Kulit: shadow puppet performances
film The Year of Living Dangerously, set in Indonesia in 1965,
opens with a Wayang Kulit performance. President Sukarno himself
described 1965 as the year of living dangerously. The excellent
novel by Christopher J. Koch has a vivid description of a performance
and the theme runs through the story. These ancient, magical performances
are very atmospheric and seem to symbolise Indonesia. Many say
that Indonesian politics can only be understood in terms of the
Kulit performances are sacred and form part of many ceremonies
in village and family temples. Usually they accompany temple anniversaries
and rites of passage ceremonies, such as baby ceremonies, tooth-filings,
weddings and cremations. The performances have three functions
in Balinese society: they are instructive, entertaining and religious.
Wayang Kulit has profoundly affected the other Balinese arts.
performances bring together visual art, vocal and instrumental
music, drama, literature and dance. The puppeteer has to be expert
in all these arts.
shadow theatre exists, or has existed, in the lands between Turkey
and China. Many think that Indonesian shadow puppet performances
originated in India and that they came to Bali from Java between
the 11th and 14th centuries. An 11th century Balinese royal inscription
mentions a wayang performance. In the rest of Southeast Asia only
the night wayang is known.
performances are associated with the court, whereas Balinese performances
are a folk tradition and belong to the community as a whole. They
have developed separately. Javanese puppets are very stylised.
Kulit has been Bali's cinema for centuries, but it is primarily
a sacred matter. It has the sacred seriousness of classical Greek
drama. (Indeed the word drama comes from the Greek dromenon, a
religious ritual.) The word wayang means shadow and can refer
to the puppets or the show. It may be derived from hyang meaning
ancestor or gods. Alternatively it may be from bayan meaning shadow.
Kulit means leather or hide. The puppets are made out of cowhide.
first person to describe a Balinese Wayang Kulit performance was
Chinkah, a Siamese master of a junk, which landed in Bali in 1846.
The king of Klungkung gave a performance for him.
types of performance
are two types:
night wayang: wayang peteng
most common occurrence of the night wayang is during a temple
anniversary or odalan. Sometimes they are put on as thanks for
a prayer coming true or during the celebration of a wedding
The day wayang: wayang lemah
day wayang is the most revered of form of theatre in Bali. It
is performed for the gods and is regarded as an offering.
types of stories
types of wayang stories have become popular in Bali:
This depicts stories from the Mahabarata.
This tells stories of Rama.
Wayang Colon Arang
This tells the story of Rangda the witch.
The puppeteer, dalang, and his puppets
are treated with great respect. Indeed the dalang is a kind of
priest and before a performance says prayers to bring the puppets
to life. He can make holy water. When a dalang is consecrated,
the ceremony is similar to the consecration of a priest. It is
performed by a priest and takes place in the priest's or the dalang's
family temple. If low caste he is called jero and if high caste
he becomes a pemangku dalang. Dalangs are nearly always male.
He plays all the characters, in different voices, and controls
the gamelan by tapping his foot on his wooden box. He must be
able to quote long passages from memory as well as improvise jokes
and funny songs and know how to hold the attention of the audience
for many hours. Performances usually end at daybreak.
The most famous dalangs come from the village of Sukawati in south
Bali. There are half a dozen families, all related, who pass the
gift down from generation to generation. The word dalang comes
from the Javanese ngudal wulang, which means a spreading of education.
He has a duty to educate as well as entertain. It demands great
physical and mental stamina.
The audience is separated from the cross-legged dalang by a large
white cloth (kelir), about 6 feet in length, bordered in black
at the top and bottom and with red squares at the side. Behind
the cloth are the dalang, a flickering, hanging coconut-oil lamp
(damar) casting fluttering shadows on the sheet, the puppets of
flat leather and the dalang's two assistants (tututan), who sit
on either side of him and hand him the puppets. The puppets are
all placed in a yellow-green banana log (gedebong), at the base
of the screen, ready for action.
The dalang's puppet box is on his left. The filigree patterns
of the puppets show up on the screen when held up against the
oil lamp. Heroic figures are on the right and evil figures on
Behind the screen is a four or more piece gamelan, the Gender
Wayang. It is the most demanding of all gamelans. It is quite
an experience to go behind the screen and see how it is all done,
but the better experience is to watch the performance. They take
place at night and go on for hours.
The performances are the most literary and sophisticated of the
Balinese performing arts. The stories are taken from the Hindu
epics, the Mahabarata, the Ramayana and Prince Panji, with much
improvisation, sometimes about politics. Jokes are told. Battle
scenes are played out.
The dalang speaks in Kawi, which few understand. For the benefit
of the audience, four clowns, also played by the dalang, translate
and comment on the stories in Balinese. The clowns are the most
important characters. In the Mahabarata stories they are Tualen
and his son Mendah, servants of the Pandawas, and Delem and Sangut,
servants of the Korawas. They are Sudras and have the most individuality
of all the characters.
The story is finished in one sitting - unlike in Java, where it
can last for several days. The plots usually start and end in
the palace and take the viewer to the village and the forest.
The village represents civilization, so that dialogues take place
in the civilized world of the village, the court, the temple and
the home. Battles are fought in the forest, a place where the
hero also goes to meditate and make contact with unseen forces.
The dalang always starts with a long poetic introduction, when
he mentions the text from which the story is taken. Action and
dialogue take up the rest of the performance. Neither good nor
evil prevails in the end. It is a constant battle.
A standard collection comprises about 100 puppets, which are made
of cowhide with a tapering buffalo horn or wooden handle. The
handle ends in a point and is stuck into the banana stem, which
lies at the base of the screen. Each puppet is chiselled, coloured
and has a conventional headdress, which provides for instant recognition.
They are kept in a wooden chest in a prescribed order: those on
top are ritually the most important. The scenic one, the Kakayonan,
is the uppermost figure, followed by the Supreme god, Tunggal.
Ogres are on the bottom.
The figures are not naturalistic. They have disproportionately
long necks, very long arms, and toes that are not in the correct
position. The eyes and the headdress are the most important parts
of the puppet. The eyes reveal expression, the headdress status.
The forms may have been derived from temple sculptures and reliefs.
A special puppet, called the Kayonan,
in the shape of a tree, the tree of life, is waved by the dalang
to indicate the start of the story. The Kayonan brings the universe
and the warring parties into life. The puppet is also called the
Gegunungan, from the word for mountain and may represent Mahameru,
the Mountain of the Gods, the sacred centre of the universe. Mountains
and trees link the three zones of the underworld, earth and heaven.
Mountains arise out of the depths into the sky. Trees have roots
in the underworld and branches in the sky. Mountains also represent
stability and permanence and trees represent transience.
It is used to indicate scene changes and the end of the performance.
It can also be used to represent a forest, the sea, bathing places,
wind, rain, fire or a palace during the performance. More generally
it may represent the five elements that make up the universe:
air, wind, fire, water and earth.
The art of puppet-making is passed down from one generation to
the next. Apprenticeship takes between two and five years. The
puppet-maker will carry out a ceremony to Wisnu and Siwa before
he starts and will place an offering daily on a small shrine.
He wants to ensure that he remains in a state of ritual and spiritual
purity. When the puppets are finished, a Brahman priest consecrates
The puppets are painted using five basic colours: white, red,
yellow, black and blue. White is made from animal bones, black
from soot and yellow from stones found on Serangan Island in the
south coast of Bali. Gold leaf, prada, is used for the Kakayonan
and the costumes of the Ksatriya characters. The head is painted
The head, torso and legs are one piece. The arms are separate
and attached to the shoulders, so that they can move by means
of rods tied to the puppets' hands. They are all dressed, except
for the Supreme god.
The puppets represent life. They comprise celestial, human and
demonic beings. There are gods, Brahmans, Ksatriyas, Wesyas, Sudras,
ogres, demons and animals. Each has its own darma, duty. There
is a concentration on males. This is not surprising: it is a patrilinear
society. Women follow their husbands.
There are not very many Brahman puppets. There are many more Ksatriyas.
The visual similarity between the ruling kings and the gods is
marked. They often wear the same headdress. This may well have
derived from the fact that there was something divine in kingship,
especially in Bali and Java in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Some of the puppets can be used for several characters. Major
characters would not double up in this way, unless they were linked
by a common heritage.
The body colours represent symbolically major ideas and values
in Balinese society. The colours are the five basic colours: white,
red, yellow, black and blue, and a mixture of them. See the article
entitled Balinese Symbolism for the meanings associated with
Noble characters have light body colours, flat teeth and slit
eyes; whereas coarse ones, like the ogres, are red or brown, have
bulbous eyes and pointed teeth.
There are always four gamelan instruments, which comprise the
xylophone, the rebab
or two-stringed violin, the drum
and the gong.
Every act of the play is accompanied by music and songs, which
are used to convey the dramatic mood and the character on stage.
The dalang also sings songs.
Music accompanies the placing of the puppets in the banana log,
announces entrances, supports the dialogue, creates a benevolent
atmosphere, and adds excitement to dramatic scenes.
As he sets off for a performance, the dalang will stop at his
gate and feels his hair knot. If it pulsates to the right, he
puts his right foot forward. If it pulsates to the left, he starts
to walk with his left foot. If it pulsates in the middle, he leaps
Before entering the stage he tests his breath to see which god
will communicate through him. If the breath exhaled from his right
nostril is stronger, Brahma will perform. If the stronger breath
is from his left nostril, then Wisnu
will perform. If they are equal, then it is Iswara.
It has already been mentioned that the dalang prays before the
performance. He prays for protection from witches and evil spirits,
for the gods to descend and enter him and the puppets, and for
the audience to enjoy the performance. He sprinkles holy water
and makes offerings to ensure that the stage is a pure area.
He requests Brahma to give the puppets life, so that they may
dance well. He then knocks his wooden chest three times. He then
prepares the puppets. They are placed for convenience on the lid
of the wooden box in which they are kept - on the dalang's right,
in the correct order, so that he may pick them up easily. When
they are in the box, not being used, the puppets are thought to
During the play the puppets are placed in the banana log. The
main characters, the good characters, are placed on and enter
the stage from the dalang's right. Lesser figures are placed on
and enter the stage from his left. Similarly, important figures
are taken off stage to the right and lesser figures to the left.
So the Pandawas are on the dalang's right and the Korawas are
on his left. An invisible line down the centre of the screen divides
the two camps.
The dalang sets the scene and describes the action. He speaks
the parts. He needs to know the personalities of the various wayang
characters and speak in an appropriate tone.
The most exacting part of the play is the fight against the giants,
which usually takes place about 1 am or 2 am. It is the most difficult
job for the dalang and is a test of his skill. Energetic tapping
of the puppet box by the hammer held between the toes of his right
foot always accompanies battle scenes.
the performance the dalang recites a mantra to bring the puppets
back to life symbolically.
have stylized hand gestures. These are similar to the hand gestures
of the priests, mudras, although priests use both hands whereas
puppets only use one hand. See the article
entitled Balinese Symbolism.
The music, stage and equipment symbolize the macrocosm. The clean
white cloth screen symbolizes the sky. The cloth separates us
from the real world of the gods. The puppets symbolize all that
exists. The banana log is the earth. The oil lamp, which gives
life and energy, represents the sun and the dalang is God. The
music symbolizes the harmony of the cosmos and the puppets' movements
harmonize with the music.
The dalang wears headgear, waistcloth and dress, which represent
heaven, earth and the underworld. He joins all three together
during a performance.
The seen and the unseen, the visible and the invisible, the inner
world and the outer world all are present during a shadow puppet
performance. The dancing shadows represent the illusory and transitory
nature of life. To the gods, who are in the real world behind
the screen, we, the audience, are the shadows.
The stage details are also symbolic. The stage is orientated to
the propitious mountainward, kaja, direction, or to the east.
The cloth has nine holes at the top, which represents nawa-sanga,
the Balinese mandala. The lamp is lit with three bundles of wicks,
reprsenting the Trinity (trisakti), the gods Siwa (or Iswara),
Brahma and Wisnu. The cloth is also red, white and black. See
the article entitled Balinese
As mentioned in the article
entitled Balinese Calendars every 210 days is a day called
Tumpek Wayang. It is also Kajeng-Keliwon, and special for Wayang
Kulit shadow puppets, which are taken out and given offerings
by the dalang. It also happens to be very unlucky to be born on
that day. Such a child is prone to illness and injury from Kala,
the demon god.
cure the baby an elaborate ceremony called sudamala is carried
out by a dalang after a night or day wayang. It shows the priestly
nature of the dalang. The dalang narrates a story about Kala and,
with the help of certain puppets, carries out the ceremony, which
is primarily exorcistic, and he makes purificatory water, toya
penglukatan. This elaborate ceremony is also performed when someone
suffers an unnatural death, for example, a fatal accident.
The day wayang: wayang lemah
This version of the shadow play is only performed during the day.
Lemah means daylight. It is only for the gods and is a religious
rite. For that reason it takes place in the inner sanctum of the
temple, the holiest part. As it is already in a ritually pure
area the dalang's preparations are less. The performance can also
take place outside a temple if ceremonies are taking place outside,
for example, during a Melaspas house consecration ceremony.
It is a quiet performance, hardly audible to human beings. There
is little or no conflict. The gods perceive reality directly,
so there is no need for a screen. There are only about five to
fifteen puppets, which are stuck close together in the banana
log, where they stay. The puppets rest against a string of three
threads entwined together, white, red and black, the colours of
the gods of the Trinity. The string is stretched between two branches
of a luminous plant, dapdap, about a foot above the banana log.
The puppets stand motionless throughout the performance. They
represent, through their colours, the gods. The servants are not
stuck in the banana log and are held by the dalang.
The dapdap tree has supernatural power. Its name is Erithrina
litosperma. Priests burn the wood in clay jars in all ceremonies.
The leaves are used for protection against witches. Juice from
the leaves is a cure for sick people. The branches form a pillow
for the dead.
Two musicians playing large metallophones, gender pemgumbang,
provide the music. The music is less rich in tone and colour than
the night wayang.
The stories deal with moral and spiritual themes and always relates
to the particular ceremony or occasion. So, if the ceremony is
a wedding, the chosen story will be about a wedding. There are
no comic interludes. The stories are in three phases - the hero
leaves a place, passes through another place and reaches his destination,
a changed, improved person. The story stresses his purity and
nobility, enhanced by a hurdle he has overcome in the intervening
There may be no strict connection, but one cannot help remembering
Plato's famous allegory of the Prisoners in the Cave in the Republic.
Plato asks us to imagine a row of prisoners tied by chains inside
a deep cave. They can only look straight ahead of them at the
dark inside wall of the cave. Far behind them is a fire, but they
do not know it. The fire is the only source of light in the cave.
Just behind the prisoners, in front of the fire, are people walking
around with objects in their hands. They cast shadows on the wall
in front of the prisoners. The prisoners have never been out and
have no idea of any other life. They have never seen real objects.
Socrates, according to Plato, says that this is the human condition.
We can only see mere shadows of real things. We take the shadows
for reality. We are so attached to our own lives that we do not
even realize our plight and we could not immediately cope if we
were freed. For a while we would still believe that shadows were