This essay explores wayang kulit, a unique and precious Indonesian art form. Wayang kulit is an indigenous Indonesian performance art that has been cherished for many centuries and that forms a critical part of the native musical tradition of that uniquely multicultural nation.
Wayang kulit is a form of puppetry that is widely encountered on the Indonesian islands of Java, Bali, and Lombok. The words actually mean “leather puppet” in the predominant Bahasa Indonesia language. The wayang kulit figures, which are carved from leather by expert craftsman, are interposed between a translucent linen screen, and their shadows are projected upon the screen from behind by using a traditional coconut oil lamp. The interplay of the shimmering light and the dancing shadows, silhouetted behind the screen for the pleasure of the audience, makes for a dramatic performance venue in which the puppeteers act out classical dramas that treat grandiose themes of good and evil (Blumenthal 236ff.).
At the beginning of the performance, the puppets are withdrawn from a wooden chest with great flair. During the performance, this chest serves as a percussion instrument upon which the essential rhythm of the musical accompaniment is tapped out. The musicians other than the drummer are typically silent. At the sound of a cymbal from the puppeteer, the musicians embark on various melodic themes that conform to the traditional Indonesian musical style known as gamelan angklung (“Instruments”).
Wayang kulit derived from wayang golek, an art form that arrived in Indonesia from India, where Hindu settlers established outposts in such remote islands as Bali (Blumenthal 236ff.). Performances traditionally portrayed various scenes from the immortal epics, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, that play such formative roles in the foundation of Hindu morality and culture (Priyadarshini).
Wayang golek puppets were made of wooden rods and were built in the shapes of various godly, human, and animal characters. The puppeteers manipulated the puppets by sticks of that were either made of bamboo or carefully etched from animal horn. These sticks, which were attached to strategic points on the puppets’ limbs and joints, were sufficiently thin and fragile as to be nearly or entirely invisible to the audience in the dim theater lighting (Blumenthal 236ff.). Muslims who later rose to power suppressed the art form because they believed that the direct display of human and animal forms violated the proscriptions of the Qur’an (Blumenthal 203). By re-creating the puppets in leather, artists achieved a certain abstractness of form that met with the approval of the Muslim authorities, provided that performances were not visible directly but, rather, projected in silhouette so that the details of the characters’ forms would be left to the human imagination rather than explicitly displayed in violation of Islamic precept (Blumenthal 236ff.).
The wayang kulit puppets vary from 10 to 30 inches in height. Critical characters within the performances are typically represented by a series of puppets so that they can facilely be displayed in a wider variety of poses. The important characters are usually represented by several puppets each. Each puppet is built from the hide of either a goat or a species of domestic water buffalo native to the Indonesian archipelago, which is cured for up to ten years to give it the particular texture and quality necessary to carve and adorn it for the shadow play. The detailed elaboration of the figures is directly responsible for the impressions that their shadows evoke in the audience. The figures are actually carved using a combination of special tools, including a mallet and a tatah, which is similar to a hole punch (Blumenthal 236ff.).
Works Cited Blumenthal, Eileen. Puppetry: A World History. Harry N. Abrams, 2005. “Instruments of Angklung.” Anak Swarasanti. Retrieved from http://www.anakswarasanti.com/instruments/angklung.php. Priyadarshini, S. “Ramayana and Mahabharata – Epic Literatures.” History Discussion. Retrieved from http://www.historydiscussion.net/history-of-india/ramayana-and-mahabharata-epic-literatures/2372.
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