Kulit Theater of
|The leather shadow
puppets on the preceding pages are examples from the still thriving and
important folk art puppet theater of Indonesia.
Although tourist shops now sell imitations of wayang kulit puppets,
the Javanese puppets illustrated on these pages are old examples that were actually used for many years in
theater productions--in presentations of Hindu epics, Indonesian history
plays and the Islamic Menak cycles. The Balinese examples are fairly recent.
The puppet performances were given in towns and villages on holidays and for a variety of festivals. A dalang, or puppet master, manipulated the puppets, spoke their parts, and coordinated the puppets' actions with music from a gamelan orchestra. The puppets were manipulated behind a white screen with a back light, so the audience saw only their shadows.
Anne Richter has described the stories as follows: "The most frequently performed narratives derive from the Hindu epics. The Arjuna Sasra Bahu and Ramayana cycles concern the affairs of the noble Rama himself and his ancestors. Favorite stories concern Rama's marriage to Sinta; their banishment to the forest together with his brother Laksmana; Sinta's abduction by the monster king Rahwana; and her subsequent rescue, with the aid of the monkey king and after numerous battles, from the kingdom of Sri Lanka. The Ramayana contains many episodes from the lives of these characters which are emphasized in varying degrees to form separate plays in their own right.
|The Mahahharata tells of the conflict between the superior Pandewa brothers (Judistra, Bima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sadewa) and their hundred jealous and mendacious cousins, the Kurewas, who drive them away from their home at the court of Astina, to wander in the wild. In the forest the Pandewas build the lovely and idealized kingdom of Amarta where the majority of the plays are set. The heroic quests, battles with vile ogres and scenes of romantic love are made all the more poignant by the knowledge that the glory and beauty are fleeting. Events are presented as taking place in Java rather than India, and the heroic Pandewas, descendants of Vishnu, are the ancestors of the Javanese kings. Many episodes have simply been invented by puppeteers over generations.|
|The court scenes also allow scope for the comic misadventures and intrigue of the Pandewas' clown servants, the Punakawans: Semar the wise, whose identity is thought to have evolved from that of the pre-Hindu Javanese god Ismaya and his sons. The inane and melancholic Gareng, with his round drooping nose, is the butt of jokes and tricks played by the sharp Petruk. Philosophical and mystical speculations made by the refined characters provide an intellectual and spiritual dimension for members of the audience with a taste for high seriousness."|
|The puppets are made by initially sketching the
lacy patterns onto buffalo or goat hide. After the form has been cut
out, it is placed on a flat wooden anvil, and the work of creating
intricate patterns of tiny holes begins; these are formed by precise
blows with a wooden mallet to a chisel or punch. Moveable
leather arms are hinged at the shoulders and elbows; these are
attached to thin buffalo horn or wooden sticks which are manipulated
by the dalang to provide movement or expression. The
completed puppet is fitted with a long horn or wooden handle.
Sacred color symbolism conveys essential information. The face of Vishnu is painted black, whereas Shiva's is gold, but a character may appear in a different color to indicate alterations in circumstances or emotional state. Red is used to suggest a fiery or impetuous nature; white implies innocence or youth.
|Puppet body types can be
identified across a spectrum which ranges from alus (extremely
refined) to kasar (extremely rough and crude). Refined,
virtuous characters have small dainty bodies, slitted oval eyes with
pupils shaped like rice grains, pointed noses and a modest downward
gaze... Vigorous or turbulent characters have a more direct
and confrontational stare. As the personality of the puppet becomes
less refined, there is an increase in size; the nose becomes heavier
and blunter; eyes and pupils become larger and rounder and the gaze
more aggressive; teeth and gums may be exposed in a snarl or a
foolish sneer. The more refined middle-sized puppets may
represent courageous but impetuous kings and heroes; the coarser
ones suggest an uncontrolled or evil nature. The largest puppets are
used for those whose greatest attribute is physical strength.
Balinese puppets differ from the Javanese in that they are much simpler and more naturalistic. There has been some speculation that the delicacy and distortion of Javanese puppets arises from Islamic prescriptions against the making of images of the human body, and that Balinese puppets (from the predominantly Hindu society of Bali) are more original."
Balinese wayang kulit.
Lordly Shades, p. 30
For more information on the wayang kulit traditions in Indonesia see the publications below. We do not sell books; they are listed here for your information.