Sapto Sopawiro: man of shadows

The ancient shadow-puppet theatre of Java, known as wayang, was brought to Suriname in the nineteenth century — and survives thanks to the efforts of dalang Sapto Sopawiro. Chandra van Binnendijk meets the master

  • In a wayang performance, the dalang sits behind a white screen, hidden from the audience, who see only the shadow silhouettes of the backlit puppets. Photography by Charles Chang
  • Dalang Sapto Sopawiro. Photography by Charles Chang
  • Photography by Charles Chang
  • Photography by Charles Chang
  • For each performance, the dalang chooses from a cast of hundreds of different puppets. Photography by Charles Chang
  • A wayang kulit used in the ancient Javanese shadow puppet theatre. Photography by Charles Chang

wayang performance starts with a number of banana-tree stems (the Earth) and a large screen of white cloth (the Universe), behind which hangs a lamp, symbolising the light of the sun. On either end of the screen, two groups of characters are lined up, hundreds of handmade dolls, crafted from buffalo or goat skin. On the left are the wicked figures, while the righteous ones come from the right. These wayang kulit — shadow puppets — are highly stylised human figures, each with its own character represented through exaggerated features.

The world of the wayang is populated with dragons and demons, kings and clowns, queens and princesses, demi-gods and animals. And it is the dalang who brings them to life: he is the medium between the characters and the audience. He makes the puppets talk, each with a distinctive high- or low-pitched voice, and he answers their questions.

The ancient Javanese tradition of the wayang was brought to Suriname at the end of the late nineteenth century, when the first immigrants from the Dutch East Indies arrived in what was then Dutch Guiana. More than a century later, Sapto Sopawiro is the last master of the wayang tradition in Suriname, whose mission is to preserve the art of this unique form of shadow puppetry, and above all pass it on to future generations. Not an easy task, when most Surinamese youth prefer rock and reggae and dancing to Brazilian music, rather than watching the shadow play of the leather puppets Sopawiro so skillfully brings to life in his magical performances. But the seventy-four-year old master stands firm in what he considers an almost sacred task: to ensure that the echoes of the ancient stories he performs keep resounding. Because their wisdom is deep, and their lessons offer modern man something valuable to hold on to in these chaotic times we live in.


The word wayang means shadow or spirit, and this was originally a form of theatre with a religious basis. The stories portrayed by the dalang are derived from the famous Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, imparting moral teachings. In modern Indonesia, where Sapto’s forefathers came from, these epic poems have been assimilated and supplemented in the evolving tradition of the wayang. But the source material remains unchanged throughout the ages: the stories always contain the eternal battle between good and evil, and provide guidelines for ethical conduct in life. “It is very important for men to know what is righteous behaviour,” says Sopawiro. “That is why the wayang must remain.”

Sopawiro inherited his talent for wayang performance from his father, Ponco Sadidjo, who was also a dalang. He was literally raised with wayang, accompanying his father since early childhood. In the old days, a performance went on through the night, until dawn. On most nights, little Sapto fell asleep. But the love for wayang rooted deep in him, and later on in his life he began to deepen and refine the art. After retiring from his career as a mechanic at the Billiton bauxite company in 2000, Sopawiro engaged in wayang almost full time.

“Fourteen years ago I really began my wayang study,” he says. “At that time, the Indonesian embassy brought a dalang from Indonesia here to teach the art of wayang to people who interested in it. He was from the University of Yogyakarta. I was with him almost every day. There were a few others, but some did not continue and others have died in the meantime. In those days there were still about four to six of these old dalangs alive. Now I am the only one left.”

Sopawiro has concentrated on wayang kulit, performed with flat leather dolls, regularly made of cow hide (the word kulit means leather). The other kind of shadow puppetry, the wayang golek, is performed with three-dimensional wooden dolls — the puppeteer handles them with ropes on two sticks, and thus sets them in motion. On the basis of his story or theme, the dalang makes his choice from an “army” of three to four hundred different figures.

High demands are placed upon the dalang, since it is no easy task that is entrusted to him. It takes at least five years of study to become a reasonably good dalang, who must simultaneously be actor, director, dramatist, impersonator, comic, entertainer, singer, musician, and master of the Javanese language and literature. The dalang is also a conductor — with his wooden hammer he indicates which piece the accompanying gamelan orchestra has to play. Furthermore, a dalang should be well acquainted with court etiquette, to convincingly portray shadow kings and queens, and needs to possess substantial physical endurance, given the nature and the length of his work. No western puppeteer is put to so many simultaneous demands, and therefore the shadow theatre of the wayang can hardly be compared to western puppetry. Among the Javanese, a dalang is a highly respected artist.


Sapto Sopawiro’s life is part of the history of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia and Suriname. In 1930, his father was among the thousands of indentured workers sent by the Dutch colonial government to plantations in Suriname, where they later settled and started families. Sopawiro was born in 1940, in the Saramacca district. He is one of Suriname’s approximately 84,000 ethnic Javanese descendants, who form the third largest group in this multicultural society. (Today, Suriname’s population of 560,000 includes Hindustanis of South Asian origin, creoles of African and Dutch descent, Maroons of African origin, Amerindians, Chinese, and whites of European descent, besides Javanese.)

Suriname is the only country in the Caribbean with a large Javanese population. The Javanese who live in various districts of Suriname regularly observe their traditional Thanksgiving traditions with wayang kulit shows, which can be attended by neighbours from other ethnic groups as well. The culture lives.

In 2013, Sopawiro visited the country of his forefathers for the first time. He was in Indonesia for a month, reuniting with relatives in Java and watching various Javanese art performances, but especially to meet with Javanese cultural experts for obtaining firsthand information on how a younger generation of puppeteers is groomed there. Up to now, he finds it very hard to find young people in Suriname interested in learning the arts of the dalang.

Sopawiro’s favourite play is Dewa Ruci. The main character in this philosophical Javanese poem is the raging giant Bima, a wayang hero with a magical thumbnail with which he can kill. In his quest for the elixir of life, Bima encounters something mystical: he experiences divinity and thus finds the meaning of life for man on earth. “Bima wants to learn about himself, he wants know his own Self,” Sopawiro explains. And he emphasises again: “One can learn so much about life in plays like this.”

To convey these messages, he often pours a dash of humour into his performances. And because his audiences in Suriname are relatively mixed, Sopawiro has developed a slightly different presentation than his traditional colleagues in Java. His suluk (the recitation of songs), for instance, contains old calypsos such as Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O”, or popular songs like Nat King Cole’s “I Love You for Sentimental Reasons”, rather than Javanese poetry. His public loves it.

In 2003, the wayang kulit was added to the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This international recognition of his art fully supports Sapto Sopawiro’s mission. And thus the lone dalang plays on.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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