wayang kulit shadow puppetry

Wayang: Traditional Shadow Puppet Theatre From Ancient Indonesia

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have developed numerous ways to successfully express emotions, convey messages, pass on knowledge, increase aesthetic appeal, entertain themselves and carry on traditions with the help of their creative abilities.

One of the most clever and elegant ways through which we express this creativity is the performing arts. It includes art forms such as dance, music, singing, acting, magic, opera, theatre, puppetry, storytelling and more.

Every culture in the world has its own style of executing these artforms. Over time, as cultures evolve due to political, geographical, economic and foreign factors, the artforms also evolve and become a symbol of cultural identity. The history, beliefs and values of a community can be traced back through their cultural heritage, which these artforms happen to be a part of.

Today we shall discover a very special art form from the Indonesian archipelago. In Indonesia, the art of theatre, music, storytelling and puppetry are combined to form a traditional shadow puppet show called wayang.

Let’s find out more about it in detail.

Everything you need to know about Wayang

The origins of the word wayang are debated, but it is commonly believed that the word is derived from the Indonesian word for shadow. The word used to be a common term to refer to any type of Indonesian theatre. But, today, the word describes traditional shadow puppetry.

There are also debates about the origins of wayang. Many believe it was imported from either China or India, while others believe that it is an indigenous tradition of storytelling. There, however, seems to be no evidence of wayang being performed before the introduction of Hinduism in the region.

Hinduism arrived in what is present-day Indonesia in the 1st century AD with the Indian merchants and priests. And, the first recorded performance of wayang dates back to 930 AD.

What is confirmed, however, is the fact that the art was created and developed on the island of Java. From there, it spread all over the country. Presently, the islands of Bali and Java most actively organize wayang performances, either for tourists or as part of ritual and celebration. However, other islands in the country, such as Sumatra, Madura, Lombok and Borneo. And, each of these islands has its own style of performing wayang. Additionally, neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore also perform their versions of the shadow puppet theatre.

Wayang and Puppets

At a wayang performance, a white cloth is used as a screen. Behind the screen, a lamp is lit up to set the stage. The master puppeteer, known as the dalang, then projects handmade puppets in front of the screen and animates them to narrate a story. Puppetry is accompanied by gamelan music, a genre of music usually only played at wayang performances.

The puppets used for the performance are very detailed and colourful. They are made with the utmost precision and maintain a unique style. In Indonesia, there are many types of puppets that have developed in different locations around the country over the years.

The puppets vary in height, size, and shape, but they all have a unique style. Only the front side of the characters are shown; they have long and thin limbs and, the nape of their necks is bent down so it looks like they’re hunchbacked. A wooden stick or rod is usually attached to the back of the puppet and sticks are attached to the limbs to manipulate them.

colourful wayang puppet with a hunched back
The typical style of wayang puppets. Image Credit: Pinterest

Sometimes, one performance alone can require up to 500 puppets.

When referring to the puppet show, the word wayang isn’t used alone. There are a pair of words to refer to the performance. For example, wayang kulit, where the first word wayang, refers to the shadow puppet theatre and kulit, refers to the type of puppet that the wayang will be performed with. In this case, puppets made of leather would be used.

Types of Puppets

Different materials are used to make puppets for a specific type of wayang. The different types of wayang, but the following three are the most popular:

1. Wayang Kulit: It is the most popular type of wayang in Southeast Asia but more so around the islands of Java and Bali. Wayang kulit puppets are made of leather extracted from buffalo hides. And, the rods to animate the puppets are made of buffalo horns.
The puppets are flat and easy to cut, allowing the artist to carve minute details like perforations to resemble lace. On-screen, the shadows of these puppets are most prominent.

shadows of detailed leather puppets
Wayang Kulit. Shadows made by flat leather puppets. Image Credit: Pinterest

2. Wayang Golek: This type of wayang is the most popular in western Java. Wayang Golek puppets are three-dimensional figures made of wood. These puppets are even clothed with traditional garments like the batik sarong. These puppets are more animated as there are more rods attached to even move body parts like the head.

wayang golek puppets dressed in traditional clothes
Wayang golek puppets made of carved wood. Image Credit: Kuluk Gallery

3. Wayang Klitik: Puppets used for wayang klitik are also made of wood, but with flatter pieces. This wayang originated in Eastern Java, where it is also the most popular.

wayang kiltik puppet piece
Wayang Klitik puppets made of flat wood pieces. Image Credit: The British Museum

Adding Personality

The puppets are given some personality by designing eloquent facial expressions through their colourful costumes, which are either painted on or actually draped.

The colours used to paint the puppets aren’t random. The colours usually symbolize a particular quality of the character that the puppet plays, further adding personality. Gold is a colour found in most puppets. It symbolizes dignity, honour, elegance and tranquillity. Black, another common colour, represents anger, wisdom or maturity. Red symbolizes impulsiveness, ferocity, chaos and agitation. Lastly, white is the sign of youth.

puppet of rama, the hero of ramayana
Rama, the protagonist of Ramayana is depicted as humble as his gaze is lowered. He also meets Javanese beauty standards for a hero as he is slender, tall, has beautiful eyes and nose. Image Credit: Murnis

The nature of characters can be also be deduced by observing their features and gait. The hero and heroine, for instance, will have all the physical features meeting the standards of beauty in Javanese society. His or her body language must also mirror their qualities, so the puppets are designed accordingly. For example, good characters always look down, as it shows humility. The supporting characters who aren’t evil are smaller in size.

puppet of ravana the villain in ramayana
Puppet of Ravana, the antagonist of Ramayana. He is depicted to be terrifying, strong because he is looking forward and ferocious because of the use of red. Image Credit: Pinterest

On the other hand, the more fierce the characters, the larger they are in size. Demons are of the largest size and are designed to look terrifying and grotesque. Similar to the heroes, their body language also communicates their qualities. For instance, a strong character is designed to look forward and the arrogant characters look up with their eyes sticking out.


Stories Narrated

In addition to the pair of words that describe what type of puppet show it will be, sometimes, a third word is added. This third word indicates what type of story will be narrated. For example, wayang golek menak, which means that wooden puppets will be used to narrate the stories of Amir Hamzah, the uncle of Prophet Mohammed.

Many a time, the second term in the phrase is omitted and the word wayang is only used with the term describing the type of story that will be narrated. Here are a few examples:

puppet theatre narrating one of the two hindu epics
Wayang Kulit Purwa. Image Credit: Pinterest
  • Wayang Kancil: Wayang Kancil presents children’s stories featuring Kancil, the mouse deer and other animals.
puppetry featuring mouse deer and other wild animals
Wayang kancil featuring the mouse deer and other animals. Image Credit: Wayang Authoring
  • Wayang Panji: These indigenous stories are about an East Javanese prince named Panji.
paper scroll with illustrations of colourful puppets
Wayang beber panji. Paper scroll wayang puppets narrating the story of Panji. Image Credit: The Jakarta Post

The dalang usually retells fantastic stories about kings, princesses, monsters, heroes and demons drawn from indigenous, Indian and Persian myths and legends. They all, however, have a moral message or a profound spiritual message. They may also represent a current socio-political scenario, one that is too controversial to be openly and directly spoken about or, they could simply be performed for the sake of entertainment.

The Dalang

The dalang is the conductor of the performance and he is the most crucial person. The dalang, typically a man, is the person in charge of delivering a complete experience to the audience. He has a lot of responsibility in his hands. First, he must remember a bunch of stories, word for word. Then, he must be able to manipulate puppets, while simultaneously narrating the story and voicing the puppets in a way that expresses the character’s emotions and intentions.

master puppeteer in traditional dress
Dalang, the master puppeteer. Image Credit: Flickr

He must also ensure the audience takes away the right message he wishes to convey through the story. In fact, in the earlier days, dalangs were regarded as cultural and literary experts who would teach the public moral and philosophical values through storytelling.

It takes a lot of training to become a master dalang. Traditionally, the skills of a dalang are orally transmitted within the families of dalangs and musicians.

Even in the era of modernization, many wish to become dalangs as it is a well-respected job that pays decently.

A Typical Wayang Performance

Walang is traditionally performed at night and it can last for up to eight to ten hours. The performance typically begins around 9 pm and continues till dawn. During this time, the audience may occasionally chat, smoke and have refreshments. There is usually a large audience for these performances. Earlier, the whole village or community would be present to spectate the show.

Before the performance, the stage is set. The equipment required is simple enough. Firstly, a white cotton sheet is used as a backdrop. Traditionally, an oil lamp would be lit up behind the sheet, but nowadays, electronic alternatives have replaced oil lamps as the source of light.

At the front of the sheet, the puppets needed for the performances are arranged. First, a banana stalk is placed on stage, then, the sticks attached to the puppets are pieced into the stalk at both ends of the main screen, away from the sheet. This way, the puppets are within the dalang’s reach whenever he needs them.

The gamelan orchestra sets up their instruments.

Gamelan Orchestra

A choir of female singers and musicians prepare themselves to provide the necessary sounds and rhythms to complement the narration. The orchestra typically includes around 30 metallic percussion and string instruments. There is a selection of xylophones, gongs, metallophones, gamelan drums and flutes among other instruments. The ensemble produces mysterious and complex sounds that perfectly pair with the complexity of the story being presented.

metallic gamelan instruments
Gamelan orchestra instruments. Image Credit: World of Music

The Show

The dalang positions himself at the centre of the screen and commences the show.

Traditionally, the audience would view the performance from the opposite side of where the dalang would perform, to only see the shadows. Nowadays, the audience sits facing the dalang, hence, they’re able to see the puppets in colour and shadow.

The screen is divided in two by an imaginary line. The right side of the screen is where the puppets representing good characters will perform and the evil characters will stay on the left side. What is interesting is that each of these characters can demonstrate both traits, so, the sides aren’t strictly maintained.

puppetter moving the leaf shaped Gunungan in front of the screen
The dalang moving the two Gunungan. Also, notice the large banana stalk under the screen. Image Credit: Tourism Indonesia

The show begins with drawing open the curtains, just like in theatres. Only, here, instead of curtains, the dalang uses two Gunungan. It is a feature that is shaped a bit like the nib of a fountain pen. Its triangular shape actually symbolizes the mountain and the designs on the gunungan depict a door. Combined, it symbolizes the fact that the mountain is a gateway between the human world and the world of Gods. In the beginning, two gunungans are placed at the centre, then they are separated, just like curtains at a theatre. The same is used to end the narration as well. Gungungans are also used for scene transitions and to show natural elements, like mountains and trees.

Once the show begins, the dalang adds soul to the characters by modulating and changing his voice, his precise way of manipulating the puppets and his artful method of narration. He maintains these qualities for the entire 8-10 hours, without getting tired or boring the audience.


Cultural Significance of Wayang

Historically, wayang was performed in the Javanese royal courts and some dalangs would even perform in remote areas. Today, they are performed on ceremonial occasions, such as religious celebrations, rites of passage, birthdays, temple anniversaries, weddings, holidays etc. The dalang conveys a message that is relevant to the ceremony.

gamelan orchestra and the screen
Image Credit: Asia Society

Today, the wayang has become a symbol of Indonesian culture and it is evidently more than a form of entertainment. It is meaningful art that transmits culture, retells history and makes people aware of current socio-political scenarios. Something many wouldn’t wish to or be able to grasp quickly. These abilities of the art form are also what kept it alive for centuries. Today, Wayang is inscribed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.


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Foley, K., 2010. Dancing Shadows, Epic Tales: Wayang Kulit of Indonesia. ASIAN THEATRE JOURNAL, 27(2), p. 394–399.

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