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Yogyakarta The Center Of Javanese Arts, Crafts

Shadow puppetry is a unique form of theater that employs light and shadow to tell stories. This simple art form has been part of cultures around the world for centuries, but the Javanese have taken the art to its highest level.

Known locally as wayang kulit, this part of Javanese culture has earned international recognition and respect. In 2003, UNESCO declared it as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In return for the acknowledgment, UNESCO required Indonesians to preserve this important part of their heritage.

shadow puppet Java Indonesia

Indonesian puppeteers ply their craft to tell powerful stories about history, mythology and current events. Performances often last eight to nine hours. Wayang kulit is a unique form of theatre employing light and shadow. The puppets are crafted from buffalo hide and mounted on bamboo sticks. When held up behind a piece of white cloth, with an electric bulb or an oil lamp as the light source, shadows are cast on the screen for the audience.

The shadow puppet performances are accompanied by gamelan music. The puppeteer tells the stories of kings, princesses, ogres, and knights, using deft hand movement and narration. While traditional performances used cotton sheets and oil lamps to create the play of light, electric bulbs or other sources of light are used today. Many of the plots draw from episodes seen in the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Wayang is a Javanese word for theatre. Kulit means skin, and refers to the leather puppets used on stage.

The puppets feature intricately designed costumes and colors, to help the audience distinguish between the many different characters.

Wayang kulit combines deep spiritual meaning, entertaining storytelling, extraordinary music, deep philosophical messages, current political commentary, and bawdy humor. It is one of the most complete art forms, with everything in the hands of the dalang (puppeteer). The dalang is the genius behind the entire performance. It is he who sits behind the screen and narrates the story. With a traditional orchestra in the background to provide a resonant melody and its conventional rhythm, the dalang modulates his voice to create suspense thus heightening the drama. Invariably, the play climaxes with the triumph of good over evil.

It has been debated whether or not puppetry is indigenous to Indonesia or was introduced from India or China. Indigenous origins are argued by scholars who point toward connections between the jesters and ancestral spirits; the jester characters that appear in every play have no clear Indian precedent. Indeed, Semar, the principal jester, is sometimes said to be the ancestral spirit of the island of Java itself, and this character is sometimes used in healing or protective rites. Even today in some areas of Indonesia, carvings, puppets, and gongs are considered by some to be objects that ancestral spirits can temporarily inhabit. Performances of puppetry are still held once a year at cemeteries where the founders of each village are buried. Ancestors are believed to have particular favorite stories. There is evidence that local animism has been a source of the puppet arts. In times past, if the harvest was threatened by various pests, the story of the Indonesian rice goddess, Sri, might be performed to ward off the attack. Today, such ritual stories are performed infrequently, but they remain a part of the history of the art.

Regardless of whether the impulse behind wayang is indigenous, widespread development of the art took place during the Hindu-Buddhist period, especially between 800 and 1500. According to myth, a prince named Aji Saka brought aspects of Indian culture to Java. A long ritual opening to the wayang performance celebrates his arrival on the island; he came bearing the hanacaraka, the Sanskritized Javanese alphabet, which he then split into four, casting a quarter to each of the four directions and thus transmitting literacy and prosperity throughout the land. The poetic language used by puppeteers in songs and narratives is laced with Sanskrit-based words. The repertoire is largely based on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the great Hindu epics. Some scholars feel that the Balinese puppet traditions resemble—in the realistic form of their puppets and the looser structure of their performance sequences—the art as it was performed on Java before the arrival of Islam to Indonesia in the 1500s. The Balinese (who remained Hindu) believe wayang was introduced by refugees from Majapahit, the last Hindu-Buddhist kingdom on Java, when it fell around 1520.

Today major wayang performers are known all over Java. They appear on television and radio, and cassettes of their performances are available in stores. While it is still true that most major dalang are descendants of the families of traditional performers, in the twentieth century there began to be performers who were not trained by their own elders. Several schools now teach puppetry.

Wayang orang and wayang kulit performances are regularly held at the Keraton or Sultan’s Palace of Yogyakarta and Keraton Solo. To watch this fabulous Ramayana ballet at its very best see this on full moon nights in the dry season between May through October, when the bright round moon shines directly on the elegant Prambanan temples, becoming an unforgettable backdrop to the play.

Visitors are welcome to observe and learn the intricate process in making wayang kulit in the Village of Kepuhsari, Wonogiri Regency, in Central Java.

Indonesia is the fourth-largest nation in the world with more than 267 million people. The country is comprised of more than 17,500 islands, including Bali, Borneo, Java, Lombok, Sumatra and Sulawesi. Learn more about Indonesia.

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