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Wayang Kulit (Leather Puppet), Javanese Culture

Javanese wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performance by a famous Indonesian dalang (puppet master) Ki Manteb Sudharsono
Wayang (shadow puppets) from central Java, a scene from Irawan's Wedding
Wayang (shadow puppets) from central Java, a scene from Irawan’s Wedding, mid 20th century, University of Hawaii Dept. of  Theater and Dance (author: Haa900).


Shadow puppet theater is called Wayang kulit in Indonesia and it is particularly popular in Java and Bali. The term derived from the word wayang literally means shadow or imagination in Javanese, also connotes “spirit”. The word kulit means skin, as the material from which the puppet is made is thin perforated leather sheets made from buffalo skin.

The performances of shadow puppet theater are accompanied by gamelan in Java. In Bali it is known as wayang kulit, and originally lasted as long as six hours or until dawn. The complete wayang kulit troupes include dalang (puppet master), nayaga (gamelan players), and sinden (female choral singer). Some of the nayaga also performed as male choral singer. The dalang (puppet master) played the wayang behind the cotton screen illuminated by oil lamp or modern halogen lamp, creating visual effects similar to animation. The flat puppet has moveable joints that are animated by hand, using rods connected to the puppet. The handle of the rod is made of carved buffalo horn. On November 7, 2003, UNESCO designated wayang kulit from Indonesia as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.


A dalang performing wayang kulit in Java, circa 1890
A dalang performing wayang kulit in Java, circa 1890 (source: KITLV).


Wayang Theatre in Indonesia comes in many different forms (Beber, Kelitik, Kulit, Golek, Topeng, Wong). Wayang Kulit is among the best known, offering a unique combination of ritual, lesson and entertainment. The classic form is named Wayang Purwa.

Lacy shadow images are rear-projected on a taut linen screen with a coconut-oil or electric light. The Dalang (shadow artist) manipulates carved leather figures between the lamp and the screen to bring the shadows to life. Wayang Kulit is often performed during wedding celebrations, especially in Java.





Components of Performing Wayang Kulit
Main Components of Wayang Kulit performance : Main Screen with projection lamps), Static Puppet Arrays, Story Puppets, Dalang (far centre), Sinden (right side of Dalang), Gamelan and Nayogo/Musicians (front) (author: Nurmalinda Maharfar).

Wayang Kulit shows involve the Dalang (puppeteer), Gamelan and Nayogo/Musicians (traditional orchestra), Sindhen (singers) in Java and Wayang (puppets).



The Dalang


Javanese Wayang Kulit, Yogyakarta (author: flydime).
The Dalang performing Javanese Wayang Kulit, Yogyakarta (author: flydime).


The Dalang sits behind a cotton screen with a light source above him. Softwood logs, traditionally made of banana wood, are placed between the puppeteer and the screen. During the performance, the dalang can stick the rods of the puppets into the soft wood, holding them in place. To the right of the dalang sits the puppet chest, which the dalang uses as a drum during the performance, hitting it with a wooden mallet. Usually (in Java), he has a cymbal-like percussion instrument at his feet that he uses for emphasis or to cue musicians.


The Gamelan (in Java)

A set of Javanese gamelan from the Asian Civilisations Museum, Empress Place, Singapore
A set of Javanese gamelan from the Asian Civilisations Museum, Empress Place, Singapore (author: Sengkang).

Gamelan is an orchestra consisting of bowed stringed instruments, flutes and a variety of percussion instruments. The musicians are the Niyogo. It is the traditional ensemble music of Java and Bali. The most common instruments used are metallophones played with mallets and a set of hand-played drums called kendhang, which keep the beat.

Many styles of Gamelan instruments and music exist in Indonesia. Each area takes its own approach to accompaniment evolving from similar roots.

The repertoire typically consists of an overture, music for traveling, character pieces and battle music.





The Sinden (in Java)


The singers are divided into Pesinden (female singers) and Wirasuara (male singers).

A pasindhèn (informally sindhèn; also called waranggana) is a female solo singer who sings with a gamelan. They may perform in unaccompanied music, dance, or wayang performances.

The pesindhèn may sing together with a gerong (male chorus), but their styles and words will be different. The part of the sindhen is largely improvised within strict parameters (similar to instrumental cengkok). The sindhen is also allowed a much freer rhythm, similar to the rebab and suling, instead of the strict rhythm of the gerong.

Sindhen can also refer to the choir of male and female singers used to accompany the bedhaya and serimpi court dances. In this usage, pesindhen refers to the individual members of the choir.

Example of the Pesindhen in actions :




The Wayang


 This Wayang Shadow Puppet represents Kresna of the Hindu Mahabharata epic
This Wayang Shadow Puppet represents Kresna of the Hindu Mahabharata epic (author: ASITRAC).


The wayang comes in sizes from 25 cm to 75 cm. The important characters are usually represented by several puppets each. The wayang is usually made out of water buffalo and goat hide and mounted on bamboo sticks. However, the best wayang is typically made from young female buffalo parchment, cured for up to ten years. The carving and punching of the rawhide, which is most responsible for the character’s image and the shadows that are cast, are guided by this sketch. A mallet is used to tap special tools, called tatah, to punch the holes through the rawhide. Making the wayang sticks from horn is a complicated process of sawing, heating, hand-molding, and sanding until the desired effect is achieved. When the materials are ready, the artist attaches the handle by precisely molding the ends of the horn around the individual wayang figure and securing it with thread. A large character may take months to produce.


All stages of the making of a ringgit
All stages of the making of a Wayang (author: ASITRAC).



Carving the leather, in a Jogyakarta factory
Carving the leather, in a Jogyakarta factory (author: ASITRAC).


Painting the Ringgit, in a Jogyakarta factory
Painting the Wayang, in a Jogyakarta factory (author: ASITRAC).


Shadow puppet from Bali, representing Kresna, of the Mahabarata epic
Shadow puppet from Bali, representing Kresna, of the Mahabarata epic (author: ASITRAC).





The five Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata in the Javanese wayang kulit
The five Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata in the Javanese wayang kulit (photo: Gunawan Kartapranata).


Wayang shadow plays are usually tales from the two major Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The puppet master contextualizes stories from the plays, making them relevant to current community, national or global issues. Gamelan players respond to the direction of the Dalang.





“Wayang” derives from a word meaning “shadow” or “ghost”, in turn originating from two ancient words: “Waya” meaning “ancestor or descending”, and “Ang” meaning “symbol”. Another source is the phrase “Ma Hyang”, meaning spirit, God or God Almighty.

In modern daily Javanese and Indonesian vocabulary, wayang is most often associated with the puppet itself or the whole puppet theatre performance.Wayang, is loosely translated to mean puppet. Kulit means skin or leather, the material from which the figures are carved.





History of Wayang Kulit in Indonesia
History of Wayang Kulit in Indonesia (author: Nurmalinda Maharfar).


Hinduism arrived in Indonesia from India far before the Christian and Islam era. Sanskrit became the literary and court language of Java and later of Bali.

The Hindus changed the Wayang (as did the Muslims, later) to spread their religion, mostly telling stories from the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. This mixture of religion and wayang play was later praised as harmony between Hinduism and traditional Indonesian culture.

Wayang is a generic term denoting traditional theatre in Indonesia. There is no evidence that wayang existed before the first century CE, after Hinduism and Buddhism were brought to Southeast Asia. This leads to the hypothesis that the art was imported from either India or China, both of which have a long tradition of shadow puppetry and theatre in general. Jivan Pani has argued that wayang developed from two arts of Odisha in Eastern India, the Ravana Chaya puppet theatre and the Chhau dance. However, there very well may have been indigenous storytelling traditions that had a profound impact on the development of the traditional puppet theatre.

The first record of a wayang performance is from an inscription dated 930 CE which says si Galigi mawayang, or “Sir Galigi played wayang”. From that time till today it seems certain features of traditional puppet theatre have remained. Galigi was an itinerant performer who was requested to perform for a special royal occasion. At that event he performed a story about the hero Bhima from the Mahabharata. The kakawin Arjunawiwaha composed by Mpu Kanwa, the poet of Airlangga‘s court of Kahuripan kingdom, in 1035 CE describes santoṣâhĕlĕtan kĕlir sira sakêng sang hyang Jagatkāraṇa, which means “He is steadfast and just a wayang screen away from the ‘Mover of the World’.” Kelir is Javanese word for wayang screen, the verse eloquently comparing actual life to a wayang performance where the almighty Jagatkāraṇa (the mover of the world) as the ultimate dalang (puppet master) is just a thin screen away from us mortals. This reference to wayang as shadow plays suggested that wayang performance is already familiar in Airlangga’s court and wayang tradition has been established in Java, perhaps earlier. An inscription from this period also mentioned some occupations as awayang and aringgit.

Wayang kulit is a unique form of theatre employing light and shadow. The puppets are crafted from buffalo hide and mounted on bamboo sticks. When held up behind a piece of white cloth, with an electric bulb or an oil lamp as the light source, shadows are cast on the screen. The plays are typically based on romantic tales, especially adaptations of the classic Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Some of the plays are also based on local happening or other local secular stories. It is up to the conductor or dalang or master puppeteer to decide his direction.

The dalang is the genius behind the entire performance. It is he who sits behind the screen and narrates the story. With a traditional orchestra in the background to provide a resonant melody and its conventional rhythm, the dalang modulates his voice to create suspense thus heightening the drama. Invariably, the play climaxes with the triumph of good over evil.


Wayang Kulit, in the specialized village of Sukawati, Bali
Wayang Kulit, in the specialized village of Sukawati, Bali (author: ASITRAC).


The figures of the wayang are also present in the paintings of that time, for example, the roof murals of the courtroom in Klungkung, Bali. They are still present in traditional Balinese painting today. The figures are painted, flat woodcarvings (a maximum of 5 to 15 mm thick—barely half an inch) with movable arms. The head is solidly attached to the body. Wayang klitik can be used to perform puppet plays either during the day or at night. This type of wayang is relatively rare.

When Islam began spreading in Indonesia, the display of God or gods in human form was prohibited, and thus this style of painting and shadow play was suppressed. King Raden Patah of Demak, Java, wanted to see the wayang in its traditional form, but failed to obtain permission from Muslim religious leaders.

Religious leaders attempted to skirt the Muslim prohibition by converting the wayang golek into wayang purwa made from leather and displayed only the shadow instead of the puppets themselves.

Javanese word for a theatrical performance with puppets or human dancers. When the term is used to refer to kinds of puppet theatre, sometimes the puppet itself is referred to as wayang. Performances of shadow puppet theatre are accompanied by a gamelan orchestra in Java, and by gender wayang in Bali.


Javanese wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performance by a famous Indonesian dalang (puppet master) Ki Manteb Sudharsono
Javanese wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performance by a famous Indonesian dalang (puppet master) Ki Manteb Sudharsono (author: Gunawan Kartapranata).


Wayang today is both the most ancient and most popular form of puppet theatre in the world. Hundreds of people will stay up all night long to watch the superstar performers, dalang, who command extravagant fees and are international celebrities. Some of the most famous dalang in recent history are Ki Nartosabdho, Ki Anom Suroto, Ki Asep Sunandar Sunarya, Ki Sugino, and Ki Manteb Sudarsono.


Time to time, Wayang kulit


Wayang kulit, or shadow puppets, are without a doubt the best known of the Indonesian wayang. Kulit means skin, and refers to the leather construction of the puppets that are carefully chiselled with very fine tools and supported with carefully shaped buffalo horn handles and control rods. The stories are usually drawn from the Hindu epics the Ramayana, the Mahabharata or from the Serat Menak, (a story about the heroism of Amir Hamza).

There is a family of characters in Javanese wayang called Punakawan; they are sometimes referred to as “clown-servants” because they normally are associated with the story’s hero, and provide humorous and philosophical interludes. Semar is the father of Gareng (oldest son), Petruk, and Bagong (youngest son). These characters did not originate in the Hindu epics, but were added later. They provide something akin to a political cabaret, dealing with gossip and contemporary affairs.

The puppet figures themselves vary from place to place. In Central Java the city of Surakarta (Solo) and city of Yogyakarta are most famous and the most commonly imitated style of puppets. Regional styles of shadow puppets can also be found in Temanggung, West Java, Banyumas, Cirebon, Semarang, and East Java. Bali produces more compact and naturalistic figures, and Lombok has figures representing real people. Often modern-world objects as bicycles, automobiles, airplanes and ships will be added for comic effect, but for the most part the traditional puppet designs have changed little in the last 300 years.

Historically, the performance consisted of shadows cast on a cotton screen and an oil lamp. Today, the source of light used in wayang performance in Java is most often a halogen electric light. Some modern forms of wayang such as Wayang Sandosa created in the Art Academy at Surakarta (STSI) has employed spotlights, colored lights and other innovations.

The handwork involved in making a wayang kulit figure that is suitable for a performance takes several weeks, with the artists working together in groups. They start from master models (typically on paper) which are traced out onto skin or parchment, providing the figures with an outline and with indications of any holes that will need to be cut (such as for the mouth or eyes). The figures are then smoothed, usually with a glass bottle, and primed. The structure is inspected and eventually the details are worked through. A further smoothing follows before individual painting, which is undertaken by yet another craftsman. Finally, the movable parts (upper arms, lower arms with hands and the associated sticks for manipulation) mounted on the body, which has a central staff by which it is held. A crew makes up to ten figures at a time, typically completing that number over the course of a week. However, unfortunately there is not strong continuing demand for the top skills of wayang craftspersons and the relatively few experts still skilled at the art sometimes find it difficult to earn a satisfactory income.

The painting of less expensive puppets is handled expediently with a spray technique, using templates, and with a different person handling each color. Less expensive puppets, often sold to children during performances, are sometimes made on cardboard instead of leather.


Example, Wayang Performances by Famous Dalang Ki Manteb Sudharsono :




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