The Indonesian word ‘wayang’ is derived from a word
meaning ‘shadow’ or ‘ghost’. These intricately cut and perforated
shadow puppets are made from buffalo hide. ‘Kulit’ means ‘leather’ or
‘skin’. ‘Wayang Kulit’ has a documented history of existence of at least
800 years in the Indonesian archipelago.
This was an open air
performance under the stars. A temporary bamboo platform had been
constructed in the village square. It had a raised stage on which the
puppeteer and musicians of the ‘Gender Wayang’ orchestra sat
cross-legged. A fine cotton screen, called ‘kelir’, separates the dalang
from his audience. This screen represents the universe and the light
from a bronze oil lamp, called ‘blencong’ just in front of the dalang
throws magical flickering shadows onto it.
There is no hiding the
mechanics of the show as in Western theatre since the bamboo platform
had no sides. The audience is free to sit either facing the screen, or
can watch the dalang at work.
Before a play begins, the dalang
undertakes several ceremonial acts and rituals to assure a successful
performance. With great reverence, he taps three times on the wooden box
containing all his puppets in order to wake them up. Figures of deities
representing good and evil (sometimes over one hundred) are ranged in
their prescribed place to the left and right hand sides of the screen.
When quiescent, the puppets are spiked into the soft flesh of the trunk
of a banana tree at the base of the cotton screen. This represents the
The dalang underscores the action and the rhythm of his
chanting while sitting cross-legged by tapping loudly with quickening
tempo on the wooden puppet box at his back with a little bronze knob
held between the toes of one foot. He also uses this device to conduct
the small Gender Wayang orchestra of xylophones and gongs sitting behind
him, all the time maintaining a number of different body rhythms as he
manipulates the puppets.
The dalang is a highly venerated artist
with exceptional powers over the elements at his command. He is a
complete performer who excels in many things. He displays enormous
physical and mental endurance. He is an orator with a prodigious memory
who must be able to repeat many lengthy texts word for word but also
improvise entire interludes ranging from ribald jokes to philosophical
conversations. He is a scholar of literature and yet keeps himself
abreast, not only of national events, but of everyday happenings in the
district including the latest gossip and scandal. He must know all his
figures, about one hundred or more, their nature and symbolic
importance, and have such vocal dexterity as to give each its proper
tone and pitch at times creating the illusion of conversation. He deftly
composes scenes on the fly, all the while paying particular attention
to the artistic arrangement of his figures. He poses them in stances
appropriate to their character and situation and in keeping their
relationship to each other. He has to compose and sing songs as well as
direct the orchestra that accompanies him. Besides all this, he is a
poet-playwright who shares new wisdom in a way that satisfies public
So what is the effect of all this? When the puppet is
pressed up against the cotton sheet, its shadow is sharp and steady.
Where it curls away from the screen a little, the shadow rapidly
softens. The flickering light from the uncertain oil lamp causes these
indistinct portions to quiver and waver. Sometimes puppets are presented
to the screen from behind the lamp instead of entering from the wings.
When this happens, they seem to magically materialise out of the very
air itself as soft indistinct forms darken, gathering form and substance
as they near the screen. The effect is ethereal and utterly
The compelling visual appeal of a Wayang Kulit show
might easily be explained by the physical laws and properties of light.
The spiritual and metaphysical dimensions of the shadow play are much
harder for a Westerner to describe.
The shadow play is magically
powerful. At times the dalang appears to be in a trance. It is commonly
believed that the audience is protected from evil influences during a
Wayang Kulit performance. Its vast repertoire of tales covers all
aspects of life. As well as having an educational role in society, its
stories provide spiritual guidance for the people. It is as though this
translucent screen with its play of light and shadow is the interface
between two realms of existence - a small rectangle in the fabric of the
world mediated by the dalang from where spirit beings from other planes
of existence impart the wisdom of the ages to mankind. Wayang
characters provide types to be emulated, giving the young an idea of
what qualities to strive for.
The balmy night air was sweet with
the scent of clove cigarettes. The audience, from the very young to the
very old, including one white man, was held spell bound by the skills of
the dalang and the stories he told. Little children, cradled in their
parent’s arms, stared wide-eyed at the screen, transfixed by its magic.
As the night wore on, they valiantly fought a losing battle against the
relentlessness of sleep, their heads occasionally jerking, wanting so
desperately to stay awake.
Exciting battle scenes are usually
staged shortly after midnight. These are truly fantastic to watch and is
technically one of the more exacting test’s of the dalang’s dexterity
in manipulating his puppets. Some fight scenes require the physical
engagement of characters, up to six at a time, and in others, opponents
use a combination of weaponry and magical powers to achieve their ends.
These sequences are rich with special effects. Cutouts representing
balls of fire, lightening or tempest might be used. With a trick of
light and shade and a deft exchange of the puppet, characters were made
to transform before a wide-eyed audience into mystical beings, a garuda,
a snake. There were moments of enthralling, almost cinematic action,
which I thought compared favorably with the most exciting fast-paced
fighting sequences from Hong Kong Kung Foo movies that you could
imagine. Characters lunged at each other, their staccato jousting
movements under scored by the rapid tapping of the brass knob between
the dalang’s toes. They wrestled back and forth across the screen, or
were thrown bodily into the air to spin 360 degrees before being slammed
into a dead stop against the screen by another puppet entering the fray
from the back. As delicate as they look, the leather puppets are
remarkably robust, and during fight scenes, are thrown roughly about the
screen. At times the oil lamp is set swaying to heighten the chaos of
the battlefield. This was better than television!
At other times
the story demanded large formal chunks of dialogue spoken in Kawi, an
ancient Javanese tongue derived from Sanskrit which nobody but the
dalang understands. Such sequences are characterised by courtly speeches
delivered with astonishing vocalisation. The dalang can modulate his
voice from strong and powerful delivery to the very softly spoken.
Sometimes shadow plays are broadcast on the radio without any imagery.
The figures jerk forward ever so slightly when speaking and with
restrained refined and measured gestures, use their outstretched hands
to accent words. The technique is beautiful to watch. During these
lengthy passages in ancient Kawi, the audience stretched weary bodies
and moved about. Teenagers stood up and picked their way through the
crowd to perhaps buy some roasted peanuts from the vendors gathered
around, or a drink, or to chat with their boyfriends and girlfriends.
it is the clowns such as, Semar, Bagong, Petruk, and in Bali, Togog and
Bebrodesan, which are most loved by the audience, educated and
illiterate alike, and with whom the Indonesian people most readily
identify. They are cohorts allied to either the good or wicked. Since
the clowns figures speak the everyday language of the people, they are
also used to interpret the events within time-honoured stories told in
ancient tongues. Witty, crude and forever trading crass insults and
innuendoes, the buffoonery of these characters allows the dalang to
launch into marvelous ad lib comic sequences that embellish stories with
topical village gossip, political intrigue and scandal which can leave
the audience clutching their stomachs in hysterical laughter.
from : http://minyos.its.rmit.edu.au/~dwa/WayangKulit.html
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