Samidjan, a master of shadow puppetry or wayang, has created transgender characters to push back against rising intolerance in the Muslim-majority country
It’s a modern message, but the tradition – which dates back to the 11th century – has always aimed to both entertain and convey a moral message to its audience.
Bullied for not being “masculine enough”, Bambang Priawan is feeling wretched.
In Priawan’s moment of distress, Betari Jaluwati, a transgender goddess, descends from the heavens to comfort him. Resplendent in her glorious rainbow-tinted hair, she tells Priawan to stop despairing. The almighty, she says, is neither male nor female.
This is an excerpt from a contemporary Javanese shadow puppet play created and performed by Ki (an honorific for a dalang or puppet master) Samidjan, 68, a resident of Gunung Kidul, Yogyakarta, and his son Kus Sri Antoro, 42, who acts as his assistant.
LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) themes remain controversial in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. The recent release of the Hollywood superhero movie Eternals had to be postponed in Indonesia due to public angst over a scene in which two men kiss. The scene was later deleted for the Indonesian audience.
Samidjan said that it was the growing intolerance in the country that had pushed him into action.
“We created Betari Jaluwati and Warya Bissunanda [another trans character] as new wayang characters to express our concerns about the discrimination against LGBTQ citizens of our country, who often have their rights trampled upon by the state,” he said.
Around 60 per cent of people in Yogyakarta’s transgender community have experienced discriminatory practices by local bureaucracy, according to a report by Yogyakarta’s Independent Journalists’ Alliance. As a result, most have been denied basic rights such as ID cards, without which they cannot apply for jobs or open bank accounts.
Samidjan said his LGBTQ characters were part of his “wayang marjinal” line-up, a set of puppets designed to represent marginalised groups in Indonesian society, including small farmers, labourers and people with disabilities.
He said the idea of creating “wayang marjinal” had occurred to him after listening to a blind neighbour complain about the prejudices he faced as someone without sight.
The puppet master had wanted to come up with plays which encouraged people to care about each other and not to judge others who were different.
“No one chooses to be born different; to be blind, to be gay or trans. I don’t know if my wayang will change people’s attitudes but I just want to put the message out there.”