wayang kulit

The Indonesian word 'wayang' is derived from a word meaning 'shadow' or 'ghost'. These intricately cut and perforated shadow puppets are made from buffalo hide. 'Kulit' means 'leather' or 'skin'. 'Wayang Kulit' has a documented history of existence of at least 800 years in the Indonesian archipelago.

This was an open air performance under the stars. A temporary bamboo platform had been constructed in the village square. It had a raised stage on which the puppeteer and musicians of the 'Gender Wayang' orchestra sat cross-legged. A fine cotton screen, called 'kelir', separates the dalang from his audience. This screen represents the universe and the light from a bronze oil lamp, called 'blencong' just in front of the dalang throws magical flickering shadows onto it.

There is no hiding the mechanics of the show as in Western theatre since the bamboo platform had no sides. The audience is free to sit either facing the screen, or can watch the dalang at work.

Before a play begins, the dalang undertakes several ceremonial acts and rituals to assure a successful performance. With great reverence, he taps three times on the wooden box containing all his puppets in order to wake them up. Figures of deities representing good and evil (sometimes over one hundred) are ranged in their prescribed place to the left and right hand sides of the screen. When quiescent, the puppets are spiked into the soft flesh of the trunk of a banana tree at the base of the cotton screen. This represents the earth.

The dalang underscores the action and the rhythm of his chanting while sitting cross-legged by tapping loudly with quickening tempo on the wooden puppet box at his back with a little bronze knob held between the toes of one foot. He also uses this device to conduct the small Gender Wayang orchestra of xylophones and gongs sitting behind him, all the time maintaining a number of different body rhythms as he manipulates the puppets.

The dalang is a highly venerated artist with exceptional powers over the elements at his command. He is a complete performer who excels in many things. He displays enormous physical and mental endurance. He is an orator with a prodigious memory who must be able to repeat many lengthy texts word for word but also improvise entire interludes ranging from ribald jokes to philosophical conversations. He is a scholar of literature and yet keeps himself abreast, not only of national events, but of everyday happenings in the district including the latest gossip and scandal. He must know all his figures, about one hundred or more, their nature and symbolic importance, and have such vocal dexterity as to give each its proper tone and pitch at times creating the illusion of conversation. He deftly composes scenes on the fly, all the while paying particular attention to the artistic arrangement of his figures. He poses them in stances appropriate to their character and situation and in keeping their relationship to each other. He has to compose and sing songs as well as direct the orchestra that accompanies him. Besides all this, he is a poet-playwright who shares new wisdom in a way that satisfies public taste.

So what is the effect of all this? When the puppet is pressed up against the cotton sheet, its shadow is sharp and steady. Where it curls away from the screen a little, the shadow rapidly softens. The flickering light from the uncertain oil lamp causes these indistinct portions to quiver and waver. Sometimes puppets are presented to the screen from behind the lamp instead of entering from the wings. When this happens, they seem to magically materialise out of the very air itself as soft indistinct forms darken, gathering form and substance as they near the screen. The effect is ethereal and utterly mesmerizing.

The compelling visual appeal of a Wayang Kulit show might easily be explained by the physical laws and properties of light. The spiritual and metaphysical dimensions of the shadow play are much harder for a Westerner to describe.

The shadow play is magically powerful. At times the dalang appears to be in a trance. It is commonly believed that the audience is protected from evil influences during a Wayang Kulit performance. Its vast repertoire of tales covers all aspects of life. As well as having an educational role in society, its stories provide spiritual guidance for the people. It is as though this translucent screen with its play of light and shadow is the interface between two realms of existence - a small rectangle in the fabric of the world mediated by the dalang from where spirit beings from other planes of existence impart the wisdom of the ages to mankind. Wayang characters provide types to be emulated, giving the young an idea of what qualities to strive for.

The balmy night air was sweet with the scent of clove cigarettes. The audience, from the very young to the very old, including one white man, was held spell bound by the skills of the dalang and the stories he told. Little children, cradled in their parent's arms, stared wide-eyed at the screen, transfixed by its magic. As the night wore on, they valiantly fought a losing battle against the relentlessness of sleep, their heads occasionally jerking, wanting so desperately to stay awake.

Exciting battle scenes are usually staged shortly after midnight. These are truly fantastic to watch and is technically one of the more exacting test's of the dalang's dexterity in manipulating his puppets. Some fight scenes require the physical engagement of characters, up to six at a time, and in others, opponents use a combination of weaponry and magical powers to achieve their ends. These sequences are rich with special effects. Cutouts representing balls of fire, lightening or tempest might be used. With a trick of light and shade and a deft exchange of the puppet, characters were made to transform before a wide-eyed audience into mystical beings, a garuda, a snake. There were moments of enthralling, almost cinematic action, which I thought compared favorably with the most exciting fast-paced fighting sequences from Hong Kong Kung Foo movies that you could imagine. Characters lunged at each other, their staccato jousting movements under scored by the rapid tapping of the brass knob between the dalang's toes. They wrestled back and forth across the screen, or were thrown bodily into the air to spin 360 degrees before being slammed into a dead stop against the screen by another puppet entering the fray from the back. As delicate as they look, the leather puppets are remarkably robust, and during fight scenes, are thrown roughly about the screen. At times the oil lamp is set swaying to heighten the chaos of the battlefield. This was better than television!

At other times the story demanded large formal chunks of dialogue spoken in Kawi, an ancient Javanese tongue derived from Sanskrit which nobody but the dalang understands. Such sequences are characterised by courtly speeches delivered with astonishing vocalisation. The dalang can modulate his voice from strong and powerful delivery to the very softly spoken. Sometimes shadow plays are broadcast on the radio without any imagery. The figures jerk forward ever so slightly when speaking and with restrained refined and measured gestures, use their outstretched hands to accent words. The technique is beautiful to watch. During these lengthy passages in ancient Kawi, the audience stretched weary bodies and moved about. Teenagers stood up and picked their way through the crowd to perhaps buy some roasted peanuts from the vendors gathered around, or a drink, or to chat with their boyfriends and girlfriends.

But it is the clowns such as, Semar, Bagong, Petruk, and in Bali, Togog and Bebrodesan, which are most loved by the audience, educated and illiterate alike, and with whom the Indonesian people most readily identify. They are cohorts allied to either the good or wicked. Since the clowns figures speak the everyday language of the people, they are also used to interpret the events within time-honoured stories told in ancient tongues. Witty, crude and forever trading crass insults and innuendoes, the buffoonery of these characters allows the dalang to launch into marvelous ad lib comic sequences that embellish stories with topical village gossip, political intrigue and scandal which can leave the audience clutching their stomachs in hysterical laughter.

I count myself fortunate indeed to have witnessed this traditional shadow puppet play in the village of Bedulu near Goa Gaja, Bali in 1979. Here the 'dalang' or puppeteer pulls a string which manipulates the mouth of the puppet he is operating. The articulated mouth on some Balinese puppet figures seems to be peculiar to the island. The dalang gives the puppet not just a voice, however, but becomes a 'medium' through which the spirits of deities can speak to humans. These performances can last from dusk till dawn.



Wayang Kulit figures wait in the wings each side of the screen in readiness to portray the constant battle between the opposing forces of good and evil. Drama ensues when the world is thrown out of balance.

Two young assistants, sitting each side of the screen, hand puppets to the dalang as they are needed. His skills bring them to life so as to play their role in one of the ancient Sanskrit epic poems of India - the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Sukarno, Indonesia's first President and father of the nation, was often referred to as the dalang of the Indonesian people.

Australian director, Peter Weir's film 'The Year of Living Dangerously' about the turbulent upheaval in the sixties when Sukarno was ousted, contained a memorable scene featuring Wayang Kulit puppets.

A Javanese shadow puppet. Islam forbids the depiction of the human form which is one of the reasons given for the highly stylized appearance of Javanese puppets compared to their counterparts elsewhere in South East Asia. The workmanship is also perhaps more refined than most, with very intricate perforations. The best look like exquisite filigree.

These puppets come in all shapes and sizes from the squarish brutish forms of the giants, 'raksasa', to the smaller fine limbed figures representing highly cultured kings and nobles. Some are grotesques. In fact every part of a puppet's design has symbolic significance. Different shaped eyes and noses denote such qualities as nobility, patience, crudeness, steadfastness, strength, loyalty, clownishness or wisdom. There are about 25 varieties of headdress to represent priests, princes, fighters, queens deities, kings or gods.

Although shadow puppets are usually only seen as silhouettes, they are nevertheless fastidiously painted using very fine brushwork to elaborately render facial detail, clothing and jewelry. Faces can be painted white, black, red, pink or even blue or green. Young nobles or kings have white or gilded faces, while those who are older have black faces indicating inner maturity. Various shades of red are used to express degrees of boldness. The bare chest and arms, are often picked out in gold paint. Actual gold leaf was applied to puppets belonging to the Sultans of Java.

Other shows involving puppets of a different type are the 'Wayang Klitik', thin two dimensional puppets carved from wood in semi relief. These have arms made of leather just like their 'Kulit' cousins. 'Wayang Golek,' are three dimensional puppets of carved and painted wood, often dressed in clothing made from faded discarded sarongs.

Wayan Kulit performances are held for religious occassions, purification ceremonies, or when some transitional event occurs within the life of the people. But the art is also called upon for other tasks too.

I had an Australian friend who married a Balinese. He worked as an administrator for a hospital in rural Bali and commissioned the district's dalang to devise a Wayang Kulit play as a means of getting messages about public health and hygiene across to the villagers of the area. This was in the days before the arrival of television. I saw the performance and recall that the dalang chose to depict the pills dispensed by the hospital as magic bullets fired from a gun held by one of the clown characters. The target was articulated worm-like puppets made especially for the show. It was a story about intestinal parasites. The crowd roared its pleasure as the little cut-out bullets flew across the screen.

I was staying in the village of Bedulu in 1979 in a quiet Losmen overlooking some pretty rice fields just a short walk from the Yeh Pulu frieze, a fourteenth century twenty five meter long relief carved into volcanic rock. It was Made, the owner's son, who took me to see this shadow play in his village. The art of the Wayang Kulit is extraordinary to witness. Thanks Made, it was an unforgettable experience.
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© david.atkinson@rmit.edu.au
created 26 october 1998