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Wayang Puppetry

Shadow Puppets on Steroids

Wayang (or Wajang) is an Indonesian word “bayang” which means shadow. Wayang kulit, or shadow puppetry, is very predominant in Indonesia as well as many other southeast Asian cultures, by which figures made from water buffalo hide, are considered by many scholors to be the oldest freestanding puppet form to be used; the earliest references to date is from the 800s. A court poet during the reign of King Airlangga (1035–1049) wrote: “There are people who weep, are sad and aroused watching the puppets, though they know they are merely carved pieces of leather manipulated and made to speak. These people are like men who, thirsting for sensuous pleasures, live in a world of illusion; they do not realize the magic hallucinations they see are not real.” We refer to this, in the entertainment world as “the suspension of disbelief.

When discussing the origins of puppetry, It has been strongly debated and strongly considered whether or not puppetry has its roots from Southeast Asian cultures.

Performances of puppetry are still held once a year at cemeteries where the founders of each village are buried. Ancestors are believed to have particular favorite stories. There is evidence that local animism (the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe) has been a source of the puppet arts. In times past, if the harvest was threatened by various pests, the story of the Indonesian rice goddess, Sri, might be performed to ward off the attack. Today, such ritual stories are performed infrequently, but they remain a part of the history and the arts of Asian culture.

By the 1700s most of the features that characterize more modern versions of wayang were in place, but this dramatic form had not yet spread beyond the regions of Southeast Asia where the Javanese language was spoken, and wooden doll puppets were used solely to tell Islamic tales while leather puppets were used for Hindu-based stories. Slowly, Javanese performers from the Cirebon-Tegal area of the northern coast migrated into the highlands of West Java, where Sundanese was spoken. The Dutch colonial government opened new roads in that area, facilitating this movement of people and along with their arts and culture. Local aristocrats known as regents, working under the colonial government, invited the dalang people to settle in those cities; The dalang, sometimes referred to as Dhalang or Kawi Dalang, is the puppeteer artist behind the entire performance.

The Dalang

It is the Dalang who sits behind the screen, sings and narrates the different characters of the story. With a traditional orchestra laying in the background, the dalang will modulate his voice to create suspense thus heightening the drama, basically no different than how we perform today.

The dalang is highly respected in the Indonesian culture for his knowledge, art and as a spiritual person capable of bringing to life the spiritual stories in the religious epics.

The Types

By the late 1800s, the traditional forms of shadow puppetry was rare in West Java, and wooden rod puppetry had become the new form of puppetry. The main use of wayang at the time was to primarily perform the stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the epic Hindu tales. Later, some Islamic tales were enacted, but only on rare occasions.

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, supported with carefully shaped buffalo horn handles and control rods, and painted in beautiful hues, including gold.

Wayang wong, also known as Wayang orang (literally "human wayang"), is a type of Javanese theatrical performance wherein human characters imitate movements of a puppet show. The show also integrates dance by the human characters into the dramatic performance.

Wayang gedog theatrical performance take themes from the Panji cycles stories from the kingdom of Janggala. The players wear masks known as wayang topeng or wayang gedog. The word gedog and topeng both mean "mask".

Wayang golek are three-dimensional wooden rod puppets that are operated from below a wooden rod that runs through the body to the head, and by sticks connected to the hands. The construction of the puppets contributes to their versatility, expressiveness and aptitude for imitating human dance. Today, wayang golek is mainly associated with Sundanese culture and many believe that these are the precursors to our modern day rod puppets.

Wayang klitik figures occupy a middle ground between the figures of wayang golek and wayang kulit. They are constructed similarly to wayang kulit figures, but from thin pieces of wood instead of leather, and, like wayang kulit figures, these are used just as shadow puppets. A further similarity is that they are the same smaller size as wayang kulit figures. However, wood is more subject to breakage than leather. Since one being damaged in a battle scene meant that a new one would have to be constructed, many times the joints would be put together with leather so as to cut down on costly damage.

Wayang beber relies on scroll-painted presentations of the stories being told. Wayang beber has strong ties to stories commonly told in ballads that were common at fairs in medieval and early Europe. They have also been subject to the same fate as so many other forms of puppetry lost throughout the years; they have all but vanished except for a few groups of artists who support wayang beber in places such as Surakarta.

Wayang Purwa (Javanese for "ancient" or "original" wayang) refer to wayang stories based on Hindu epics in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Wayang Panji is derived from Javanese-Islamic literature Serat Menak, which ultimately derived from the Persian stories of Hamzanama. The wooden wayang Menak is similar in shape to Wayang Golek, it is mostly found in the northern coast of Central Java, especially Kudus area.

Where Are They Today?

Today major wayang performers are known all over Java. They are as popular as performers such as Jim Henson are here, appear on television and radio. While it is still true that most major dalang are descendants of the families of traditional performers, in the twentieth century there began to be performers who were not trained by their own elders. The national high school of the performing arts, Sekolah Menengah Karawitan Indonesia (S.M.K.I.), and the college academy of Javanese performing arts, Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia (S.T.S.I.), have recently opened programs where puppetry can be studied by all. They don’t just concentrate on Wayang, but the history and art form is taught from the traditions.

As always, leave your feedback. I love the history of puppets and love researching this stuff, so if there is any particular style of puppetry you would like to learn more about, let me know.


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