Wayang: Traditional Javanese Puppetry Is No Child’s Play

Wayang, the classicial Javanese shadow puppetry, may seem like child’s play, but it takes skill to manipulate the puppets on a small wooden stage against a translucent backlit screen, especially when telling stories of epic battles.

Did you know that Wayang has its origins in the leather puppetry of southern India? It was adapted in the 10th century from thalubomalata, and scholars say it probably spread to Java with Hinduism. The term wayang comes from the Indonesian word for shadow, bayang. Probably due to its close ties with religion, it is said that wayang may only be performed successfully on auspicious days.

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The dalang (master puppeteer) is an expert story teller, actor, singer, and character manipulator. He upholds the storytelling tradition through visual manipulation of wayang kulit – seemingly simple shadow puppets usually made of perforated, elaborately painted leather. When not in use, the figures are placed in a large wooden chest, and this kotak is essentially the dalang’s cast of characters.

The Javanese wayang is accompanied by traditional music ensemble called a gamelan, which includes gongs, bronze bar instruments, drums, and vocalists. Classical songs are usually performed in traditional wayang, which could last up to nine hours, although in modern times very few performances test the audience’s patience that way. There are always abbreviated performances for beginners, or curious tourists.

Traditional forms of art may seem daunting for the uninitiated, and wayang is no exception. But did you know that even if you are unfamiliar with the traditional epic being performed on stage, there are visual clues as to what’s going on? The ‘good’ characters always enter the screen from the dalang’s right, while the ‘bad’ characters come in from the other side.

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