From New World Encyclopedia

Wayang kulit as seen from the shadow side

Wayang is an Indonesian word for theater. Bayang, the Javanese word for shadow or imagination, also connotes "spirit." When the term is used to refer to puppet theater, the puppet itself is sometimes referred to as wayang. There are many forms of wayang, including dances performed with masks and dramas performed with wooden, jointed puppets, but the most famous is wayang kulit, "shadow puppet theater." Only the silhouette shadows of the puppets are seen, projected onto a cotton screen. Performances of shadow puppet theater are accompanied by gamelan in Java, and by "gender wayang" in Bali. Although wayang may have existed before the arrival of Hindusim in Indonesia, many of the stories in wayang dramas are taken from the Mahabharata or the Ramayana, and portray the ongoing battle between good and evil. Later, wayang was also adapted to promulgate Muslim teachings and beliefs. Wayang plays can last as long as eight hours and are frequently performed during sacred temple ceremonies, at private functions such as weddings, and for the public in the villages.

Wayang today is both the most ancient and most popular form of puppet theater in the world. UNESCO designated wayang kulit as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity on November 7, 2003.

History of Wayang

Wayang shadow-puppet (Bali, early twentieth century)

Wayang is a general term denoting traditional theater in Indonesia. There is no evidence that wayang existed before Hinduism came to southeast Asia, sometime in the first century C.E. However, there may have been indigenous storytelling traditions that had a profound impact on the development of the traditional puppet theater. The first record of a wayang performance is from an inscription dated 930 C.E., which says, "si Galigi mawayang," or "Sir Galigi played wayang." From that time until today, it seems that certain features of traditional puppet theater have remained. Galigi was an itinerant performer who was requested to perform for a special royal occasion. At that event it is known he performed a story about the hero Bima from the Mahabharata.

Hinduism arrived in Indonesia from India before the Christian era, and was slowly adopted as the local belief system. Sanskrit became the literary and court language of Java and later of Bali. The Hindus used wayang, as the Muslims did later, to spread their teachings and beliefs by performing stories from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and other Hindu moral tales. Later, this mixture of religion and wayang play was cited as an example of the harmony between Hinduism and traditional Indonesian culture. On Java, the western part of Sumatra and some smaller islands, traditionalists continued to perform the old stories for some time, but the influence of Hinduism prevailed and the traditional stories either fell into oblivion or were integrated into the Hinduistic plays.

The figures of the wayang can be found in the paintings of that time, such as the roof murals of the courtroom in Klungkung, Bali. They are still present in traditional Balinese painting today.

When Islam began spreading in Indonesia, imagery of God or deities in human form was prohibited, and this style of painting and puppetry was suppressed. King Raden Patah of Demak, Java wanted to see the wayang in its traditional form, but failed to obtain permission from the Muslim religious leaders. As an alternative, the religious leaders converted the wayang golek into wayang purwa, silhouette puppets made from leather, manipulated behind a screen so that only their shadows were visible, instead of the forbidden figures themselves. It is said that this was the birth of the wayang kulit (shadow puppet wayang).

The wayang klitik figures are painted, flat woodcarvings (a maximum of 5 to 15 mm thick—barely half an inch) with movable arms. The head is solidly attached to the body. With these, it is possible to do puppet plays either by day or by night. This type of wayang is relatively rare.

Wayang today is both the most ancient and most popular form of puppet theater in the world. Hundreds of people will stay up all night long to watch the superstar performers, dalang, who command extravagant fees and are international celebrities. Some of the most famous dalang in recent history are Ki Nartosabdho, Ki Anom Suroto, Ki Asep Sunarya, Ki Sugino, and Ki Manteb Sudarsono. Wayang plays can last as long as eight hours and are frequently are performed during sacred temple ceremonies, at private functions such as weddings, and for the public in the villages.

Wayang kulit

Wayang kulit shadow puppets, prevalent in Java and Bali, are without a doubt the best known of the Indonesian wayang. In Javanese, wayang means shadow or imagination, and kulit means skin, referring to the leather construction of the puppets that are carefully chiseled with very fine tools and supported with carefully shaped buffalo horn handles and control rods.

The puppets are made primarily of leather and manipulated with sticks or buffalo horn handles. Shadows are cast using an oil lamp or, in modern times, a halogen light, onto a cotton cloth screen. Some modern forms of wayang such as Wayang Sandosa, created in the Art Academy at Surakarta (STSI), have employed spotlights, colored lights, and other innovations. Wayang plays are often associated with gamelan drum music.

UNESCO designated Wayang Kulit as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity on November 7, 2003.

The stories are usually mythical, and morality tales drawn from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata or the Serat Menak. The island of Lombok has developed its own style of Serat Menak called Wayang Sasak. The plays usually portray a battle between good and evil, with good always winning, and evil running away (eventually to return).

Javanese wayang features a family of characters called Punakawan, sometimes referred to as "clown-servants" because they usually are associated with the story's hero and also provide humorous and philosophical interludes. Semar is the father of Gareng (oldest son), Petruk, and Bagong (youngest son). These characters did not originate in the Hindu epics, but were added later, possibly to introduce mystical aspects of Islam into the Hindu-Javanese stories. They provide asides and interludes dealing with gossip and contemporary affairs.

The puppet figures themselves vary from place to place. In Central Java, the city of Surakarta (Solo) has the most famous and most commonly imitated style of puppets. Regional styles of shadow puppets can also be found in West Java, Banyumas, Cirebon, Semarang, and East Java. Bali produces more compact and naturalistic figures, and Lombok has figures representing real people. Often, modern-world objects as bicycles, automobiles, airplanes, and ships will be added for comic effect, but for the most part the traditional puppet designs have changed little in the last three hundred years.

The handwork involved in making a wayang kulit figure that is suitable for a performance takes several weeks, with the artists working together in groups. They start with master models (typically on paper) which are traced out onto kulit (skin or parchment), providing the figures with an outline and with indications of any holes that will need to be cut (such as for the mouth or eyes). The figures are then smoothed, usually with a glass bottle, and primed. The structure is inspected and eventually the details are worked through. A further smoothing follows before individual painting, which is undertaken by yet another craftsman. Finally, the movable parts (upper arms, lower arms with hands and the associated sticks for manipulation) are mounted on the body, which is attached to a central staff by which it is held. A crew makes up to ten figures at a time, typically completing that number over the course of a week.

The painting of less expensive puppets is handled expediently with a spray technique, using templates, and with a different person handling each color. Less expensive puppets, often sold to children during performances, are sometimes made on cardboard instead of leather.

Wayang topeng or wayang gedog or wayang wong

An act in the wayang wong performance.

Wayang wong is a type of theatrical performance with themes from the kingdom of Jenggala, in which the players wear masks known as wayang topeng or wayang gedog. The word "gedog" comes from "kedok," which, like "topeng" means "mask." The main theme is a love story about princess Candra Kirana of Kediri and Raden Panji Asmarabangun, the crown prince of Jenggala. Candra Kirana is the incarnation of Dewi Ratih (goddess of love) and Panji is an incarnation of Kamajaya (god of love). Kirana's story was given the title, Smaradahana ("The fire of love"). At the end of the complicated story, the pair finally marry and produce a son, named Raja Putra. Panji Asmarabangun ruled Jenggala under the official names "Sri Kameswara," "Prabu Suryowiseso," and "Hino Kertapati." Originally, wayang wong was performed only as an aristocratic entertainment in four palaces of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. In the course of time, it also became a popular and folk form.

Wayang wong has fixed patterns of movement and costume:

For male performers:

  • Alus: Very slow, elegant, and smooth movement, used in the dance of Arjuna, Puntadewa and all other slimly built Kshatriyas. There are two types of movement, lanyap and luruh.
  • Gagah:
    • Kambeng: A more athletic dance, used for the roles of Bima, Antareja, and Ghatotkacha.
    • Bapang: Gagah and kasar for the warriors of Kaurawa.
    • Kalang kinantang: Somewhere between alus and gagah, danced by tall, slim dancers in the roles of Kresno or Suteja.
  • Kasar: A coarse style, used in portraying ogres and demons.
  • Gecul: Ponokawan and cantrik
    • Kambeng dengklik: For ape warriors, such as Hanuman.
    • Kalang kinantang dengklik: For ape warriors, such as Sugriwa and Subali.

For female performers:

The movements known as nggruda or ngenceng encot in the classical, high style of dance consist of nine basic movements (joged pokok), and twelve other movements (joged gubahan and joged wirogo), and are used in portraying Bedoyo and Srimpi.

Today, the wayang wong, following the Gagrak style of Surakarta, is danced by women who use the alus movements associated with a Kshatriya, resembling Arjuna. In the Gagkra style from Yogyakarta, a male dancer uses these same Alus movements to depict Kshatriya noblemen. Costumes and props distinguish kings, Kshatriyas, monks, princesses, princes, and generals. There are about forty-five distinct character types.

Wayang Golek, or rod puppets

A pair of wayang golek from Java

Wayang golek are wooden doll puppets that are operated from below by rods connected to the hands and a central control rod that runs through the body to the head. The simple construction of the puppets belies their versatility, expressiveness and aptitude for imitating human dance. Little is known for certain about the history of wayang golek, but scholars have speculated that it that most likely originated in China and arrived in Java sometime in the seventeenth century. Some of the oldest traditions of wayang golek are from the north coast of Java in what is called the pasisir region. This is home to some of the oldest Muslim kingdoms in Java and it is likely the wayang golek grew in popularity through telling the wayang menak stories of Amir Hamza, the uncle of Muhammad. These stories are still widely performed in Kabumen, Tegal, and Jepara as wayang golek menak, and in Cirebon, wayang golek cepak. Legendary origins of wayang golek attribute their invention to the Muslim saint Wali Sunan Kudus, who used the medium to promulgate Muslim values. In the eighteenth century, the tradition moved into the mountains of West Java, where it was eventually used to tell stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabarata in a tradition now called wayang golek purwa, which can be found in Bandung, Bogor, and Jakarta. Wayang golek purwa has become the most popular form of wayang golek today and the most famous puppeteer family is the Sunarya family, which has produced several generations of stellar performers.

Wayang Karucil or Wayang Klitik

Wayang klitik image of Batara Guru

Wayang klitik figures are constructed similarly to wayang kulit figures, but from thin pieces of wood instead of leather, and, like wayang kulit figures, are used as shadow puppets. They are the same smaller size as wayang kulit figures. However, wood is more subject to breakage than leather. During battle scenes, wayang klitik figures often sustain considerable damage, much to the amusement of the public, but because strong glues were not available until the 1970s, a broken puppet usually had to be replaced with an expensive, newly made figure. For this reason, the wayang klitik figures which are to appear in plays where they have to endure battle scenes, have leather arms. The name of these figures is onomatopoeic, from the sound klitik-klitik that they make when worked by the dalang.

Wayang klitik figures originated from eastern Java, where there are still workshops producing them. They are less costly to produce than wayang kulit figures.

The origin of the stories involved in these puppet plays comes from the kingdoms of eastern Java: Jenggala, Kediri and Majapahit. From Jenggala and Kediri come the stories of Raden Panji and Cindelaras, which tell of the adventures of a pair of village youngsters with their fighting cocks. The Damarwulan presents the stories of a hero (Damarwulan) from Majapahit. Damarwulan is a clever chap, who, with courage, aptitude, intelligence, and the assistance of his young lover, Anjasmara, makes a surprise attack on the neighboring kingdom and brings down Minakjinggo, an Adipati (viceroy) of Blambangan and mighty enemy of Majapahit's beautiful queen Sri Ratu Kencanawungu. As a reward, Damarwulan is married to Kencanawungu and becomes king of Majapahit; he also takes Lady Anjasmara as a second wife. This story is full of love affairs and battles and is very popular with the public. The dalang is liable to incorporate the latest local gossip and quarrels and work them into the play as comedy.

Wayang beber

The wayang beber has strong similarities to narratives in the form of illustrated ballads that were common at annual fairs in medieval and early modern Europe. They have also suffered the same fate—they have nearly vanished. A few scrolls of images remain from those times, found today in museums. Performances, mostly in small auditoriums, take place according to the following pattern:

The dalang gives a sign, the gamelan orchestra (or a musician with a violin-like instrument) begins to play and the Dalang unrolls a picture related to the story. Then, speaking and singing, he narrates the story in more detail. In this manner, in the course of the evening he unrolls several pictures. The pictures are shown one at a time and are successively unrolled. Each picture represents a story or part of a story. The content of the story typically stems from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Jenggala stories or profane stories from other villages and kingdoms.

Wayang Sadat and Wayang Wahyu

Wayang Sadat is a newly developed form of wayang used by teachers of Islam to show the principles of Muslim ethics and religion to the natives of Java and Bali. Wayang Wahyu was created in the 1960s, by Brother Timotheus L. Wignyosoebroto, who wanted to dramatize the teachings of the Catholic Church. In the beginning, the puppets were often made of paper because it was less expensive than the traditional water buffalo hide. It became a popular as an alternative method of telling Bible stories.[1]


  1. Marzanna Poplawska, Asian Theatre Journal. 21 (2004): 194-202.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brandon, James R., Pandam Guritno, and Roger A. Long. 1993. On Thrones of Gold Three Javanese Shadow Plays. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0585301441.
  • Groenendael, Victoria M. Clara van. 1985. The Dalang Behind the Wayang: The Role of the Surakarta and the Yogyakarta Dalang in Indonesian-Javanese Society. Dordrecht, Holland: Foris Publications. ISBN 9067650757.
  • Keeler, Ward. 1987. Javanese Shadow Plays, Javanese Selves. Princeton. N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 069109425X.
  • Keeler, Ward. 1992. Javanese Shadow Puppets. OUP.
  • Long, Roger. 1982. Javanese Shadow Theatre Movement and Characterization in Ngayogyakarta Wayang Kulit. Ann Arbor, Mich: UMI Research Press. ISBN 0835712834.
  • Mellema, R.L. 1988. Wayang Puppets: Carving, Colouring, Symbolism. Amsterdam: Royal Tropical Institute, Bulletin 315.
  • Mudjanattistomo. 1976. Pedhalangan Ngayogyakarta. Yogyakarta.
  • Sudarsono. 1984. Wayang Wong the State Ritual Dance Drama in the Court of Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Gadjah Mada University Press. ISBN 979420174X.

External links

All links retrieved May 3, 2023.


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