Issue 9 |

Performing identities: An interview with Miguel Escobar Varela

by on December 28, 2016

Frances Loke Wei speaks to Miguel Escobar Varela, PhD, Assistant Professor of Theatre at the National University of Singapore and director of the trilingual Contemporary Wayang Archive (CWA), about his time building the Archive and his interest in Indonesian wayang (Bahasa Indonesia ‘puppet’) art and languages. The CWA was recently officially launched on 7 October 2016.


What inspired you to start the Contemporary Wayang Archive?

I went to Indonesia to study traditional wayang kulit and stumbled upon contemporary shows (“wayang kontemporer“). I was only able to find a couple of academic resources on this and I thought it was an under-researched area worthy of attention. Although there is a vast scholarship on traditional wayang and many expertly edited videos and translations, there was nothing of the sort for contemporary wayang and I thought this would be an interesting project to embark on.

How long did you take to build the Archive?

I first started collecting videos in 2008, but I didn’t think of them as an archive back then. I did most of the video recording and collection over 12 months in 2012 and then spent three years working on the translations, from 2013 to 2016. But the Archive is far from finished! We still hope to add to our current collection of 24 videos.

People can watch videos of 21st century Javanese wayang performances on the Archive in Bahasa Indonesia or Javanese, and read subtitles in English. Why is this important?

Wayang kulit attracts different kinds of audiences. Some are people with an interest in Indonesia or in Asian theatre and find the form impenetrable due to the linguistic barrier — this even includes Indonesian people who don’t speak Javanese. And then there are specialists in Javanese philology and culture who want to see the full transcripts. By allowing different types of subtitles we aim to cater to different audiences.

Wayang performances have been recorded and broadcast on German television, and, in your work, subtitled in English. Are there any elements of wayang that get lost in translation?

It’s always difficult to recreate the nuance and complex web of cultural references in a translation. But we aim to do this by keeping the original honorifics in the translation and by including detailed translator’s notes on word play and sociocultural allusion. So yes, many things are lost in translation but there many things that translation can also help us safeguard and transmit.

What are the origins of wayang and do you think that there’s a specific language in which wayang should be performed in to retain its authenticity?

Scholars disagree on the origin of wayang. Although the Sanskrit shadow plays possibly predate the Javanese ones, it is not entirely certain that there is a direct link of influence between them. Personally, I also think that wayang has remained central to Javanese society due to its openness, as it has incorporated different religious symbols, languages, and media over the course of a millennium. So perhaps, the most of authentic core of wayang is its adaptability and there is no reason why it can’t be performed in other languages.

Do you have a favourite wayang story?

I love Dewa Ruci, the story of Bima’s spiritual quest. But I’m afraid this is not a very original choice as this is one of the most discussed stories in the entire wayang corpus and a favorite of wayang scholars.

In Java or Indonesia in general, what are the profiles of those who still watch wayang performances? What is the state of wayang in Indonesia today?

In the village where I’ve spent most of my time, everyone watches wayang: the young and the old, the foreign researchers, and the local noodle sellers. In the more urban settings this is changing and younger audiences are increasingly rare sights in the audience of traditional shows. But contemporary wayang, such as Wayang Hip Hop attracts younger audiences who are both Javanese and global citizens in their cultural tastes and outlook. So I think that wayang is still a very lively tradition that plays an important role in Javanese society.

Miguel, you’re from Mexico. That’s a far way off from Southeast Asia. So how did you come to develop this passion for Indonesia and Javanese art and language?

After I finished my BA degree I was in search of an adventure. I wanted to live in a different place, learn another language, and train myself in a theatre tradition that was different from anything I knew. I had seen Javanese performances in Mexico City and I was intrigued. But to be honest my original plan was to spend just a few months in Indonesia. But being there I realized I had plenty to learn and I kept coming back over the years, eventually settling in Singapore and travelling to Indonesia four times a year.

How can people make use of the Archive?

The Archive is free and we tried to make it easy to use for people with different interests. You can have a cinematic experience of the Archive, watching them in full-screen mode while eating popcorn. You can also watch them alongside the translator’s notes, pausing to reflect and learn more about Javanese culture. Or you can use the “text concordance search” function to find specific segments or investigate the usage of the language in the performances.

What kind of collaborations are you looking for?

I’d be very happy to collaborate with linguists. I think that the Archive is a treasure trove of linguistic data and it would be great if someone with a linguistic background would want to help us explore this.


For more of Miguel’s work, see his website.

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