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Wayang Kulit Puppet Theatre in Indonesia

This art from ancient times is fascinating even without understanding the language—enjoy the music and the mysterious dance of shadows!

Wayang Kulit Puppet Theatre
Wayang Kulit Puppet Theatre

Though more than 1,000 years old, this performance still sticks to most of the ancient rituals and topics as in antiquity. 'Wayang' in Indonesian means 'puppet', but it is also used for referring to the theatre in general.

Wayang Kulit is a puppet shadow theatre that was inscribed in the UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity list. There are two kinds of puppets used for the performance—three-dimensional wooden and flat leather puppets, but both of them are used to create shadow projections on a screen, and both have very detailed features, facial expressions, and clothing.

A puppeteer or dalang uses wooden sticks to control the characters, while many singers and musicians accompany the performance with songs and melodies. Most of the scenes showcase various Hindu epics about the never-ending fights between gods and kings, good and evil.

Wayang Kulit puppet theatre stems from Java's cultural traditions and is therefore known as Javanese shadow theatre. Today it's popular in Yogyakarta, Central Java and East Java, but also in Bali.

You may still witness performances held in Java on feast days. In particular, Wayang Kulit performances are held on a regular basis at the Palace of Yogyakarta and Keraton Solo.

Being very popular in the past, Wayang Kulit puppet theatre is unfortunately in decline as not so many young people want to visit such performances. Therefore, all-night plays were shortened to just two hours. Interestingly, once men could watch Wayang Kulit only from in front of the screen, while women, on the contrary, sat behind and saw the orchestra as well as coloured puppets manipulated by a dalang. The custom is no longer live, and both men and women are free to watch the plays from whichever side they prefer.

Practical info

When and where can I witness Wayang Kulit performances in Indonesia?

Feast days in Java offer an opportunity to witness Wayang Kulit performances. They can be seen at the Palace of Yogyakarta, Keraton Solo, and in Bali. Although the traditional Javanese shadow theatre has declined, people can still attend some performances. It is advisable to check local events schedules in advance to ensure you do not miss the show. Show more

What is the origin of Wayang Kulit puppet theatre?

The Wayang Kulit is a traditional shadow puppet theatre that originated over 1,000 years ago in Java. It features ancient rituals and stories from Hindu epics, depicting everlasting battles between gods, royalty, and good and evil. It reflects Javanese cultural heritage, and every region has developed its unique version of a performance. Today, the Javanese Wayang Kulit is globally recognised as the most popular form of the theatre art. Show more

How are wooden and flat leather puppets used differently in the performance?

Wooden and flat leather puppets are the two types used in the Wayang Kulit puppet theatre. Both puppets are used to create shadows on a screen with wooden puppets being robust and flat leather puppets being delicate enough for refined characters such as maidens and princes. The wooden puppets have intricate facial features and garments, and the dalang (puppeteer) controls them with wooden sticks during the performance. Show more

What traditional themes and stories are showcased in Wayang Kulit performances?

Wayang Kulit performances typically highlight Hindu epics portraying never-ending battles between gods, royalty, good, and evil. Among the most frequently performed stories are Ramayana and Mahabharata, with distinct regional variants. The performances combine visual and auditory components, with the dalang operating the puppets, providing dialogue and singing, and an accompanying orchestra provides music and songs. Show more

What is the reason for the decline in popularity of Wayang Kulit puppet theatre?

The popularity of Wayang Kulit has declined owing to younger generations losing interest in attending performances. The performances that were once all-night are now only two hours. Additionally, the traditional practice of separating the audience by gender is no longer followed, and people can now sit anywhere. There is a renewed effort to revive interest in Wayang Kulit across Indonesia. Show more

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Last updated: by Eleonora Provozin