Shadow Puppets from Java

wa507919_d01_300h250wShadows cast by elaborate leather puppets performing Indonesian versions of Indian Hindu epics.

On a portable stage, the puppeteer-priest sets up his framed screen and lamps. He will thrill and enchant a crowd with his puppets. To the women, seated in front of the screen, the leather puppets appear as shadows. The men, behind the screen, see the beautifully painted figures.

 

Javanese shadow puppet performance

Wayang Kulit leather shadow puppets perform Indonesian versions of Indian Hindu epics. Wayang Kulit in Java is probably one of the oldest continuous traditions of storytelling in the world. It is held in high regard in Javanese culture. The puppets are flat figures, carved and chiselled in lacy patterns from the hide of buffalo, oxen or goats. The figures are typically much stylised, the faces are often caricatures. The more refined the character, the smaller its features; the largest and most grotesque tend to be the ogres.

Shadow plays are performed to this day in villages and towns on public holidays, festivals or family celebrations. The plays tend to be performed in the open, at night, using cloth screens and incandescent gas or electric lighting.

The puppets are moved with great grace and dignity by the dalang, or puppeteer. The puppeteer is also responsible for speaking the parts of the characters, for singing and guiding the orchestra.

Detail, shadow show, Indonesia © Dorothy Bovey 1980s
Detail, shadow show, Indonesia © Dorothy Bovey 1980s

The most frequently performed narratives derive from the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These offer scope for high drama, as well as the portrayal of quite developed personalities, and a great variety of  characters. There are at least 100 puppets in a basic Wayang Kulit set, although some sets contain many more.

Detail, Javanese shadow puppet
Detail, Javanese shadow puppet

Colour is used to convey important information about the characters: the face of Vishnu is painted black, Shiva’s is gold. Characters may appear in different colours to indicate changes of circumstances or emotional state. White typically implies calm, innocence, or youth; red indicates a hot temperament.

 

Javanese shadow and rod puppets in the Performance Gallery
Javanese shadow and rod puppets in the Performance Gallery

 

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