Shadows in the night, Javanese puppets

Wayang Kulit on the shadow puppet theater in Indonesia, with its complex interplay of light and shadow brings old stories to life. This art form has evolved over the centuries, the challenges accompanying the island of Java is facing in the modern world.

Wayang Karucil

As we approach the time of the show, the place is overrun the humming sounds of the gamelan, a traditional Javanese ensemble of drums, metallophones, and a wide assortment of gongs. The basic show puppet theater (Wayang Kulit) is an Indonesian ancient Sanskrit epic.


The puppet master (the Dalang) sits cross-legged on a rattan mat between a flickering lamp called blencong and kelir, a large sheet of cloth set in a richly decorated frame. He stuck his puppets along the bottom edge of the panel. To his left is a kotak, a sound box that strikes several times to indicate the tempo change. No body part is left out, everything should work. The Dalang even has a mallet stuck between the toes to his right foot to hit a small bronze sheet (kepyak) chest puppets.


The puppets are arranged against the “screen” in the precise order of progression of the story. The Dalang has to be careful when the stirring so they do not get tangled. Then as the stick of a conductor who sets the tone, the Dalang performs a precise wrist movement and starts twirling puppets. Turbulence, fighting, strength, love, everything is represented. A pure novice like me, I had a little trouble to differentiate the different scenes but the counter explains the history. The hypnotic sounds of the gamelan follow the narrative.

Wayang Kulit

An ancient art form

Wayang Kulit is the one of the oldest storytelling traditions in the world. A very sophisticated art form that was influenced by the Javanese animism and Islamic teaching of Hindu mythology. While much debate surrounding its origin, the researchers believe that it arrived in Indonesia from India during the first period of the spice trade. For merchants, it was a way to share the rich culture of India, while for Hindu priests, it was a method of propagation of their faith.

Although some rudimentary forms of shadow theater was already present in Asia in the Christian era, it is actually in the 9th century as the Wayang is officially appeared in Javanese royal charters (inscribed on copper plates). Therefore, the puppet theater flourished, taking a special role in the royal courts. Regular performances were held for the nobility to display their wealth, their faith and impart moral teachings. This period marks the highest appreciation of the art form to the side of the tapestry and Javanese philosophy on life.

Today, if a formal representation is not done at least once a year to ward off evil spirits, it takes place during major events such as weddings. A performance is quite expensive and requires a fundraiser for the actors. One then finds little scenes in tourist towns to the delight of onlookers.

The world of Wayang

Besides portraying iconic literary characters, Wayang Puppet are used to sell everything from drug against cough street food. During the important political debates, it is not unusual for a politician finds himself represented by Wayang!

Wayang as a form of education

Ancient and mysterious, the world of Wayang is not only designed to entertain, but to educate the society on the property. He plays the double role, a certain social responsibility while being a pure art scene. The Dalang must guide the public by showing examples of virtuous behavior and teaches history and Javanese literature.

Some performances of Wayang cover topics such as agriculture, fertility and death in pre-Hindu era as more complex themes from the Ramayana and Mahabhabrata. Through it all, the Dalang encourages society to know its history and the values ​​of virtue and truth.



To my surprise, the Wayang is an informal event. Drinks and snacks are sold during the performance. People come and go as they wish throughout the performance, and we even see some viewers snoring quietly. The public can choose to watch the performance of each side of the screen. Either side of the gamelan and Dalang, or on the other side of the “screen” to see the shadows stir. In Western theater, it would be the equivalent of having a seat in both the room and behind the scenes! However, for tourists, the show (see video below) is somewhat tedious and long and able to move a little does not hurt.


The puppets and their creators

The shapes and the “face” of the puppet is a function of its creator but all coarse and stylish details. These unrealistic features date back to the arrival of Islam in Indonesia. Indeed, in Islam, it is considered Haram (prohibited act) to represent the human form in art, and this ban has led to a new aesthetic of Wayang. The first artisans took the task with great care and precision to ensure the endurance of the art form, which would ensure their profession.


Nothing has changed in the making of the Wayang Puppet since about the 16th century. The buffalo skin (more durable and weather resistant) is tapped to make holes in in the hammering. The face of the puppet, especially the eyes, done at the end because it shows the true nature of the character. Then the painters involved. It takes about a week to manufacture a quality puppet. A day for those cheaper.

Wayang Kulit 2

Preserve the art form

One thing is certain: The tradition was in decline and in competition with other forms of entertainment. The presence of the school system now gives less importance to education that Wayang brought. In addition, the Wayang uses a specific form of Javanese, different from the modern used every day. The younger generation does not really understand.

Going out to see a shadow theater has become obsolete and from a over-age. Therefore, we see appear more contemporary performances taking politics and current pop culture. One year ago, a puppet in the likeness of Barack Obama was created by the most famous Dalang Ki Purbo during his tour in the United States. The use of this puppet was intended to show the changing nature of Wayang, in response to a decline in its worldwide reputation, and suggest that governments should spend less on war and more on the preservation of art and culture.

Evolution of Wayang

What was once an immaterial memory offered by traders and Hindu missionaries during the spice trade has evolved into one of the biggest cultural goods from Indonesia. Despite all the potential threats, the art form has survived because of a strong tradition.

To a naive observer, a wayang performance can be simply the fact to manipulate a nice leather puppet, but for the local Javaneses, Wayang Kulit is still a magical kingdom with a pictorial representation of the mythological history of Indonesia.

Wayang Kulit is not a static art form frozen in the ice block, but a cultural entity in constant evolution.

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