Wayang Kulit – The Rich Tradition of Shadow Puppet Theater

Kamajaya - Wayang Textiil Blog
Kamajaya - God of Love

This month I planned to write a bit about the Wayang Kulit – another UNESCO registered Cultural Treasure. Surprisingly, it happens to fold in nicely with current events in Indonesia!


On my first trip to Jogjakarta, I had a very long conversation with a puppet maker at Classic Wayang a shop near the Sultan’s Palace. He taught me about the making of the puppets from water buffalo hide,  the intricately detailed painting of the puppets on both sides, and provided some insight into the key stories and character snippets. It was all so fascinating that when he recommended that I purchase Kamajaya – The God of Love, and Wisnu, the God of protection to take home, I was already sold. They now stand rich with memories, unmoving, with their exaggerated features, spindly arms, and gold detail in the dining room.

This ancient form of puppetry is believed to have spread across the island of Java from 800–1500 during the Hindu-Buddhist period. The main story lines derive from the classic Hindu epic tales Ramayana and Mahabharata. Behind the screen with the puppeteer (Dalang) and puppets is a gamelan orchestra accompanying the narrative with sounds and music. (Select the video tab).  The stories have always been both a form of entertainments as well as a means to instill cultural values and shared philosophy.


As I was preparing this post, my email update from the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce arrived. This organization led by the exceptionally knowledgeable Wayne Forrest is based in New York. Wayne studied Bahasa Indonesia during college and lived in Java as a young man studying gamelan. The AICC provides members with information, resources and business contacts to those interested in doing business with Indonesia.  Most recently they announced a strategic partnership with the US Asean Business Council.

Wayne’s Executive Summary this month makes use of two key figures from the shadow puppet pantheon to illustrate the similarities and differences between current candidates in the upcoming Indonesian presidential elections. As the Javanese are the largest ethnic group in Indonesia, they are an important vote to cultivate. To that end one of Indonesia's most famous puppet masters has set the stage for comparison by associating each candidate with a well known puppet character (the brothers Puntadewa and Bima from Mahabharata) as a highly effective means to communicate to the Javanese commonly understood and distinctive character traits.

Wisnu vishnu Wayang Textiil Blog
Wisnu - The God of Protection

On our most recent visit to Java, friends who live in Solo/Surakarta spoke very highly of Joko Widodo (Jokowi).  Jokowi was the mayor of Solo before becoming governor of Jakarta -- and now a presidential candidate. They remarked on Jokowi's strong support of the arts (Solo is a significant batik making center), as well as his success with much needed infrastructure projects. Bravo!


The literature major in me is always interested in the power of shared stories -- and in this case proffering a glimpse of what the future might hold for Indonesia. 


Wayang kulit: Cultural treasure past and present


Asian Art Museum