theatre

by Mathias Hariyadi

According to Khalid Basalamah, it “should be destroyed”. But for Indonesians, this type of performance is not only a form of entertainment, it is also a way of sharing folk wisdom. In recent decades, the Catholic Church has also made extensive use of it.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – According to a Muslim cleric, Indonesia’s traditional puppet theatre should be outlawed.

"Wayang should be destroyed,” said Khalid Basalamah, when someone asked him what Islamic teaching said about this local tradition.

Wayang is not just a form of entertainment. Young and old alike love to watch performances, which usually take place from midnight to dawn, also because of the folk wisdom and philosophical teachings they impart.

There are two types of performances: wayang orang, with living actors who must excel in Javanese language and dance, and wayang kulit, played by puppets handled by the dalang, the puppet master, who also leads the musical band that accompanies the show.

This traditional form of theatre originated in India and was imported to Indonesia in the 4th century AD as Hinduism spread to the archipelago. Today the local Catholic Church makes extensive use of it.

Fr Agustinus Handi Setyanto, a priest in the Diocese of Purwokerto and rector of the seminary in Tegal, a city in central Java, is a dalang of wayang wahyu, a new form of theatre that incorporates Bible stories. He is concerned about comments that devalue this form of art.

“As far as I'm concerned, the wayang wahyu is important because I can spread Catholic teachings through the nation’s most popular and entertaining puppet show,” he told AsiaNews.

“The (Second) Vatican Council told us that every form of knowledge and culture should be respected and preserved,” he added. “As stated in Gaudium et Spes n. 58, the Catholic Church should cement her union with all local cultures so that both parties can enrich each other.”

The wayang wahyu began to spread in the 1960s thanks to Brother Timotius Wignyosoebroto, but gained great popularity thanks to Fr Wiyono, a priest from the Archdiocese of Semarang in Yogyakarta.

Fr Agustinus belongs to a third generation of puppeteers. What makes his stage performances even more special is the fact that almost all the members of his group are Muslims.

“I met them when I was pastor in a rural parish in Kroya, in the Diocese of Purwokerto a few years ago", he explained.

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