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Understanding traditional shadow puppetry

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Wayang kulit

The Indonesian word 'wayang' is derived from a word meaning 'shadow' or 'ghost'. The intricately cut and perforated shadow puppets are traditionally made from buffalo hide, and 'kulit' means 'leather' or 'skin'. So wayang kulit is the Indonesian term for traditional shadow puppets.


The dalang (puppeteer) is a complete artist. He/she has to excel in a great many things. For example, s/he must be able to:

  • know all the traditional figures (100–150), their nature and their symbolic importance – most dalangs can also make puppets;
  • guide puppets through the prescribed movements (e.g. graceful, careless, rude) in the proper sequence – many movements are based on dance, and all dalangs learn to dance;
  • recite the many traditional texts (approximately 600) – working dalangs are also expected to be able to script these themselves);
  • develop a repertoire of hundreds of stories, and be able to repeat them word for word;
  • use his voice to give each of the figures its proper tone;
  • create the illusion of conversation;
  • compose and sing songs;
  • direct the accompanying orchestra – and be able to play all of the most important instruments;
  • be a poet – the poetry is performed in the form of song, using a repertoire of standard melodies, the words of which are composed by the dalang to create a mood;
  • sit cross-legged for nine successive hours;
  • strike the keprak (rattle) with right foot for setting the mood, generating sound effects, signalling the musicians and for emphasis;
  • be a teacher – dalangs share new wisdom and comments on current events, often through selection of an appropriate story
  • write and perform a combination of stand-up and slapstick comedy;
  • be a linguist – a performance might draw on up to 10 languages (seven levels of Javanese, plus Indonesian, Old Javanese and, more frequently recently, English).
  • be a good businessperson – many members of the village and family depend on the dalang for work, including preparing for a performance, playing the music and making puppets – dalang's responsibility, plus his/her role as a teacher, make the dalang a highly respected member of the community.

Many dalangs come from dalang families, and they begin to learn their trade as toddlers. Much of their learning is informal, through observation and imitation. More recently, students can study puppetry through private institutions, and at the STSI university in Surakarta.


The gamelan is the traditional Indonesian orchestra, made up of a wide array of tuned percussion instruments, which are played (traditionally) by 20–25 musicians. During shadow-puppet performances, the musicians sit around the dalang, who conducts them. This live music helps build the atmosphere of the performance (in a similar way to film music).


In Java, wayang kulit begins with the gunungan (hill). This is a fantastic decorative puppet-piece shaped like a pointed leaf. It represents a vine-like plant on which birds, monkeys, and other beasts climb. The leaf is a representation of the past and future, and at the same time is a symbol of its creation.

The gunungan is more often called the kayon, (although most books seem to refer to it as gunungan). At the beginning of a performance, the gunungan is arranged in front centre of screen. When the dalang is ready to perform, he sings a short song, during which he raises the gunungan directly up, rotates it three times, and moves it to the right, where it is placed as the right limit to the performance space.

A second gunungan has already been placed as the left marker. The two gunungans have different pictures on the rear, one representing fire, and the other representing water.

During the performance the gunungans are used to represent scenery elements, particularly forest and clouds.


The most popular story cycles are drawn from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. These ancient Sanskrit Hindu epics from India were introduced to Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand by Indian conquest and trade over thousands of years.

After their first introduction, the stories were only performed in the royal courts. They were popularised much later, by the first Moslem missionaries. Islam disapproves of representing people, but the fabled characters of the Hindu moral tales fit well with Javanese Islam as taught by these first missionaries.

Favourite stories from Ramayana tell about:

  • Rama's marriage to Sita;
  • their banishment to the forest together with Rama's brother, Smana;
  • Sita's abduction by the monster king Ravana;
  • Sita's rescue, with the help of the monkey king Hanuman.

Some of the stories are legends, and some are based on ancient and modern historical events. Since 1945 in Indonesia, wayang kulit has also used political themes. (This reduced somewhat during the Suharto era when many dalangs disappeared – many dalangs were jailed, and many died.)

Other stories used for wayang include Christian stories. This type is called Wayang Kristen, and uses biblical characters, Panji stories about a fabled Javanese royal family, and stories about Mohammed's uncle. Children's wayang uses animals to tell folk stories.

A particular story is often selected by the dalang to make a political or historical point. For example, following recent devastating floods in Jakarta, a famous puppeteer performed a story about a kingdom suffering a series of natural disasters. This was interpreted by the audience as a very pointed comment about the corruption in the Jakarta city government that had led to the city's drainage areas being built over by exclusive new housing developments.

The dalang sometimes takes quite a direct activist role. For example, some use wayang to deliver messages educating audiences about pesticides.


The performance follows a standard scene plan.

  1. The first scene introduces the kingdoms, characters and the situation.
  2. Toward the end of the scene, one group of characters will usually leave their kingdom to go off sort out the situation.
  3. The scene usually ends with the first round of battle, when the opposing sides first meet, but
    no-one is killed at this stage.
  4. At the end of the first scene, the dalang again raises the gunungan, and replaces it as he sings a song signalling the change in scenes and in the mode of the accompaniment – some dalangs place the gunungan at an angle that indicates the progression of time, but many do not.
  5. The second scene usually takes place in transit, often in the forest, and introduces a particularly Javanese group of characters, the clowns, which are not drawn from the Indian epics. (Often the audiences will grow rapidly for these scenes, because the dalang's use of humour is a major drawcard.) The clown characters are in some ways reminiscent of court jesters – they usually poke fun at the noble classes, but they are also loyal retainers. The father of the clowns, Semar, is concurrently a humorous and a very powerful supernatural figure. His ambiguity extends to gender, in that he has both male and female physical characteristics.
  6. This second scene has the first battle in which a character is killed. The character who is killed is another Javanese addition – Cakil the small demon soldier. He is always killed by a very refined character, and always in the same way.
  7. At the end of the second scene the gunungan is again raised, and a song is again sung to indicate a scene and musical mode change.
  8. The final scene resolves the story, usually with a decisive battle, which is symbolic of the struggle between good and evil.
Light source

The light used to cast the shadows can be created by:

  • lit torch, or burning faggot (bundle of sticks);
  • burning candles;
  • sunlight coming into a dark room through a window covered with cloth;
  • oil-burning lamp;
  • kerosene-burning lamp;
  • electric light.

To make a screen, a white sheet can be stretched over a simple frame and stapled onto it.

Traditionally, travelling Indian puppet shows use an adjustable frame. In other traditions, the screen is made from:

  • silk – for court shows;
  • nettle fabric or paper – shows for the Chinese poor;
  • fine cotton cloth – in Java;
  • parchment – in North Africa and Egypt;
  • ground (frosted) glass – modern presentations in England and America.

The puppet figures can be made from:

  • very thin leather, soaked in oil;
  • dark fabric;
  • cardboard;
  • plywood;
  • sheet metal.

Cardboard is the easiest material to use for making shadow puppets, and gives good results. A thick piece of polystyrene mounted under the screen is useful for holding puppets when several are being used at once, (for example, during a dialogue).


Simmen, Rene (1975) The World of Puppets. London: Elsevier–Phaidon

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