April 27, 2009 / 7:25 AM / 10 years ago

Puppets roam Jakarta's streets to save dying culture

JAKARTA (Reuters Life!) - Giant puppets are roaming Jakarta’s streets, dancing, singing and acting in a traditional performance aimed at preserving the rapidly diminishing culture of the bustling capital’s original settlers.

The puppets are the protagonists of Ondel-Ondel, a street theater unique to the Betawi people who hail from the city of 10 million people, which is a melting pot of several Indonesian ethnicities.

The shows comprise a pair of male and female puppets, which the performers wear, who dance to traditional music. A troupe usually has up to 20 actors and musicians, all of them male.

“As an ethnic Betawi, I believe we must conserve our culture and prevent it from going extinct,” said 18-year-old performer Kemal, who like most Indonesians has only one name.

“If the weather is good, we can earn between 180,000 to 200,000 rupiah ($16-$18) for a performance which is about three hours long,” he added.

Kemal’s troupe goes out three times a week, putting on shows in the city’s suburbs to people who are largely poor and with little money to spend on entertainment.

It costs 1,000 rupiah (9 U.S. cents) to watch the show, and the troupe is usually booked for special occasions such as birthdays and Betawi weddings.

The musicians use a car battery to power their amplifiers while the puppets dance and twirl, delighting the neighborhood.

“I hope the Betawi culture will not disappear. I am happy to see the Ondel-Ondel performers and even the neighborhood children appreciate them,” said Tarman, a resident who was watching a recent show.

Kemal said performances are often exhausting but the troupe will continue to ensure Ondel-Ondel remains a part of Jakarta.

Betawis and their culture have been overwhelmed by the dominant Javanese culture over the years. They are more similar to the peoples of Sumatra, one of the largest of the 17,000 or so islands in the Southeast Asian country, with distinct dialect, clothes and arts.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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