In wayang kulit, hand-crafted puppets are used to perform epic tales of good and evil, Asian Art Newspaper explores the world of Indonesia’s popular form of shadow theatre.
The wayang kulit shadow play is one of the oldest existing theatre traditions in Asia, where stories about life and the world are still enacted for audiences in Java, Bali and Lombok. It is a form of wayang theatre found across Indonesia with performances often continuing throughout the night. This exhibition, in Switzerland, presents for the first time the significant wayang kulit collection of Tina and Paul Stohler, featuring precious and striking figures of gods, spirits, and ancestors. The exhibition focuses on the stories the figures have to tell about heroes and demons, morals and virtues, and the deeper meaning of life.
The term wayang incorporates the words yang, eyang, or hyang which can all mean ancestor, or deity. Kulit means ‘skin’, the material the figures are made out of. Thus, a literal translation of the term wayang kulit would be the theatre in which the immortalised ancestors and deities appear in the shape of figures made of skin.
Origins of Wayang Kulit
The origins of wayang kulit remain unknown to this day; it was first mentioned in a Javanese poem from the 12th century, but it is presumably older than that and emerged in connection with other similar Asian forms of theatre. We are dealing with a tradition which is of great significance in Java even today. The intent and purpose of each and every play is to provide the audience with entertaining, spiritual-moral, historical-political insight and education – at the same time, the emphasis is clearly on entertainment.
With the exception of the major Angkor exhibition in 2007, the art of Southeast Asia has not featured prominently at the Rietberg Museum in recent years. This was to change in 2016, when the wife of the late collector Paul Stohler, Tina Stohler, donated the significant collection of Javanese shadow play figures her husband had assembled to the museum. The figures are now presented to the general public for the first time in this exhibition, along with selected pieces from the ethnographic museums in Zurich and Burgdorf.
Every performance opens to the sound of a gamelan orchestra which can be heard from afar and attracts the audience. The orchestra consists of roughly 25 musicians playing a variety of gongs, metallophones, and xylophones. The old Javanese melodies are accompanied by the voices of a number of female singers. As soon as the story begins, the choice and pace of songs is orchestrated by the puppeteer; he is seconded by an assistant who successively hands him the figures. The shadows they throw are projected by a light located above the puppeteer’s head on to a white screen.
Wayan Kulit Performances Can Last All Night
The performance commences in the evening and continues through the night until the early morning hours. The venue is either a covered pavilion or a large, free-standing marquee; the physical well- being of all participants is provided for. Depending on a puppeteer’s popularity, performances are quite expensive; they are often sponsored either by a company, the respective town, an institution, or a wealthy private individual. Private performances are very rare, since the plays are primarily meant for a large audience.
Traditionally, the spectators were seated on the shadow side of the projection screen – where only the figures’ outlines and the intricate designs of the puppets can be seen – representing a timeless, mystical space. However, today, audiences prefer to gather at the side of the puppeteer, where they can marvel at the stunning variety of shiny golden figures.
The Mahabharata Provides and Endless Source of Stories for Wayang Kulit
The stories tell of the ongoing battle between the forces of good and evil. They deal with life and death, self-knowledge and the becoming of self, but also about love and the inevitability of fate. In the end, they are about the search for the secret of life and ultimate wisdom. The heroes are faced with unsolvable challenges; danger awaits them in form of mean, aggressive giants, while false friends and advisers attempt to deceive them. But the stories also deal with the fact that every ‘good’ person has to conquer his own weaknesses and that many ‘bad’ people also carry in them a trace of goodness. The battle scenes are especially popular because they offer the puppeteer the chance to display all his skills. The figures are whirled through the air and crash against the screen while drum beats and special light effects add to the drama.
Apart from foundation myths and sagas about regional heroes, the Mahabharata provides an almost endless source of stories, and is therefore highly popular. The Mahabharata is an originally Indian epic story that found its way to Java along trade routes roughly 2,000 years ago. In the process, the story was adapted to its new cultural environment, in the sense that some of the spelling changed, the main protagonists were given Javanese names, and that all the locations and events refer exclusively to the local landscape and history. The Mahabharata tells of the family feud between the Korawas and their cousins, the Pandawas.
In the story tradition, a distinction is made between so-called stem stories and branch stories. The stem stories provide details concerning the characters’ social standing and fate. These are unchangeable. The branch stories, on the other hand, are freely fabricated. They explain how or why something came to pass as it did. The fates of the individual figures are the subject of lively discussions, not least because every puppeteer has his own version and interpretation of the story.
Wayang Kulit tells the Story of Good and Evil
In every story, two sides, the left and the right, fight against each other. The good-natured characters are positioned on the right, the mean-spirited on the left. The mean- spirited include figures who only think and act for their own benefit and do not shy away from lies and intrigues, while the good-natured always consider their fellow men, practise mindfulness, and act in a way that reflects their affinity with the universe.
There are several features that reveal the nature of heroes: fine and noble characters are indicated by almond shaped eyes, a narrow, closed mouth, an elongated forehead, a pointed nose, a narrow waist, and legs held parallel. A black-hued face or body is a sign of high self-control. The smaller the figure, the more exalted its state of consciousness. In contrast, there are large, mighty figures which are prone to excessive violence. These characters are often ill-behaved in the classical sense, they have loud voices and act rashly and impudently. Self-control and focused concentration are beyond them. They tend to have round, protruding eyes and noses, a knobbly forehead, and a large open mouth with conspicuous lips. The red colouring of the body or face is a sign of their unrestrained impulsiveness, often expressed in fits of rage.
In Java, the model of a noble character is a human being who rests in himself and acts compassionately. Attaining this state requires taming the passions and overcoming selfishness. Still, the wayang kulit makes no clear distinction between good and evil. Figures that do not try to give their best may be despised but they are still accepted socially, for there is no good without evil.
Introducing the Characters of Wayang Kulit
In the world of wayang kulit, it is assumed that in order to act well, people need advice. Acting correctly is no easy matter because often the passions tend to take over and distort judgement. Good advisers remind their clients of the importance of man‘s connection with the universe, which also connects people with each other. Semar and his brother Togog are deities who travel the world as wise servants and give counsel to noble lords. In all the stories, Semar provides guidance to the good-natured on the right-hand side, while his brother Togog counsels the figures on the left. The good-natured are grateful to Semar and draw comfort from him, while the mean-spirited ignore Togog’s advice throughout, at the price of death. The two advisers, Semar and Togog, rarely enter the stage together, but are usually in the company of their respective sons. All these figures represent the voice of the common people in their dealings with privileged nobles. They address issues that are of relevance to the audience and draw many laughs – thanks to their specific quirks. In addition, they speak common Indonesian – instead of noble Javanese.
How the Puppets Are Made
In Indonesia, the puppets are made out of animal skin, with the best quality traditionally coming from ritually slaughtered water buffaloes from Sulawesi. After prolonged drying, a specialist thins down the skin and carefully removes the remaining fat layer and hairs, leaving a roughly 1mm thick parchment; this is then sold to a wayang kulit workshop where the figures are punched, painted, and gilded. The punching and painting are done according to traditional methods that vary in detail from region to region. The painting is identical on both sides. The colours of the face and body provide clues as to the figure’s character. Many figures are also gilded; the gold enhances a figure’s durability and value, but says nothing about its character. The main rod and hand sticks made of horn, wood, or plastic are produced by a different artisan and fastened to the figure afterwards.
During the 1990s, the composition of the paints changed. Instead of colours based on fish glue with pigments and extenders, artisans began using acrylic paints. The fish glue-based paints create a slightly thicker layer which is why older figures tend to have a smoother surface. In Java, many of the really old figures have no colour at all, since all the paints have flaked off through use. The figures held in European collections bear evidence of this ancient painting technique.
The Dalang, the Puppet Master
The puppeteer, or puppet master, in Wayang Kulit is called dalang. Colloquially he is often also referred to as ‘Mastermind’ owing to the tremendously wide range of knowledge he has to command. In total there are around 500 characters whose traits and features he must be familiar with in order to convey to the audience the wisdom of Javanese ethics and moral, while recounting each figure’s fate. Thus, the dalang is a performer, poet, and philosopher in one. He knows all the stories by heart and needs no script. And since every performance is an event to itself, no story is ever told in the same way, instead it is always reinterpreted and adapted to the specific occasion.
Famous dalang usually come from old dalang families. Javanese values and beliefs are imparted to them from childhood on and they begin to practise the voices and movements of the various figures from early on. Since the mid-20th century, the art of puppeteering is also taught at colleges of art in central Java, but until now the schools have failed to produce any really famous dalang. Every dalang has to be officially registered; at present there are roughly 5,000 practising dalang in Java. Each generation yields a handful of famous and three to four super dalang. Owing to their popularity, they, at times, are asked to put on a show just about every evening, certainly every weekend. In central Java shadow plays are scheduled every weekend, at times with several plays being performed on the same night.
The Development of The Stories and Characters
Shadow theatre continues to develop characters and stories and a number of dalang have succeeded in expanding the classical art tradition by advancing new stories and figures. An impressive example of this development is Dalang Ki Entus Susmono (1966–2018), who gained international acclaim with his Wayang Rai Wong figures (rai – face, wong – human). With the aim of reaching a younger audience, he had figures made whose faces looked more human-like. In addition to the old narratives, he created new stories, for example, about the futility of war, featuring figures such as Osama bin Laden and George W Bush. But he also did things such as replace famous traditional advisers with Teletubbies or Gatotkaca with Superman – to name but two examples. You can watch some of these new stories in the Asia Society performance from 2012.
Another modern puppeteer is Dalang Ki Sukasman (1943–2009), who studied Decorative Art and Graphic Design at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts in Yogyakarta. After attaining his degree, he lived in Rotterdam for many years where he worked as a stage designer where he found inspiration in European art forms. In his opinion, the design of the figures was not meant to go unchanged forever, so he began producing his own figures with an individual, avant garde touch to the puppets.
Until 29 November, 2020, Javanese Shadow Theatre, at Museum Rietberg, Zurich, rietberg.ch