The Wayang Kulit Theater of Indonesia
 
HOME 
The leather shadow puppets on the preceding pages are examples from the still thriving and important folk art puppet theater of  Indonesia.  Although tourist shops now sell imitations of wayang kulit puppets, the Javanese puppets illustrated on these pages are old examples that were actually used for many years in theater productions--in presentations of Hindu epics, Indonesian history plays and the Islamic Menak cycles. The Balinese examples are fairly recent.

The puppet performances were given in towns and villages on holidays and for a variety of festivals.  A dalang, or puppet master, manipulated the puppets, spoke their parts, and coordinated the puppets' actions with music from a gamelan orchestra. The puppets were manipulated behind a white screen with a back light, so the audience saw only their shadows.    

Anne Richter has described the stories as follows:  "The most frequently performed narratives derive from the Hindu epics. The Arjuna Sasra Bahu and Ramayana cycles concern the affairs of the noble Rama himself and his ancestors. Favorite stories concern Rama's marriage to Sinta; their banishment to the forest together with his brother Laksmana; Sinta's abduction by the monster king Rahwana; and her subsequent rescue, with the aid of the monkey king and after numerous battles, from  the kingdom of Sri Lanka. The Ramayana contains many episodes from the lives of these characters which are emphasized in varying degrees to form separate plays in their own right. 
The Mahahharata tells of the conflict between the superior Pandewa brothers (Judistra, Bima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sadewa) and their hundred jealous and mendacious cousins, the Kurewas, who drive them away from their home at the court of Astina, to wander in the wild.  In the forest the Pandewas build the lovely and idealized kingdom of Amarta where the majority of the plays are set. The heroic quests, battles with vile ogres and scenes of romantic love are made all the more poignant by the knowledge that the glory and beauty are fleeting. Events are presented as taking place in Java rather than India, and the heroic Pandewas, descendants of Vishnu, are the ancestors of the Javanese kings. Many episodes have simply been invented by puppeteers over generations. 
The court scenes also allow scope for the comic misadventures and intrigue of the Pandewas' clown servants, the Punakawans:  Semar the wise, whose identity is thought to have evolved from that of the pre-Hindu Javanese god Ismaya and his sons. The inane and melancholic Gareng, with his round drooping nose, is the butt of jokes and tricks played by the sharp Petruk. Philosophical and mystical speculations made by the refined characters provide an intellectual and spiritual dimension for members of the audience with a taste for high seriousness."    
The puppets are made by initially sketching the lacy patterns onto buffalo or goat hide. After the form has been cut out, it is placed on a flat wooden anvil, and the work of creating intricate patterns of tiny holes begins; these are formed by precise blows with a wooden mallet to a chisel or punch.  Moveable leather arms are hinged at the shoulders and elbows; these are attached to thin buffalo horn or wooden sticks which are manipulated by the dalang to provide movement or expression.  The completed puppet is fitted with a long horn or wooden handle.

Sacred color symbolism conveys essential information. The face of Vishnu is painted black, whereas Shiva's is gold, but a character may appear in a different color to indicate alterations in circumstances or emotional state.  Red is used to suggest a fiery or impetuous nature; white implies innocence or youth.
Puppet body types can be identified across a spectrum which ranges from alus (extremely refined) to kasar (extremely rough and crude).  Refined, virtuous characters have small dainty bodies, slitted oval eyes with pupils shaped like rice grains, pointed noses and a modest downward gaze...  Vigorous or turbulent characters have a more direct and confrontational stare. As the personality of the puppet becomes less refined, there is an increase in size; the nose becomes heavier and blunter; eyes and pupils become larger and rounder and the gaze more aggressive; teeth and gums may be exposed in a snarl or a foolish sneer.  The more refined middle-sized puppets may represent courageous but impetuous kings and heroes; the coarser ones suggest an uncontrolled or evil nature. The largest puppets are used for those whose greatest attribute is physical strength.

Balinese puppets differ from the Javanese in that they are much simpler and more naturalistic. There has been some speculation that the delicacy and distortion of Javanese puppets arises from Islamic prescriptions against the making of images of the human body, and that Balinese puppets (from the predominantly Hindu society of Bali) are more original."
 











Balinese wayang kulit.
Lordly Shades, p. 30

For more information on the wayang kulit traditions in Indonesia see the publications below. We do not sell books; they are listed here for your information.
 

Shadow Theater in Java: The Puppets, Performance and Repertoire.  
Alit Djajasoebrata.  Amsterdam, 1999.  152 pages. This lovely volume, published in connection with an exhibition at the Museum of Ethnology, Rotterdam, describes all aspects of the Indonesian shadow puppet theater and illustrates, with large plates, beautiful old examples of the art form.


Lordly Shades: Wayang Purwa Indonesia.
Pandam Guritno. Jakarta, 1984. 102 pages.  This lavishly illustrated publication shows the making of the puppets and behind-the-scenes workings of the puppet theaters. 


Javanese Shadow Puppets
Jeanne Scott-Kemball.  London, 1970.  66 pages. This small publication by the British Museum gives a concise description of the Javanese wayang kulit puppet tradition. 


The Arts and Crafts of Indonesia. 
Anne Richter. 1993, London.  160 pages. Lots of illustrations.  This little book covers many of the folk arts of Indonesia, and includes an excellent chapter on masks and puppets. The excerpts above are from this publication.
Voices of the Puppet Masters: The Wayang Golek Theater of Indonesia.  Mimi Herbert. 2004, Honolulu.   251 pages; profusely illustrated.  This book describes the related carved wooden puppet theater from the perspective of the dulang, the puppet masters. Many of the myths used  in both the wooden puppet and shadow-puppet productions are recounted, and a complete list of wayang characters is included.  
  Indonesian Textiles
  Contemporary Indonesian Textiles
   
  Go to our HOME Page for textiles from other parts of the world




HOME     
SITE INDEX     
MARLA MALLETT
1690 Johnson Road NE
Atlanta, GA  30306   USA

Phone:  404-872-3356
E-mail:  marlam@mindspring.com