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Wayang - The Masterpiece of Javanese Theatre

Wayang is the ancient puppet play from Java, Indonesia. The term Wayang is sometimes referred to the puppet itself. Other popular name is Wayang Kulit (Wayang means shadow; kulit means skin) as the puppets are made from the leather or buffalo skin, the material from which the puppets are carved and mounted on bamboo sticks. The performance of Wayang kulit is very unique as it uses the shadows of the puppets against a transparent screen lit from behind with an oil lamp as the light source and the shadows are casted on the screen. Today, Wayang performance in Java is using a halogen electric light, spotlights or colored lights instead of oil lamp.


The puppet master or the conductor of the play is called “Dalang”, who sits behind the screen, plays the puppet figures and narrates the story in Javanese language. The stories are habitually taken from the classic Indian epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana, which reflected the influence of Hinduism to Java before the 10th century. Sometimes the Dalang chooses other stories from Indonesian myths or Javanese folklore tales appropriate to the ritual events, like marriage or current local events and uses the story to deliver the important message to the audiences. The Dalang recites the story with full dramatic voice corresponding to the figures and characters of the puppets he plays to create suspense, humor or romantic scenes. He manipulates all the figures, modulates his voice and interprets each character to heighten the drama. The performance usually begins with court scenes illustrating kingdom and politicians discussing socio-economic issues.

The plays are accompanied by Gamelan, a traditional orchestra in the background to present a conventional resonant music which respond to the timing and direction of the Dalang. Thus, the play of Wayang Kulit is an exclusive combination of ritual, lesson and entertainment.

Invariably, the performance of Wayang will be presented all night long in front of hundreds of people who come to listen and watch their favorite Dalang. Many Dalang make their own Wayang figures which usually takes several weeks with some artists working together in groups. Dalang is still an honorable profession and merit respect from the people.

On 7 November 2003 UNESCO entitled Wayang Kulit as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity and required Indonesians to preserve their heritage. On the tenth anniversary of UNESCO’s acknowledgment, Lontar Foundation, an independent, non-profit organization based in Jakarta, Indonesia, presented “Wayang Educational Package” to promote this great heritage for appreciation, understanding and analysis of the Wayang Kulit tradition. The package consists of 6 documentary films of 6 wayang performances and its 7 books (2 containing Javanese language transcripts; 2 with Indonesian translations of the Javanese texts; 2 with English translations of the Javanese text; and 1 book containing the gamelan notation for the songs of the performance).

Two famous wayang episodes, Rama’s Crown (Makutharama), and The Grand Offering of the Kings (Sesaji Raja Suya) have been transcribed from live performances and translated into English by Kathryn Emerson, an American fluent in Javanese together with a star puppeteer, Purbo Asmoro.

“This is the first central Javanese wayang that has been recorded in its entirety with subtitles in English,” said Emerson. These books are valuable for use by educators to teach the art, wisdom, and cultural knowledge in the wayang tradition. For more detail about Wayang Education Package, please visit http://wayangedupackage,
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Content copyright © 2018 by Hanny Suriadi. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Hanny Suriadi. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Hanny Suriadi for details.


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