The Wayang Golek Theater of Java


The painted wooden puppets on the preceding page are old examples from the still thriving and important folk art puppet theater of Java in Indonesia.  Although tourist shops now sell imitations of wayang golek puppets, the puppets illustrated on these pages were actually used for many years in theater productions--in presentations of Hindu epics, Javanese history plays and the Islamic Menak cycles. These performances were given in towns and villages on holidays and for a variety of festivals, as were the distinctive shadow-puppet plays.  A dalang, or puppet master, manipulated the puppets, spoke their parts, and coordinated the puppets' actions with music from a gamelan orchestra.  

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. 

An Indonesian dalang from Cibiru in Western Java.  Mimi Herbert, Voices of the Puppet Masters, 2002, Honolulu.
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."  
Richter describes the puppet making itself:  "Like so many other crafts in Indonesia, making wayang golek is a skill handed down through families. The master puppet-maker usually makes the head because it expresses the personality of the puppet. Ceremonies are performed before commencing a deity or a demon. A piece of light, local softwood, which is easy to carve and not too heavy to hold up during a performance, is sawed or chopped down to the right size, and the main features are roughly chiseled. After sanding, fine decorations such as the parts of a crown are carved in with more care and sanded. The smooth surface receives a coat of glue-based paint, which will enable subsequent coats to adhere well.  Lips, flowers and some bits of jewelry are painted red, as are the irises of angry characters. Blue is also used for eyes and sapphire jewelry. Fine black lines are painted for eyes, eyebrows, moustaches and wisps of hair....Bodies are often made by younger members of the family, and arms are attached at the elbow and shoulders with string so that they move easily. The shapes of hands also express character and role; those of nobles stretch out gracefully, but servants and commoners have large open palms. A rod passes from a hole in the base of the puppet's head and down through the body to form a handle. Costumes are usually made by wives. ...Since the stories portray historical and human rather than divine affairs, the puppets, like those used for history plays, are always fully clothed in Central Javanese traditional dress with batik sarongs.

wayang golek puppet carver in West Java.   Voices of the Puppet Masters, Mimi Herbert, 2002, Honolulu. .               
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."  

Richter concludes, "It is the mixture of courtly, mystical and popular elements that allows traditional theatre to be so loved by so many people."  

A Javanese dulang and musicians.  Voices of the Puppet Masters,  Mimi Herbert. 2002, Honolulu.

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

Voices of the Puppet Masters: The Wayang Golek Theater of Indonesia. 
Mimi Herbert. 2004, Honolulu.   251 pages; profusely illustrated.  This publication describes the puppet theater from the perspective of the dulang, the puppet masters. It is a delightful account based on interviews in the 1990s.  Many of the myths used  in the productions are recounted, and a complete list of wayang characters is included.  

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.
  Wayang Kulit Shadow Puppets of Indonesia
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