A flickering candle and a capable storyteller are all these Indonesian shadow puppets need to take on enchanted forms and mystical powers. Shadows come to life in the artful hands of an Indonesian dalang (master puppeteer), an expert storyteller who animates flat leather puppets behind a backlit screen to create dazzling dramatizations of secular and religious tales.
Hundreds of years before the advent of moving images, these wayang kulit scenes—accompanied by ethereal gamelan music, played on xylophones, , drums, gongs, bamboo flutes, and strings—brought colorful myths, morality tales, Indian and Persian epics, political commentary, and social satire to center stage in the royal courts and rural areas of Java and Bali.
The term for puppetry, wayang, comes from the Indonesian word for shadow bayang. Wayang kulit, shadow puppetry using figures made from water buffalo hide, is considered to be the oldest freestanding puppet form; the earliest references to it date from the 800s. A court poet during the reign of King Airlangga (1035–1049) wrote: “There are people who weep, are sad and aroused watching the puppets, though they know they are merely carved pieces of leather manipulated and made to speak. These people are like men who, thirsting for sensuous pleasures, live in a world of illusion; they do not realize the magic hallucinations they see are not real.”1
While elaborately decorated and dressed three-dimensional wooden puppets are also part of a dalang’s repertoire, it’s the mystical movements of shadow puppets that light up the night.The complete wayang kulit troupes include dalang (puppet master), nayaga (gamelan players), and sinden (female choral singer). Some of the nayaga also performed as male choral singer. The dalang (puppet master) play the wayang behind the cotton screen illuminated by oil lamp or modern halogen lamp, creating visual effects similar to animation. The thin puppet is animated by the movement of hands connected with joints manipulated through rods handle made of carved buffalow’s horn. UNESCO designated Wayang Kulit from Indonesia as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003.
Travelers to Bali can seek out traditional performances of wayang kulit and watch as timeless tales take shadowy form in Indonesia’s iconic expression of Cultural Heritage.