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Stories for today

A contemporary artist brings new life to a moribund Indonesian theatre genre

Margaret Chan

   Wayang beber with Dani Iswardana and Tri Ganjar Wicaksono, 2006
   Dani Iswardana

Dani Iswardana is single-minded about his mission to inject new life into wayang beber, perhaps the oldest form of Indonesian narrative theatre, but now described as a dying art. The intensity of his purpose buoys Dani through long stretches of painting when food is forgotten and his work, fuelled by coffee and cigarettes, is all that he cares for. However Dani has gone for years without producing anything, because he will work only when the creative spirit possesses him. Painting for money means nothing to him, and the everyday demands of making a living have no place in his creative practice.

Wayang beber might be translated as ‘stories unfurled’. It is a form of performance that uses a scroll about four metres long, painted with scenes from a story. The scroll is mounted on two spindles and is rolled from one spindle to the other to reveal the story scene by scene. Narration is provided by a story-teller who is either hidden behind the screen or sits in front of it, pointing to the pictures with a long stick. In Dani’s hands, this ancient art form is being transformed into a medium for exploring the complexities of everyday life in contemporary Indonesia.

Ancient origins

Wayang beber is believed to have been created

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