The big puppet parade

by Arpan Rachman

The better America (Issue IV/2020)


Over two metres high and with a bamboo scaffolding under the costume, an ondel-ondel couple on Jakarta’s streets. Photo: Andi Aisyah Lamboge

Every day, two huge puppet figures dance on the streets of Jakarta. A mesmeric rhythm accompanies their every movement. The bodies of the puppets, depicting a man and a woman, are made of bamboo and are big enough for a fully grown adult to stand inside. But despite their two-and-a-half metre height, their 80-centimetre diameter and their weight of more than eight kilos, the enormous constructions are light enough to be “played” by the people inside them, who use their bodies to set their costumes in choreographic motion.

These are the “ondel-ondel” puppets in Indonesia, a much-loved form of street art. They have their roots in the rich folk tradition of the Betawi people, Jakarta’s original inhabitants, from whom the name of Indonesia’s capital, Batavia, derives.

The drummer Suhendar Kapau is head of the Betawi Art Studio in Kramat, a district of Jakarta. Since 2016 he has been the leader of his own ondel-ondel group and, as an ondel musician, provides the rhythm for the puppets. On a July afternoon in 2020, ten members of the club stop by to go out onto the streets. Two men squeeze into the ondel-ondels and the other eight provide music. Everyone leaves their base in the Ninth Lane, a side road off the Kramat Pulo Dalam II market street, and starts the show.

“In the 1970s, Governor Ali Sadikin had the puppets put up in front of town halls and ministries, as a warning to corrupt officials.”

Most of the residents in Kapau’s neighbourhood are friends and family of the musicians who also work as ondel-ondel performers. They’re mainly young men who had no chance of a school education and who haven’t found any other job. They’ve had neither dance nor music training, but they learned the art of puppetry and have appropriated this on the street.

“There aren’t any women in our group,” Kapau says. “The audience isn’t into seeing women performing.” The 16 ondel-ondel performers who work for Kapau are exclusively men. And, if it’s up to the drummer, that’s the way things will stay. In other studios, ones with female ondel-ondel performers, there are always problems cropping up, he explains. For example, relationships between men and women and other indecent goings-on like cigarette smoking. In Jakarta’s conservative milieux, it’s still taboo for a woman to smoke.

The puppets traditionally come as a male–female pair. A puppet couple symbolises husband and wife. The male puppet has a red face, while the female’s is painted white. They dance in rhythmic concert to music provided by a small group of musicians playing the tehyan (an instrument similar to the zither), two drums and a gong. During the performance a man goes round with a bucket, collecting donations.

“Nowadays the puppets’ bodies are made from bamboo and their masks out of reinforced fibreglass plastic.”

A great deal of work lies behind the ondel-ondel performance. “It takes about a week to build up a puppet pair, complete with heads and bamboo decorations,” says 24-year-old Taufik Hidayat, who constructs ondel-ondels for a living. Making one costs around two million Indonesian rupees, or 115 euros, he says. The creation as well as the raison d’être of ondel-ondels has changed radically over time. Nowadays the puppets’ bodies are made from bamboo and their masks out of reinforced fibreglass plastic.

Ondel-ondels also serve as entertainment. They appear at special occasions, for instance at the opening of a hotel or as part of a street celebration. But the ondel-ondel tradition originally came from the countryside and is closely linked with harvest time, says historian JJ Rizal. “The puppets were originally crafted out of what was left over from the harvesting and their function was taken seriously, to give greetings to the new season and to ward off evil spirits. In this way, catastrophes and illnesses could be kept away.”

However, in the 1950s the ondel-ondel festivity was banned. The puppets were seen as a surviving relic of a primitive culture. But this censoring of a popular artform didn’t last long. Jakarta’s governor, Ali Sadikin, resurrected the puppet show in the 1970s, and not for completely altruistic reasons. He had the imposing figures put up in front of administrative buildings and ministries as a warning to corrupt officials.

“So the ondel-ondel tradition is now at risk of being forgotten altogether.”

So the ondel-ondels gradually found their way back onto the streets again, although over time they lost their original function as good omens and bringers of luck. Because today there’s barely a soul in Jakarta, including the street artists, who remembers the puppets’ history. On the other hand, the ondel-ondels have made their way into Indonesia’s pop culture, not just for tourists but for many Indonesians. They serve as great photo opportunities or as show elements in a corporate knees-up. There’s suspicion that the custom is just an excuse for the artists to make a bit of money from people on the streets. 

So the ondel-ondel tradition is now at risk of being forgotten altogether. “In the future, maybe the ondel-ondel will just be an ordinary everyday object – and the practical function it served in the culture will be lost,” JJ Rizal says. “Maybe the puppets have lost their spell.”

But the artists behind the ondel-ondels are far from giving up the puppet dance. Just recently they made some specific demands to the municipality of Jakarta. One of those who drew up the request is Taufik Hidayat, the young puppet builder. “We need our own ondel-ondel stage in the city to put on performances,” he says. Perhaps a way to reanimate the ondel-ondel once more. 

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