Indonesia, an island country in Southeast Asia, is well known for its spices, colorful textiles and garments, and their unique art of shadow puppetry. This type of puppetry, called “Wayang Golek” or “Wayang Kulit” is an ancient practice throughout Indonesia, but most popular on the island of Java. It is believed to have origins in India, later derived from a Javanese Hindu- Buddhist tradition. When people in this region traveled and explored for trade and religious purposes, the art form was introduced to Indonesia, where it became highly regarded. The ‘dalang’, similar to a puppeteer, but highly respected and admired, would use painted wooden puppets manipulated by rods connecting to their joints and limbs held behind a sheet, lit by a backlight. Often the puppets were thin enough that their colors could be seen through the sheet. Wayang Golek performances illustrated Hindu epics, historic tales, or Islamic Menak cycles. Each story that was told was affected by years of history as well as current events within the society. The dalang would manipulate the puppet, speak their parts, and coordinate the puppets’ actions with an orchestra. Dalang can also act as social commentators, using characters in his show to voice opinions of the people. It is said that no dalang is responsible for anything he says during his performance, that he is only speaking for his people. This was important in the feudal society, the dalang being held with the highest respect and being protected by his ‘immunity’, but they were always diplomatic when stating opinions of the people. Performances were given in towns throughout the country on holidays or for festivals.
Each wayang golek is hand made, and many families pass this skill from generation to generation. The process of puppet-making has remained relatively static. The master puppet-maker will always make the head because it expresses the personality and essence of the puppet, while the bodies are made by children. The wives make costumes for each puppet, who are always dressed in a Javanese traditional dress with batik sarongs. In making the puppet, local softwood will be sawed or chopped to the right size and the main features will be roughly chiseled. The wood will then be sanded and more details will be chiseled into the wood. After the due chiseling and sanding, the puppet-makers will begin to paint, using several coats of glue-based paint.
It is said that the art of wayang became popular when Hinduism came to Southeast Asia during the first century, but it was later influenced by indigenous storytelling practices. Indonesia is inhabited by many practicing Muslims, and the religion of Islam forbids the depiction of human form. A common legend is that the wayang golek used to be a regular puppet show until Muslim rulers forbid the practice because of the humans being depicted. The wayang puppets were reconfigured, being highly stylized so as to not resemble humans so much as human-like beings. They were also put behind a curtain so only their shadows were seen. The first record of a wayang performance was from 930 AD by ‘Sir Galigi’. Wayang was used by Hindus and Muslims to spread religion, but today can be used to spread education about not only religion, but health issues. The wayang puppets are prevalent in the art and paintings of this era.
The wayang golek is a good example of the rich culture of Indonesia. Wayang was greatly influenced by religious and historical events, being forced to evolve, but remaining to be practiced and loved by people across Indonesia. The shadow puppets do not discriminate, but unify the country and allow them to indirectly voice opinions about government or other problems without any chance of reprehension. In ten years, I predict that Wayang Golek will still be widely practiced in Indonesia, but probably only in the Southeastern Asian region.
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“Wayang Puppet Show.” Photograph. 30 April 2012.