Wayang Kulit, Indonesia Traditional Shadow Play
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Wayang Kulit, Indonesia Traditional Shadow Play

Wayang kulit, a popular shadow play in Java and Bali, Indonesia

Wayang kulit is a popular shadow play in Java and Bali, Indonesia. Wayang literally means “shadow”. In Javanese, “wayang” also connotes imagination or spirit. “Kulit” is the local language for “skin”. It refers to the thin perforated leather sheet used to construct the puppet. “Wayang kulit” actually is a traditional form of performing art using puppets made of buffalo skin that come and go between a translucent screen and a source of light. As one of the most ancient forms of entertainment, the shadow puppet had long been known across Asia for thousands of years. In Indonesia, this storytelling tradition was part of pre-Hindu culture established during the ruling of ancient Javanese Kingdom in East Java. In 2003, Wayang Kulit was designated as Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.


Many historians believe that puppet theatrical show had been part of Indonesia’s original ancient culture even though most of the performed stories are adaption of Indian epic. There is no written evidence to support this argument but it may be true as some of the puppet characters derive from Indonesian folklores and cannot be found in other cultures.

The first historical record of wayang performance is found in an inscription dated 930 CE. The inscription says that a puppeteer named Galigi was asked to perform a shadow play for a royal occasion. The story performed was of a hero called Bhima from the Indian well-known tale of Mahabharata. Undoubtedly, Hinduism brought by Indian traders and later adopted by local people, has great influence over the development of this tradition. The Sanskrit was also adopted as the literally language of Java and Bali. Kawi, the traditional Javanese language used in today’s shadow play is a Sanskrit derivative.

Wayang kulit in 19th century. Image source : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayang

When Islam arrived at Java, Muslim religious leaders continued to use wayang kulit to spread their teaching in a less invasive way. Some of the stories and characters originated from Indian Hindu were greatly changed along the way to accommodate this need.

The puppet, the character

In general, Indonesian calls the puppet as “wayang”, thus adding another meaning to the word. The puppet is made of crafted buffalo leather mounted on a bamboo stick or thin buffalo horn handle. The handle or stick allows the puppeteer to control and manipulate the puppet during a show. The puppet is painted, usually with spray and finishing details will be added afterwards. Colors vary according to the puppet’s character and nature of the show. The puppet of Shiva is painted gold, the sacred color of God. However, Shiva may also appear in different colors according to the circumstances of the story it is in. For example red represents anger; white is the symbol of youth or purity. The making of a single puppet takes several weeks to complete and involves several craftsmen working in groups.

Image is private collection of author.

The puppet is weird looking. The head is extremely big, the arms are excessively long and the body is remarkably thin. Puppet figures vary between regions in Java and Bali. While Java has exaggerated un-proportional looking puppet due to Islamic influence, Bali (which still remains Hindu to this day) makes its puppet simpler and more natural. In Lombok, an island near Bali, the puppet represents real people. The figures are also determined by their characters. Virtuous one has small body, pointed nose, narrow eyes, and modest gaze. The vigorous on the contrary, has bigger body, larger eyes, heavier nose, foolish snare and more aggressive gaze.

Balinese puppet. Image source : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayang

Each puppet has unique character and sometimes of great value. It includes royal beings, gods and demons, humble citizen and super heroes. Most characters come from epic Indian story but there are also specific characters called the “Punakawan” that only appear in Indonesia. Punakawan, referred to as “clown servants” are humorous characters consist of a family of four: Semar the wise father and his three sons, Gareng the melancholic, Petruk the one who like to play tricks on Gareng and Bagong the funniest. They serve the superhero and deal with tabloid-like gossip and contemporary political affairs in a philosophical but at the same time hilarious way.

Javanese puppet. Image is private colletion of author.

Dalang, the genius behind the puppet

Dalang is the lone puppeteer who manipulates the puppet and narrates the story behind illuminated screen. Dalang is the one who gives soul to the puppets and brings them to life. He is the heart of the show. Besides controlling the action of the puppet, every Dalang must have exceptional talents to modulate voices to interpret characters, and produce sound effects to create suspense. He must also be able to sing, coordinate the movement of the puppets and harmonize the note and tone of his narration with the traditional background music called gamelan played by group of musician. Dalang is the one who creates drama in every show. He must blend original epic story with contemporary religion, politics and social satire in his performance.

A famous dalang, Ki Mantep Sudarsono during a performance.

Image source : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wayang_Performance.jpg

A dalang must master the “Kawi”, an ancient Javanese language. In most part of the show, Kawi will be used, but there are times when vernacular language is spoken, usually when the Punakawan is on stage. In addition dalang must have good stamina as the performance will last all night until sunrise. In Bali, many dalang are also religious leaders. Dalang generally has other occupation as carpenter, musician, painter, dancer or priest. Due to the complexities of skills that are required from a dalang, there are not many dalang nowadays. They are highly respected in Javanese and Balinese societies. Sometimes, shadow puppetry is a family enterprise with one generation of dalang passing down the puppet, the story and the skill to their sons.

A young dalang in action. Image is private collection of author.

The show, the epic, the music

Historically, oil lamp is used as source of light, but today halogen electric light is more common. The show will begin near midnight. The performance is usually given on holidays or various festivals. Before the show, the audience will come and sit in groups, the men inhale their tobacco while the women absorb in local gossip discussion and children play with their peers. Plenty of flirting and chatting takes place. When the show begin, the audience will sit crossed legged on the ground, some of them may wear sarong, a traditional blanket to protect them from the chill of night air and mosquito bite, some others may bring their own cushion along in order to sit comfortably throughout the long night of the show. Spectators are free to wander in and out during the show.

Preparing the show. Image is private colletion of author.

The story

The battle scene. Image is private collection of author.

The two most popular Hindu Indian epics performed in Wayang Kulit show are the timeless Ramayana and Mahabharata. Like a soap opera storyline, Ramayana tells a romantic tale of a nobleman named Rama and his wife Shinta. Shinta is abducted by monster king Rahwana. Rama, through many episodes of battles and with the help of a monkey king, Hanoman, rescues Shinta. Mahabharata tells a heroic story of political intrigue and battles between two large clans, the Pandawas and the Kurawas. All tales climax when good wins against evil.

The Pandawas. Image source : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayang

Later on its development, several plays based on local folklores such as the story of Calonarang in Bali and Panji Semirang in Java, Buddhist teaching and Islamic ideas are introduced. Those stories are often integrated into the Hinduistic version creating a unique epic different from any others in the world.

The music

The gamelan. Image is private collection of author.

A traditional orchestra consists mainly of percussion instruments called “gamelan” will always accompany the show. The instruments look like a xylophone made of bronze atop bamboo resonators. In Bali the instruments are called “gender wayang”. The group of musician includes a woman singer called “sinden” who sings highly pitched notes. Sometimes a male singer is also introduced. To dramatize a particular scene, the gamelan players will often bong their gongs or play the instruments spontaneously according to the direction of the dalang. In return the dalang will also try to harmonize his voice in accordance with the gamelan. There are specific rhythms and melodies for battle scene, travelling scene, etc.

A sinden. Image source : http://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pesindhen

In closing…

Wayang kulit is probably one of the oldest and most highly developed storytelling traditions that is still exist in modern days. It is one of the most ancient and most popular forms of puppet show in the world. It is a custom still celebrated in Java and Bali and hopefully will continue to be so.



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Comments (2)

Impressive, well researched, and well illustrated piece of writing.Thanks for sharing

Interesting. Entertaining. Thanks. Many many thanks for your friendship and support.