Wayang Kulit

Wayang kulit is a traditional Javanese art in the form of shadow puppetry.  This art form is thought to have migrated to Indonesia with Hinduism about 2000 years ago.  The stories told in wayang kulit are almost always love stories from the Indian epics like the Ramayana.  The performances can be viewed from two sides; the side with the illuminated screen and shadows or the side with the gamelan orchestra, the colourfully painted puppets and the puppeteer.

The making of Wayang Kulit puppets

While visiting the sultan’s palace in Jogjakarta we were invited to see how the puppets were made.

Leather puppets before painting

The base material is raw buffalo skin which is used because it is thicker and stronger than other leathers, allowing the puppets to remain flat for longer.  The first craftsman will outline in pencil the shape of the puppet as well as where the many intricate holes are to be cut.  A second craftsman will then use a number of precision tool to hammer out the form and detailed holes.  The puppet is then passed off to be painted in a variety of colours.

Puppets being painted

All the colours have different meanings and are used in varying amounts depending on which character the puppet will eventually play.  Green represents fertility and is used on most female puppets, black represents strength of character and tends to be found on male puppets playing heros such as Rama.  Blue represents control and balance, pink represents happiness, gold represents wisdom and so on.

Completed leather puppets

After painting, the long arms are attached to the shoulders and the puppets in mounted on three pieces of buffalo bone or horn; two to the hands and one to the body.

Wayang Kulit shadow puppets

We were told that the puppets are made with unique features, like the elongated nose and thin arms, so as not to depict any particular race but to represent humanity as a whole.

First side of the tree of life

This puppet of the Tree of Life is painted differently on both sides to depict the constant personal struggle between good and evil.  On the one side the house represents the heart of an individual, the figures on either side are good spirits protecting the heart from evil; the tree represents the connection between the heart and the mind and the animals surrounding the tree represent different desirable personality traits like strength, intelligence and wisdom that the individual can strive towards as they grow.  On the reverse side is the depiction of the devil because everyone has two sides to their personality.  When this puppet is seen as a shadow one sees the house, protective spirits and tree regardless of which side it is placed to the screen from because everyone always want to show only their best attributes to the world.

Second side of the tree of life