Gods, Heroes and Clowns draws on the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection to explore works of art associated with the rich narrative traditions of South and Southeast Asia and their use in performance. Storytellers’ cloths, ceremonial hangings, puppets, sculpture, paintings and masks from Cambodia, Thailand, India and Indonesia reveal strong continuities and shared heritages. Works in the exhibition celebrate Buddhist and Hindu deities, folk heroes and mythical kings, and are used in rural villages, royal courts, temples and modern urban settings. Most are part of ceremonial and performative traditions that are still thriving and adapting to changing audiences and conditions. They reveal complex stories combining myth, history, magic, everyday life, pathos, bravery and humour, and resonate across time and space, recalling historical and legendary events to the fascination of new audiences.
The Javanese term wayang means ‘theatre’, and is used to describe a variety of theatrical presentations, including live dramas, masked dance-dramas, narratives accompanied by painted scrolls and several types of puppet plays. The term is also used to designate the puppets used in performances. Wayang performances, particularly wayang puppet plays, remain a popular form of entertainment in Indonesia.
Wayang kulit, or shadow puppet theatre, and wayang golek, performed with three-dimensional puppets, are the main forms. Regional variations include wayang golek cepak, from the north coast of Java, and wayang golek purwa, from west Java. Wayang golek cepak performances depict a range of stories, including histories of the Hindu kingdoms on Java, stories of the hero Prince Panji, local histories and the Menak cycle that were originally Persian stories and reflect the advent of Islam in Indonesia. Purwa narratives are the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana given local additions and variations. Wayang golek cepak and wayang golek purwa each presents a different lakon, or group of stories.
Wayang puppets in Gods, Heroes and Clowns include several depicting the uniquely Indonesian clown-servant characters known as panakawan, who function as narrators, commentators and critics. The wayang style of figurative depiction, featuring figures in profile with squared shoulders and thin, elongated arms, first appears in an illustrated manuscript dated 1886 of the legend of Dewa Ruci. The story is one of the many Southeast Asian embellishments of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Regional versions of the epics with additions made to the core narratives, such as the Dewa Ruci story, reflect local histories and settings from across the region.
Some forms of Indonesian wayang are performed by human dancers and actors, including wayang topeng, a masked dance-drama, and gambuh, a form of Balinese dance-drama associated with the Hindu Balinese calendar of public religious festivals. The dramatic material for these dance-dramas is drawn from the Malat, a series of poetic stories about the mythical eleventh-century Javanese Prince Panji, whose character is depicted in one of the masks in Gods, Heroes and Clowns. Topeng performers either wear full face masks, or half-masks that enable them to speak. The full face masks are fixed in place by means of a short leather strap held between the performer’s teeth. In gambuh performances, refined courtly characters speak in old Javanese Kawi that is translated into contemporary Balinese for the audience by attendants and clowns. The stylised movements of the gambuh performance are conveyed by a wooden sculpture of a dancer in the character of a king.
Shadow puppets of Karnataka
Indian shadow puppets depicting characters from the Ramayana are also produced in the south Indian states. They have a different form in each region and performances are narrated in various languages, including Kannada, Telegu, Tamil and Malayalam. The earliest references to leather puppets in Karnataka, in west India, are from the tenth–eleventh century and those included in Gods, Heroes and Clowns are known as tongalu gombeata. Karnataka puppeteers come from the nomadic Killekyatha community from Maharasthtra and are known as bhagavataru. They make the puppets and perform a repertoire largely drawn from Mahabharata and Ramayana epics, puranas and folktales narrated in Kannada.
In Southeast Asia, stories of the Buddha’s previous lives and incarnations, known as the Jataka tales, form a rich literary tradition and, along with stories from the life of the historical Buddha, are popular and pervasive narratives. The 547 Jataka tales provide moral exemplars that guide Buddhist devotees in their daily lives. In each Jataka, or birth story, the Buddha appears as a bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be), changing from animal to human and then semi-divine manifestations, continually striving to gain sufficient spiritual merit and wisdom in order to achieve Buddhahood in his final life.
The last ten Jataka tales continue to inform works of art, especially in mainland Southeast Asia. Each illustrates a specific virtue, and in the final tale, widely known as the Vessantara Jataka, Prince Vessantara, the penultimate incarnation of the Buddha, perfects the virtue of charity. Long cloth banners from north-east Thailand and Laos depicting the Vessantara narrative, such as the thirty-eight-metre example included in Gods, Heroes and Clowns, combine performative, textual and visual aspects of Buddhist worship. During the annual Bun Phra Wet festival these banners form a visual backdrop to monks’ recitations of the Vessantara text in the temple hall where they are displayed after being carried in a triumphant procession by the community, in re-enactment of Prince Vessantara’s return to his kingdom.
The same Jataka tale is explored in a contemporary sculpture by Svay Sareth who lives and works in Siem Reap, Cambodia. This work explores ideas of power, corruption and futility through the lens of the revered Theravada Buddhist canon, in particular the popular Vessantara story. By depicting a scene at the beginning of a series of ‘selfless‘ acts by Vessantara in which he gives away not only his wordly goods but also his wife and children, Svay questions the acceptance, continuity and effect of such stories and ideologies of power, royalty, war, family, charity and ownership, and condemns a repeating past.
Krishna narratives and performances
Another subject of works in Gods, Heroes and Clowns is Krishna, the eighth avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu, Preserver of Cosmic Order and one of the most popular Hindu deities. The Krishna narrative has inspired works of art in many forms; those here include a contemporary painted story cloth hung during festivals in Orissa; eighteenth-century Rajasthan court paintings depicting Raslila dance performances held at Udaipur palace in 1736; a Kashmiri manuscript of the Bhagavad Gita; and Indonesian puppets representing characters from the epic Mahabharata, in which Krishna appears as a hero.
Folk heroes and legends also inform narrative and performative works of art across the region. One of the most vivid and complex examples of such work is a Rajasthan storyteller’s cloth, known as phad or par, dedicated to the legend of the folk hero Pabuji. The cloths originate from south-east Rajasthan, an area of cattle and camel herders, and local legends celebrate heroes such as Pabuji, who protected local communities and their herds. Pabuji is worshipped with the guidance of a non-Brahmin priest known as a bhopa, who performs a night-time recitation of the Pabuji epic with sung accompaniment by his wife, known as a bhopi. The phad/par combines numerous small scenes and figures across a seven-metre cloth. Unlike the linear, chronological composition of the Buddhist Vessantara banner, the par is organised around the large, central figure of the hero according to the spiritual significance of the scene and its geographic location in relation to Pabuji’s village.
I am most grateful to the following specialists who generously shared their expertise with me in preparing Gods, Heroes and Clowns: Performance and Narrative in South and Southeast Asian Art: Professor Adrian Vickers, Dr Siobhan Cambell, Emeritus Professor Leedom Lefferts, Professor Matthew Cohen, Professor Kathy Foley and Sujarwo Joko Prehatin.
Carol Cains, Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria