In South and Southeast Asia paintings, puppets, and theatre are often part of religious traditions that make the divine, in both its beneficent and its demonic forms, visible in the world. This selection of objects, collected over thirty years of research in South and Southeast Asian theatre, focuses on extremes of the peaceful and the terrible in manifestations of the sacred. In the tantric strains that suffuse Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic culture groups and thus the performing arts of the region, the good and the terrible forces may be complementary sides of the same energy. This two-fold power is otherworldly, but humans also participate in it, so that in dance or puppetry the same character may often have both peaceful and terrible forms.
The great stories—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the tales of Lord Krishna (an avatar of the God Vishnu), AmirHamzah (the uncle of the Prophet Mohammed), and others—show the interactions of the divine and the human and how human heroes participate in divine energy.
Part of theatre’s job is to make such sacred insights accessible to all viewers, regardless of class. Imagery from teyyam of Kerala, India, and Rangda-Barong mask theatre of Bali may be related to early cults with shamanic and chthonic roots. In such genres, striking outfits and extreme make-up transform the human. Performers can go into a trance and costume, make-up, and mask are crucial to this practice. The aesthetic of trance genres influences puppet makers and actors who want to show the spirit energy in a way that may explain the impressive iconography and enlarged figures in the theatrical forms.
Tales may be presented in simple form by a single narrator/dancer or by a puppeteer using music, word, and dance, and the story helps ordinary people learn religious truths in a visceral way. The solo narrator/puppeteer/actor plays both the human and the divine characters and he/she reminds viewers that the microcosmic and macrocosmic forces are linked. Multi-person troupes may emerge, but often a narrator/singer continues to lead the story so that actors are like images or puppets moving under the narrator’s direction.
Sufi forms of Islam in India or Java may interpret related ideas in a more abstract and mystical way than the Hindu and/or Buddhist areas (India, Cambodia, Thailand, Bali) where the tales may be seen by some as literal happenings of the past—comparable to the way some Westerners view the Bible.
The pattern of displaying the extremes of divine and demonic in the visual and performing arts is shared across the South and Southeast Asian region. These theatres, while dealing with very realistic emotions and situations, place humanity in a continuum that extends beyond the human. In all these traditions, the belief is that once performers and their audience understand how they participate in and shape both the demonic and divine, their vision is expanded, and everyone will abjure the demonic and cleave to the beneficent cosmic energy.
Acknowledgements: Yale Institute of Sacred Music, Religious Studies, and Theatre Studies; University of California Santa Cruz Arts Research Institute and Committee on Research; Diana Daugherty, Phyllis Granoff, James Gunderson, Martin Jean, Dominika Laster, Marlene Pitkow, Michael Schuster and the East-West Center, Karen Smith, and Amy Trompetter.