The Lordly Shades : Wayang Kulit


Some of my junior high school friends said that I was an old lady trapped in girl`s body because of my interest in wayang kulit. Back then, some junior high school and high school friend choose to enjoy modern superhero character or manga more than character in wayang kulit/leather puppet. It`s difficult to explain, but I feel the leather puppet characters are mysterious and unique. As I remember, I started to draw one of wayang kulit`s character on my second year of junior high school and then I started to learn to make wayang kulit when I was in university. I learn from Mr.Sagio, he taught me a lot about the leather puppet history, meaning, and making process. Below are the freehand sketch of Mr.Sagio`s wayang character named : Betara Guru (black and white sketch) and Sang Hyang Anantaboga (fullcolor sketch).


And here are the wayang kulit photos from Mr.Sagio`s workshop :



One traditional source said that the word wayang was found in an ancient inscription dating from about A.D 860. On this period, the wayang was called wayang purwa refer to the oldest wayang kulit stories performed in Java. It is considered as sacred object (pusaka).The stories from this ancient inscriptions were stories inscribed on palm leaves with a sharp stylus called lontar leaves.

After the version of wayang purwa, there’s a development of paper technology called wayang beber. Wayang beber was not used for art performance but for specific rituals such as exorcism of spirits. Wayang is connected with exorcism because the term of wayang mean bayangan or shadow. The shadow in this case serve as for calling the spirit of the deceased back. Reason for calling back the spirits of the dead are many, for example : ceremony perform to Javanese children born in inauspicious day , to ask advice or help in overcoming problems related to disharmony in the spirit world, which for the Javanese is important even now. The master puppeteers has also often been regarded as in other world cultures because he acts as medium between the world of spirits and gods.

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The Wayang Puppet Theatre Full Team in Jogja Palace (1986)

Source : Chepas,KITLV Universiteit Leiden The Netherlands

On the colonial period, the wayang puppet theatre mostly acts as art performance rather than exorcism and sacred objects. They adjust the duration that fit into performance frame in night fair festival pasar malam. They give additional message to the audience about current politic problems, movement and updated news into the puppet theatre. Even though there’s modification inside wayang puppet theatre’s scene, the philosophy message from the puppet’s stories and character’s remain the same to Javanese people. The message of wayang puppet theatre are often as universal as they are characteristically Javanese, as we shall see, hidden in the midst of an elaborate series of conventional scenes and dramatic metaphor.




For example, there’s a term of alus and kasar which has paradox type of personality. Alus is a Javanese word which has several meanings. It refines manner, never speaking ill to others, polite and also humble. Its opposite which is kasar, form the rude and worst personality. The characters in wayang puppet theatre divided into two side which stands on the right side from the master puppeteers represents good personality (alus) and the left side represents bad personality (kasar). Javanese people use wayang kulit’s character for defining real life situations, problems and solutions. They often give the name of great character/figure to their children, or use them to describe someone’s character.

If a Javanese said : “ He looks like Bima”, Javanese will know immediately what he meant. He must be physically burly, aggressive, big, and act on what he believes. He must also has infinite kindness and firm adherence to principle make Bima a heroic figure that no one can criticize. When Javanese call some looks like Arjuna, he is considered to be near ideal character. He is notorious lady killer because of his soft personalities admired by some women’s. He is considered as alus.

If I were asked, who is my fave character from wayang kulit, I will say Arjuna because he likes “berkelana” going somewhere far to learn and find new experiences.

Here is my 15minutes sketch of Arjuna.


While my teacher, Mr.Sagio said that his favorite is Hanoman, the white monkey. He admires hanoman because hanoman is humble and never fails doing the task.


Javanese puppet theatre has maintained its basic convention for a number of centuries, but has experienced vigorous change in the area of its story material. Aside from the classical wayang purwa story cycles, which are the main consideration of the following chapters, each area has added new legends and materials with names. Recently, the wayang puppet theatre has been used in such apparently vastly different context as retelling the history of Indonesian independence. In the village or small city in Indonesia, the wayang puppet theatre still have regular scheduled to be performed because it is still part of the life cycle of the inhabitants such as born period, marriage, harvest time and Indonesia’s independence day anniversary.

But for for bigger cities, where the impact of modernization may have reduced the role of wayang puppet theatre in the minds of people. While sociological circumstances have changed, the wayang puppet theatre remains very much a part of the Javanese way of life.

Do you also have some interest into wayang kulit/leather puppet? Please share your story at the comments! Thank you for reading, comments are loved.

Photo credits : faniatmanti

References :

Prawirohardjo, Shita. Javanese Wayang Kulit. Oxford University Press. 1980

Ulbricht, H. Wayang Purwa : Shadow of the Past. Oxford University Press. 1972

Cohen, Matthew Isaac. Contemporary Wayang in Global Context. Asian Theatre Journal Volume 24 No 2 . 2007

Jan Mrázek, ed. Puppet Theater in Contemporary Indonesia: New Approaches to Performance Events. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Centers for South and Southeast Asian Studies. 2002

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