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Introduction to puppet theater (wayang) of Indonesia

Enlarge this image. Hanuman (Hanoman), monkey hero of the Ramayana, approx. 1950. Indonesia; Bandung, West Java. Wood, cloth, and mixed media. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, From the Mimi and John Herbert Collection, F2000.86.85.
The term wayang is used to refer to a wide variety of Indonesian theatrical forms. Wayang figures come in all shapes, sizes, and mediums, including picture scrolls, shadow puppets, rod puppets, masked figures, and puppets twice human height. For most genres, wayang is the first term, indicating a form of traditional theater with or based on puppets. The second term identifies the medium or puppet type: scroll paintings (beber), three-dimensional rod puppets (golek), animal skins (kulit), or human beings (wong). There may be a third term in the phrase, usually designating the presentation of a story cycle such as the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (purwa), Islamic (menak, meaning “aristocratic”), or historical chronicles of the East Javanese prince Panji, the grasscutter-turnedprince Damar Wulan, and the wali (saints).
  • Wayang beber is the art form considered to be the predecessor of Indonesian puppetry. In this narrative tradition, long, painted scrolls are explicated by a human performer. Today, wayang beber is rarely performed.
  • Wayang kulit is performed with shadow puppets made of water buffalo hide and is said to have developed from scroll puppetry. This form is most popular in Bali, where it is called wayang kulit parwa, and in Central Java, where it is called wayang kulit purwa. The leather puppets are carved with intricate designs and painted. Buffalo horn is used for the rods that manipulate the figures.
  • Wayang wong is human dance drama based on wayang puppet theater. This genre was popular in both courts and villages until the 1960s.
  • Wayang golek is performed with three-dimensional wooden rod puppets. It is most popular along the north coast of Java and in Sunda, the highland area of West Java. Wayang golek has two major variants: Wayang (golek) cepak is a form employed by dalang (puppet masters) on the north coast. They use puppets that sport Javanese dress to perform a repertoire consisting of tales from the Javanese and Islamic traditions: stories of Prince Panji’s endless search for his beloved princess, of grasscutter Damar Wulan’s rise from doing menial work to marrying a queen and defeating her bitter foe, and of Amir Hamzah, the uncle of Muhammad, and his defeat of those who attack his Islamic kingdom. An alternate name for the tales of Amir Hamzah is wayang menak. Wayang golek purwa has been the favored form in the highlands of West Java for the past 150 years. Here the dancing puppets present stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana repertoire.
For more than a thousand years Indonesians have used wayang theater as a method of addressing the conundrums of life. The lively puppet traditions of South and Southeast Asia have portrayed epic stories that shrank the cosmos down to a miniature world. The vast expanse of the earth could symbolically be reduced to the few feet of a puppet stage. The puppeteer’s lamp became the sun, throwing light on myriad creatures who, in their nobility or baseness, make up the world. The greatest stories ever told could be sung with one voice, and battles that “shook the world” could be fought by the two hands of the puppet master. By using the small world to represent the large, the puppet master (dalang) challenged himself and those who watched to understand the forces, seen and unseen, that make up the universe. In the contemporary opening song of the rod puppet theater (wayang golek) of Sunda (West Java), the puppet master chants:
The dalang dances the puppets.
The puppets are danced not knowing in whose hand.
The screen hides the Lord, the power unseen.
The chant expresses an analogy familiar to Indonesians: the parallel between the puppeteer and the mysterious, divine force behind the universe. Ideologically, the puppet stage is a space via which the audience can come to understand the world from the viewpoint of a god; epic stories frame the region’s religious and philosophical thought. Simultaneously, through jester characters (punakawan, also known as clowns or clown servants), the puppet master infuses the epic world with his comic political commentary on contemporary life. Puppet theater is a combination of some of the most archaic and the most up-to-date aspects of Indonesian culture.
Puppetry is the preeminent performance art of Indonesia; in this country, even theater with live actors often follows the patterns, movements, and stories borrowed from the puppet arts. Wayang is a key to Indonesian thinking, reflecting the lives and world view of the Indonesian people. Contemporary political scientists have studied puppetry in order to analyze the changing dynamics of Indonesian society [2].  Anthropologists have plumbed the secrets of puppetry in order to analyze the country’s social structure and cultural values [1]. The Indonesian government terms puppeteers “information officers” and encourages them to promote government programs. Wayang is especially popular among the lowland Javanese, the Sundanese who inhabit the highlands of West Java, and the people of the adjacent island of Bali. For them, puppetry has long served both ritual and entertainment purposes.
[1] Keeler, Ward, Javanese Shadow Plays, Javanese Selves (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987).  
[2] Anderson, Benedict,  Mythology and Tolerance of the Javanese (Ithaca: Cornell University, Modern Indonesia Project, Southeast Asia Program, 1965).
Learn more on the puppet theater of Indonesia.

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