Sat, 05 Jul 2003

Hidden messages in shadow puppet show

Tarko Sudiarno, The Jakarta Post, Yogyakarta

Kyai Brayut, a farmer, keeps his head erect and walks straight ahead despite a heavy burden on his shoulders -- carrying a number of small kids that have not learned how to walk yet.

Walking close to him are his bigger kids while his wife, Nyai Brayut, with a face hardly made up, carries a bamboo basket filled with more kids. She is also walking arm in arm with some other kids.

The family is fleeing their village in a time of disaster. A wild boar will eat any children that it comes across, causing great fear among the villagers, including the Brayuts.

Kyai and Nyai Brayut are certain that God has left the children under their care, strongly believing the more children one has, the luckier he or she will be. So, in order to avert disaster, they are taking their children to a safe place.

Previously, the story of the Brayuts was regularly performed in between a leather puppet show before the new order era. But when the new order government launched a family planning program to encourage people to have only two children, the story was shelved as it was certainly against the campaign.

But a recent exhibition at Bentara Budaya in Yogyakarta brought the Brayuts back in to the spotlight. Various types of Brayut puppets from Yogyakarta; Central Java towns of Surakarta, Wonosari and Rembang; East Java towns of Kediri and Tulungagung as well as Bali were on display.

"It's hard to collect the many versions of this puppet since many puppet masters have not presented the story for quite a long time. But finally, we were able to collect some 20 versions and most of them were made in 1940s," said the head of Bentara Budaya Yogyakarta, Hermanu.

The fact that the Brayut puppet is available in many versions shows there are also many stories and backgrounds behind it.

In Java, for instance, the story of Brayut is believed be originated from the Tingkeban, a traditional rite marking the seventh month of a woman's first pregnancy. The Brayut story found in Bali, or the one depicted on the reliefs on the Buddhist temple, Mendut, is all about God's gift bestowed on human beings.

Of the 20 versions of Brayut leather puppets on display, almost all of them show a man carrying his children. In the Rembang version, the couple has many children -- the husband carries 12 of them in a bamboo basket and 11 others are walking near him, while his wife carries three children on her back and one on her front side and five more children walk near her.

Hermanu said the number of Brayut children varied. Some say he had 16 children, while others say he had 18. The Kediri version even shows him as a father with 40 children.

In the introduction to the exhibition, cultural observer Sindunata, said the story of Brayut was not simply the story of a big family, which was found unfavorable during the new order era since it was against the government's family planning program.

For Sindunata, a doctorate in philosophy from a German university, the Brayut story is rich in messages and narrative content, like the one which is believed to come from the Tingkeban rite.

The story, he said, implied fertility and love for life as well as protection of children. The main message of the story is not about a large number of children. The story depicts Brayut as a father with many children because actually it provokes people to think what fertility is really about, or question whether people can still love life and protect children under difficult circumstances.

The Bali version comes from the perspective that each child has potential to make his/her own fortune, meaning the parents must work hard and earnestly to raise them to be able to do that.

"The background of this Brayut story is a view that life does not come from human beings but a gift for human beings. That's why life can bring its own fortune. This is the mystery of life. If you have the courage to go through this mystery in means believing in the power of life," said Sindunata.