Sunday, January 8, 2012

Wayang Kulit: An Introduction to Javanese Shadow Puppets

Wayang Kulit is the name given to a variety of Indonesian traditional drama utilizing shadow puppets (1).  Wayang kulit shows are popular across Java and Bali and have been performed for at least the past 800 years.  The puppets for wayang kulit are traditionally made out of buffalo hide, hence the name "wayang kulit" (kulit means "skin"; wayang is a derivation of the word for "shadow").  Shadows from the puppets are cast onto a backlit linen screen; the light is traditionally provided by a special oil lamp which creates a sepia-type of effect but electric lights are now commonly used as well.  Different figures are represented by different puppets; a normal "village set" has about 100 different puppets, and some "palace sets" have upwards of 500 puppets.  Wayang kulit performances are staged for some religious events, but they also are parts of some celebrations and fairs.  Some wayang kulit shows can last all night long, but you can usually find a performance that lasts around two hours.  It's a good opportunity to catch up on some sleep or play with the lesser-used functions and modes of the digital SLR camera you paid too much money for (2).

An array of puppets at a performance
Most shadow puppet shows are based on either the Maharabata or the Ramayana, two ancient Hindu epics originating in India, but sometimes Javanese shows are performed as well.  Puppets come in many different sizes, ranging from small animals to giant deities and monsters (raksasa: literally "giant").  The stylized puppets are carefully designed to provide symbolic information about the characters, and most people in Indonesia can recognize the most popular characters by sight.   Different shaped eyes and noses convey character traits; for instance, narrow eyes indicate nobility or refinement, whereas a downturned head indicates humbleness.  More aggressive characters are generally bigger and are painted with shades of red, with larger noses and eyes.  In the picture to the right of this paragraph you can see an array of puppets at a performance; all puppets are carefully painted even though you just see the shadow.  The display of the puppets is part of the show.  

Dalang as the center of attention
The guy that moves the puppets around is called the Dalang (2).  The position of dalang is highly respected amongst wayang kulit officienados.  Dalangs are masters of a variety of skills; they don't just move the puppets but they also tell the story using different voices and tones for the different characters.  The dalang has to be able to do several things at once; all the sites and sounds, including the rapping percussive cadences that symbolize movement or serve as dramatic punctuation come from him.   In addition to this they sing and conduct the gamelan orchestra that accompanies the performance.  Apart from the performance itself the dalang often creates new shows, makes his/her own puppets, serves as an informal teacher in the community.  In many cases the dalang will invent new stories or characters to satirize current events or create a modern-day fable that viewers can relate to.

Rama and Siti puppets in the famous "smell
my finger, Rama" scene
As I mentioned above, the puppets are made from leather and are quite intricate and creative.  In Jogja there is a whole cottage industry involved in producing and selling these puppets, and they've long been a favorite souvenir for tourists.  If you'd like to visit a shop to see how they are made and browse the wares there are lots of them in the Taman Sari area near the Kraton. The puppets are chiseled with very fine tools.  In some cases individual craftsmen make the puppets, but in some workshops teams of skilled workers work on several puppets at the same time.  Depending on the quality of the puppet, the process can take from a few hours to several weeks.

As I mentioned previously, many performances are based on the Ramayana and Maharabata, but there are local adaptations as well.  Javanese shows often feature moral lessons or comic relief provided by a family of "clown" puppets:  Semar (the father), Gareng (the oldest son), Petruk (middle son), and Bagong (the youngest son).  In the two movies below you can see a couple of short scenes from a shadow puppet performance.  In the first one the puppets are arguing about something; in the second they proceed to mix it up.  While I was filming my camera kept going in and out of focus, but I think that adds a bit to the artistic effect.  Aside from this the dalang often takes the puppets in and out of focus to give the impression of movement.

Wayang Kulit shows are a good place to hear the cacophonous gamelan orchestra as well.  I'll write a post in the future about Gamelan, but this musical ensemble consisting of gongs, xylophones, stringed instruments, and woodwinds is an ever-present part of Javanese and Balinese cultural events.  The Gamelan is also pretty divisive; some people love it and some people hate it (I personally fall into the "like" category).  In the movie below you can see the "behind the scenes" view of what goes on at a shadow-puppet performance.  Many people prefer to sit and watch from this angle; though it's interesting you don't get the full effect of the performance.  This particular show was staged for tourists, and to tell you the truth I don't think anyone realized how you're supposed to watch the show until I walked around to the "front" to see the shadows.  At first I was sitting all alone, but then little by little the rest of the audience joined me.  So rule number one for watching shadow puppets: if you aren't watching the shadows you aren't watching the right thing.

If you happen to be in Yogyakarta and would like to take in a wayang kulit show, you can see one at the Sono Budoyo museum just inside the Kraton.  It is across the street to the north from the Alun-Alun Utara (the northern park).  They have performances there just about every night starting at 8pm.  The show lasts around two hours and costs Rp20,000 for adults, Rp10,000 for kids.  You'll need to pay an additional Rp3,000 for your camera.


(1)  Other types of theater include Wanag Klitik, in which two dimensional wooden puppets are used, and Wayang Golek, which uses three dimensional wooden puppets.

(2)  If you take enough pictures, surely you'll eventually get a winner...

(3)  The term "dalang" in Indonesian also has the same connotations as "puppet master" in English; figuratively the dalang is the mastermind or the guy that pulls the strings.


  1. The atmosphere in the theater is so relaxing. I can see why you can fall asleep in there. The Indonesian people have so many cool things in their culture. I'm interested in visiting someday.

  2. Wayang kulit persists in a world of technology and convenience yet manages to retain its essential elements.

    What qualities does wayang kulit possess that keeps it relevant and interesting? Is it the fact that there is a dalang, one that maintains the puppets and the culture? Is it the transparency of wayang kulit, the fact that viewers can perceive the strings that manipulate the puppets? Is it merely habit?

    Although the answer probably draws on a multitude of reasons, wayang kulit offers questions to ponder about what stays relevant in a society in the face of constantly evolving technology.

    Jess Walters

  3. The dalang sounds like a person who should be highly respect like he is, I am anyone who can move all the shadow puppets, change the scenes, do all the voices, and conduct the orchestra, and sing basically all at the same time. Now that is amazing. In a village is there usually only one dalang or are there many?

  4. very interesting information. I enjoyed the pictures they really helped me to understand what exactly you were talking about, the videos were a nice touch as well. At first i was thinking maybe the shadow puppet was using hands but once i realized it was cut outs it really sparked my interest.

  5. Thats cool! From reading this blog I really didn't get the concept of it with a lot of foreign words I couldn't even pronounce but with the videos it made work great showing how they actually put on the show.

  6. Jim Henson ain't got nothing on these dalangs! Well maybe something. Even so, the puppets look terrific. Kinda nightmare-y but... aesthetically pleasing. The gamelan orcehstra lends a haunting aspect to it all too.