Masters of puppets: Indonesia’s ‘Ondel-Ondel’ kids

/ 06:31 PM May 19, 2019

Ondel-Ondel have long been a part of the Jakarta native group Betawi culture and the massive dolls used to be utlilized for traditional ceremonies and weddings. Image: AFP/Goh Chai Hin

Peeking through a slit in her giant puppet costume, Indonesian teen Juniarti is drenched in sweat as she moves stiffly under the blistering sun.

The 15-year-old and a motley crew of other children, some as young as nine, make a living by strapping on two-meter (6.5 foot) brightly colored folk effigies known as Ondel-Ondel.


The giant-headed puppets are a staple on the streets of Indonesia’s bustling capital and often appear in celebrations to help ward off evil spirits.

Wobbling from side to side as they move, the puppets’ face used to be made from papier mache although fiberglass or plastic resin mold is more common these days.


Usually, Ondel-Ondel comes in a male version with a thick mustache and red face, while the female’s white face is punctuated by bright red lipstick with coconut leaves for hair.

Juniarti and her puppet-wearing friends collect change from passersby with some jerky dance steps and selfie poses for entertainment.

Nearby, the teen girl’s four-year-old cousin Hassan wiggles and bops to mobile phone music while holding a bucket for change.

With the fasting month of Ramadan underway in Muslim-majority Indonesia, the kids are hoping that calls to give to the less fortunate will put more rupiah in their pockets.

But while they can pocket as much as $20 (around P1,000) a day, it is not easy money.

Ondel-Ondel wearers balance a bamboo frame on their shoulders to carry the oversized costume, which weighs up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds).

“Of course it’s tiring,” Juniarti shared during a break behind a luxury shopping mall.


“It is so hot inside that my clothes are all drenched.”

Bastian, who has been busking for three years, has permanent reminders of his difficult work.

“The Ondel is really heavy, look at my scar,” said the 11-year-old as he pulled his t-shirt to reveal red marks and scratches on his shoulder.

Many adults don the costumes too, but children are increasingly picking up the practice.

That has alarmed youth protection advocates who fear that they are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

But Juniarti and Bastian insist they’ve suffered little harassment, apart from being shooed away by security guards.

Their path to this job tugs at the heart, however.

Juniarti dropped out of school in the third grade and went to work to help her family after their father passed away.

Residents in her Jakarta neighborhood, where the hand-painted dolls are traditionally made from scratch, asked if she wanted to join the Ondel-Ondel ranks.

It is a common way for people in the poor district to earn money.

And having the chance to blend work with play means some of the puppet kids think they’ve got a pretty good deal.

“I can have fun with my friends and work at the same time,” 13-year-old Yogi Susanto said. HM/JB


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TAGS: Culture, Evil spirits, Indonesia, Ondel-Ondel, Puppets
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