Javanese Wayang Puppetry

Despite their elaborate appearance, wayang kulit puppets are designed for shadow puppetry. Wayang kulit is the earliest form of puppetry in Java and is known to have been in existence since at least the 10th century, pre-dating Islamic and Indian influences on the island. It remains the most popular form of wayang performance.

Kulit means ‘leather’ and the puppets on display in this new exhibition are made from goat or buffalo hide. A pattern is either traced using stencils or drawn directly onto the leather and the detailing is punched out with small chisels (a puppet maker can have a range of 15 to 20 chisels for this task). Wayang kulit puppets are always in profile form. The shoulders are elongated, and the arms are hinged beyond the natural shoulder joint and at the elbow. This creates a distinctive angular movement that is replicated in Javanese dance.

Wayang performances are large social occasions. Usually based on Hindu epics, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the central theme of wayang kulit is the battle between light and darkness, chaos and order or good and evil. The performances are intended to act as a moral guide as well as providing entertainment.

Performed at night, a typical wayang kulit show will start in the evening at 7.30pm and finish at 6am the next day

To create the shadows, a white cloth is stretched over a bamboo frame approximately 2 metres by 5 metres. The dalang (puppeteer) sits in front of the screen and an oil lamp is hung above his head to cast the shadows. There are often over 100 puppets in each performance, accompanied by a small gamelan orchestra which the dalang also directs in addition to manipulating and voicing all the puppets. The dalang stays seated at the screen for the whole performance whilst the audience will eat, drink and occasionally fall asleep!