Shadow Puppet Theatre in Southeast Asia

Naga, a mythical serpent, West Java, hide, wood, gold leaf, late 1700s to early 1800s, Raffles Collection © The Trustees of the British Museum

CANDLES FLICKER in the dark and magical shadows move across a white screen. As the music of bamboo and wood instruments starts, the adventures of mythical demons and goddesses, heroes and villains, epic battles, magic spells and unrequited love unfold in the form of silhouettes. It’s time for shadow puppet theatre!

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These tales are recounted at night, in the balmy warmth of the tropics, in a temple compound or in a rice field, manoeuvred by five or six puppeteers who are concealed behind a white screen which is illuminated by candles. The puppeteers manipulate the shadow puppets so that the silhouette is visible from the other side where spectators sit and watch.

The puppeteers may even periodically make an appearance. Narrators stand in front, giving information, chanting and singing, helping the audience, who are seated on the ground on mats, to understand the tale that is unfolding.

For Audiences of All Ages

Shadow puppet theatre is not just for children but for audiences of all ages and the traditions exist throughout Asia. The shadows create a sense of mystery and divine inspiration, having their roots in religious observances. They are considered sacred, embodying Buddhism, Hinduism, Brahmanism and ancestor worship.

The art of the puppeteer developed from ancient animistic beliefs whereby every object, animate or inanimate, has a soul. Puppets are treated with respect, revered as receptacles of living energy. Prayers and offerings precede each performance, accompanied by music, as the puppet masters, dalang, ask for blessings and protection and pay homage to their teachers.

Exhibition of Shadow Puppet Theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand

A new exhibition at the British Museum, Shadow Puppet Theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, curated by Dr Alexandra Green, draws on the unique Southeast Asian puppet collection at the museum, explores the relationships between the traditions of the different countries and looks at the adaptations that shadow theatre has made to changing contexts over time.

Dr Green, who is Henry Ginsberg Curator for Southeast Asia at the British Museum, has organised the display in conjunction with Matthew Isaac Cohen, Professor of International Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London, a practising dalang, who studied in Surakarta and has research interests in Indonesian performing arts and traditions of puppetry around the world.

Wayang Kulit

On display are wayang kulit, shadow puppets from early 19th century Java, a highly developed form of shadow theatre dating back to the 11th century, played in villages to mark rituals such as marriage or circumcision. They were collected by the founder of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant Governor of Java between 1811-1814.

Sir Stamford Raffles Was and Avid Collector

Raffles (1781-1826), an avid collector who was fascinated by the artistic culture he found in Java, acquired two different types: wayang purwa, the original and most popular form, based on tales from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and wayang madya, based on medieval Javanese romantic tales about the princes Panyi and Damarwulan. This oldest known collection of 350 pieces, containing the earliest datable and finest examples of shadow puppets, given to the British Museum in 1859 by his family, forms one of the most fascinating parts of the exhibition.

The wayang kulit shadow puppets – wayang, although translated as ‘shadow’, is a more general term referring to both the theatre and the puppets themselves – exist in two forms: large perforated leather puppets, a classical form with religious origins, and small leather puppets, popular in the countryside and village shows.

Puppets are Made from Cow or Buffalo Hide

They are made up of figures cut from dried cow or water buffalo hide that is cured and becomes more parchment than leather. Referred to as ‘hides’, the smaller ones are articulated, their arms being moved with sticks, made of carved buffalo horn, and the larger ones, weighing up to eight kilos, are not moveable and are not, strictly speaking, puppets.

It takes about three weeks to create one puppet. Fresh cow or water buffalo skin, but also bear, deer, and other animals, is soaked in a solution of tree bark and water, cured and stretched out tightly on a frame and dried in the sun for two weeks, so the process can only be done in the dry season. The outline of the puppet is cut using a special, thick knife and the minute details carved out with a chisel and a hammer.

They are usually copied from a master stencil and are highly stylised. When the cutting is finished the moveable arms are attached and the puppet painted. Lines are drawn and accentuated with black ink. The figures are painted even though the colours are not visible in the shadow representation, but only to the puppeteer. Ravanna, for example, being a villain, has a face painted lurid red.

By contrast, Sita, the princess, Rama’s wife, or Arjuna, hero of the Mahabharata, are delicately drawn with slender bodies and costumes painted gold, and faces coloured in black to suggest dignity and wisdom.

Normal Set of Puppets Comprise About 154 Characters

The normal set of puppets has about 154 characters, and there may be as many as 200-300 in a troupe. The most important characters may be represented in three different postures, walking, fighting and sitting. Innumerable secondary puppets representing birds and animals, houses and trees and even cars and aeroplanes in modern sets, add to the drama and sometimes frenzied pace of the stories, accompanied by cymbals and drums and, in Indonesia, gamelan orchestras.

Many of the puppets are generic, playing different roles as deemed necessary. The principal figures, especially Prince Rama from the Ramayana, an avatar of the god Vishnu, for example, Bima, from the Mahabharata, in Java, and the puppet of a holy man used to mark the beginning of a performance in Thailand and Malaysia, the sacred clown figure of Pak Dogol from Malaysia, are considered to be sacred and treated accordingly, stored separately from the others, wrapped in sacred specially woven cloth and kept with offerings such as flowers.

The Dramas Re-enacted Are Usually Episodes from the Hindu Epics

The dramas re-enacted consist usually of episodes from the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, that originated in India and arrived in Southeast Asia via maritime trade routes, together with locally developed stories based on characters from these narratives, Buddhist and Islamic tales and the jatakas, the stories of the lives of the Buddha.

Interspersed with these are numerous comic scenes, full of slapstick humour, inspired by rural life that, like fables, offer a moral reflection on the nature of existence. Shadow puppets can have such sacred qualities that they are used in divination, to create holy water or to heal or purify.

Links with the spiritual world have also led to the use of shadow puppet imagery in other contexts as, for example, in ancient Java where there was a cult to Bima, one of the Pandava brothers from the Mahabharata epic, who was a symbol of courage, justice and strength. Imagery suggestive of the shadow puppet form of Bima can be found on the stone reliefs from Sukuh temple in Java that dates to the 1400s.

The British Museum has several examples of this puppet character, as well as drawings of the Sukuh reliefs, that were gathered by Raffles between 1811 and 1816. In fact, a puppet of Bima figured in the landmark BBC Radio 4 series by then Director Neil MacGregor: A History of the World in 100 Objects (it was number 83).

The puppet in the exhibition reveals characteristics of a warrior, such as a wide-legged stance. His black painted face symbolises maturity and his slightly bowed head represents patience. Bima’s long thumbnails, Pancanaka, are used to stab enemies and tear through obstacles. His princely status is suggested by elaborate costume and adornment and the red, black and white chequered cloth signify courage (red), purity (white) and resolution (black).

Dramas Show the Struggle Between Chaos and Harmony

Shadow puppet theatre represents maintenance of hierarchy and social organisation and, therefore, harmony, and it also signifies the surrounding universe, symbolising the struggles between harmony and chaos, good and evil, and endeavouring to achieve a balance between them.

That delicate balance is fundamental to performing arts and spiritual life in Bali and the exhibition displays wayang kulit puppets that were made mostly on the southern part of the island, but also includes a group presented as an official gift to Queen Elizabeth II. From Malaysia, famous puppeteers from the state of Kelantan, Pak Awang Lah and Pak Hamzah, produced most of the Malaysian and the wayang siam collection, and the nang talung puppets that originated in the southern provinces of Thailand.

Nang Yai Puppet Theatre from Thailand

The exhibition shows just one nang yai puppet from the central Thai courtly performance tradition. In Thailand the nang yai are often large and depict whole scenes as well as individual characters. Used for official and royal court ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals, they were also traditionally part of public entertainment and date back to the Sukhothai kingdom of 13th to 15th centuries. The performances were of the Ramayana, adapted in Thailand as the Ramakien, now considered a national epic, infused with Buddhist principles as well as Hindu.

The Art of the Puppeteer

The art of the puppeteer involves not only the fabrication and manipulation of the figures but also a prodigious memory to re-enact a considerable repertoire of stories. These are transmitted orally and puppeteers do not use a script when performing but improvise while also relying on their memory. They need to be familiar with all the characters, frequently changing their voices. The narrator structures and leads, editing and arranging the show.

Shows Are Usually Commissioned for Shadow Puppet Theatre

Shows are usually commissioned and traditionally a performance lasts all night, from dusk to dawn, but audiences are free to come and go as they please, departing for a break and returning for a favourite scene, but always being part of a sacred ritual. They have been commercialised in some areas for entertainment and shorter performances have been created for tourists, thus promoting cultural heritage.

Set of Modern Thai Puppets

A set of modern Thai puppets is on display which reveal contemporary fashion and pop culture and aspects of 20th-century life. From Java there are wayang hip-hop puppets representing the sons of a Javanese clown figure. These are displayed for the first time.

There are also representations of military figures, bureaucrats, even bandits, some holding mobile phones. The Wayang Museum in Jakarta, which is dedicated to wayang kulit and wayang golek (marionettes), has many interesting examples of contemporary political figures and situations.

Electricity Rather Than Candles for Shadow Puppet Theatre

Nowadays, electric lights rather than candles or oil lamps are used, and in some instances, electric instruments are played alongside earlier musical forms such as gamelan. Newer stories referring to local social and political events have emerged where the traditional balance between harmony and chaos is not necessarily established during the performance, rendering a more realistic view of life.

But mass media has created celebrities of some of the puppeteers and performances are also broadcast on the internet. Shadow puppet forms have been used in painting, drama and dance and even in comic books and video games. Coins and medals decorated with shadow puppet figures were once worn in Malaysia and Indonesia as love charms and also for protection. In Thailand, the famous clown puppets have become part of local identity and are even used in advertising campaigns.

Thus ancient artistic heritage is preserved and perpetuated. In 2003, UNESCO designated Indonesia’s wayang kulit as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. But this is an art form that is also evolving, making it accessible to new, younger generations and incorporating it into modern life and contemporary art.


Until 29 January 2017, Shadow Puppet Theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand is at the British Museum. Room 91, Great Russell Street, London,