Women in the Shadows: Gender, Puppets, and the Power of Tradition in Bali.

Author:Harnish, David
Position:ASIA - Book review
 
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Goodlander, Jennifer. Women in the Shadows: Gender, Puppets, and the Power of Tradition in Bali. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2016.

This ethnographic work addresses women performing as dalang (puppeteers) in Balinese wayang kulit (shadow play) performances, an activity that disrupts gender norms. The author reveals that her studies with a puppeteer, accompanying him to his performances, and her own performances as dalang were increasingly disruptive. After the introduction, the book is divided into "Sekala: The Visible Realm" (training, dalang, puppets) and "Niskala: The Invisible Realm" (ritual processes of becoming dalang, negotiating invisible and visible realms, shadows). The organization is sufficient to present findings, although the book could have benefitted from more subheadings.

The book reads easily and sets a journal-like, conversational tone that, although citing culture theorists, is free of verbiage. The author uses wayang kulit to examine gender and social class in history, life, and literature, although she occasionally explicates wayang narrative and puppets without exploring women or gender. Fortunately, the author describes the dalang's elevated position to offer social critique via comedic puppet characters, and the exposition of laughter and comedy--particularly the "presence of the comic characters to reinforce the habitus of the Balinese community"--demonstrates a grasp of aesthetic performance elements (57). The exposition on alus (refined) and kasar (coarse) in relation to sex, as well as the authors personal immersion into the world of wayang as a performer and interpreter, enhances the book's value.

Jennifer Goodlander interviewed several major women artists in Bali, including those who became dalang. Much of the information presented is not entirely new, but the subject is approached differently--largely through experience. The author discusses the subversion of gender norms at the Balinese arts academies, and then describes the resulting performances as entertainment, outside of the rich, transformative traditional performances. There are some troubling generations in a few parts, such as the assumption that Sita (Sinta), the wife of Rama, is less alus as determined by a puppet exhibit, although her otherwise flawless discussion of female puppets is insightful and significantly adds to the available literature.

The book's audience could include those who study Southeast Asian culture and religion, gender...

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