Shadow play, a storytelling medium, has been one of the major vehicles for the transmission of the Mahabharata in Java and Bali, Indonesia. The great Hindu epic revolves around two rival families, the Pandawa and the Korawa, whose disputes culminate in a legendary battle. By the first centuries CE, versions of the Mahabharata were already traveling along trade routes from the Indian subcontinent to Java, continually changing and adapting as the story interacted with various elements of Javanese religion and belief. One story born out of this multicultural encounter is the Arjuna Wiwaha, translated literally as “Celebrations of Arjuna’s Wedding.” Composed by Mpu Kanwa in 1035 AD, the tale unfolds with Arjuna, one of the Pandawa, bidding farewell to his wife Draupadi, his mother, Dewi Kunti, and his four brothers, and setting off to Mount Indrakila to meditate (semadi). As he journeys forth, Arjuna weaves across a wide terrain, crossing vistas of mountains and forests.
Reaching his destination, Arjuna enters a cave and delves deeply into meditation, hoping to attain enough spiritual potency to defeat the Korawas. Arjuna is so entranced in his ascetic practices that he rebuffs the advances of seven celestial nymphs sent by the gods to test his resolve. He is aroused from his meditation by Niwatakawatja, a vengeful titan king who lusts after Supraba, the most beautiful of the heavenly nymphs. Arjuna saves the world of the gods and is rewarded with the right to marry all seven nymphs. His ascetic journey, animated with erotic pleasures, also interweaves themes such as fertility, purification, and filial piety.
The Arjuna Wiwaha is performed in the wayang kulit, the Indonesian shadow theatre, whose principle actors are puppets tooled in leather and decorated with intricate filigree patterns. Even today in Java and Bali, the story is enacted in the shadow play and in classical dance dramas. Arjuna’s marriage is also retold and refashioned through a variety of other mediums: chiseled in stone, painted and embroidered on cloth, chased in metal, carved in wood, incised in palm-leaf, and drawn on paper. In each of these rich displays, the audiences of Java and Bali are consistently enraptured, embracing both local and cosmopolitan adaptations of this popular story. While the erotic elements of the temptation scene are often vividly depicted in the painted and embroidered versions, sometimes only the faintest allusions to these encounters are made manifest in the wayang and dance dramas.
This installation was curated by Cornell students in Professor Kaja McGowan’s Spring 2012 seminar "Shadowplay: Asian Art and Performance." Arjuna, along with his puppet cohorts, has been reawakened and restaged to charm generations of audiences. May you be moved by Arjuna’s dramatic journey into the shadowlands.
Natalie Di Pietrantonio