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The Venerable Shadow Puppets of Indonesia

September 17th, 2010 by

Tourists who yearn for authentic cultural experiences in Indonesia must definitely try a shadow puppet show. Wayang Kulit (literally “shadow skin”), is the most popular version of the art form and is most prevalent in Java and Bali. Other incarnations of this highly distinctive UNESCO Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity endure throughout Indonesia. If you have a trip to Indonesia in mind, be sure to inquire at your Bali hotel (or Java hotel for that matter) about notable shadow puppet performances on the island.

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Without question, Wayang  Kulit is one of the most venerable forms of traditional storytelling in the world. The custom is particularly strong in central Java.

The shadow puppets are actually made from buffalo skin. Their thin profiles are the only elements utilized during a show. Characteristically, all puppets are made the same. Arms are excessively long and the upper part of the body is turned to make both shoulders visible.   Additionally, the head and the lower part of the body face the same direction. The entire torso of the puppet is supported by a stick, which the puppeteer maneuvers during performances.

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For embellishment, the shadow puppets are adorned with sparkling stones, clothes, flamboyant head pieces and unique facial marks. Colors vary as well, ranging from dark to intensely brilliant, depending on the time and nature of the show. All in all, making a Wayang Kulit figure that is worthy for public performance involves a certain number of people working closely together as a team. The entire process can take a couple of weeks.

Since the Wayang Kulit makes use of harmonious blending of both light and shadow, a white screen is used as a stage for the entire show. In olden times, oil lamps were used to bring out the shadows. These days, it’s common practice to use halogen electric lights behind the white screen. The puppeteer can simply shift the puppets in and out of the screen and the light source. Arms are conjoined at the elbows and shoulders with the use of small nails or tacks.  Long sticks are attached to the hands which allow the puppeteer to manipulate the arms and make them move in different directions. This flexibility makes movements alive and realistic.

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Each show is accompanied by a gamelan – an Indonesian musical ensemble that originated from Bali and Java. A complete performance involves a puppet master (dalang), a female singer (sinden) and various players (nayaga). The success and beauty of every performance rests mainly on the dalang, as he serves as the de facto narrator.  Narration is not easy as the puppet master has to modify his voice and set the tone for the entire story.

These shadow puppet performances revolve around ancient tales and versions of timeless Hindu epics like the Mahabarata and Ramayana.  Some tales take on more current subject matters and typically, good always prevails over evil.

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