Spotlight On …

Shadow Puppets!

Written by Graham Lampard

This week, our collection is transporting us to Indonesia! Graham Lampard takes a look at our curious Javanese shadow puppets, and the art of leathercrafting in performance and theatre.

Wayang is traditional shadow puppetry in Indonesia and other southeast Asian countries. Although the origins of the art form are unclear, and there are competing theories, the most likely is that the art form came from India. Hinduism and Buddhism arrived on the Indonesian islands in the early centuries of the 1st millennium, when the peoples of Indonesia and the Indian subcontinent began to trade goods, exchanging culture and architecture. Puppet arts and dramatic plays have been documented in ancient Indian texts from the 1st millennium BC. Furthermore, the coastal region of Southern India (including Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) which most interacted with the Indonesian islands historically had a leather-based industry alongside an intricate puppet art of their own, called Tholu bommalata. This shares many elements with Wayang and even aspects of some characters, such as the Vidusaka in Sanskrit drama and Semar in Wayang.

The National Leather Collection contains a number of Wayang Kulit, which are examples of Javanese shadow puppets. “Wayang” is a generic term, denoting traditional theatre in Indonesia, while “Kulit” means skin. As the examples show, the puppets are constructed entirely from leather and are chiselled with fine tools. The leather is supported by buffalo horn handles and control rods. The puppets would be painted in beautiful colours, including gold. Although our examples are rather soiled, I am sure that restoration would bring back the original colour.

Crafting a Wayang Kulit figure is a labour of love. To make a performance-ready puppet takes weeks, starting with the creation of master models from paper, all the way through to mounting the moveable parts on the body.

Wayang kulit is a unique form of theatre employing light and shadow. Historically, the performances would consist of shadows cast by an oil lamp onto a cotton screen. Nowadays puppeteers rely on an electric light, although traditional firelight is still often used in Bali. The ‘dalang’ is the puppeteer artist behind the performance. It is he who sits behind the screen, singing and narrateing the dialogues of the different characters, usually with a traditional orchestra in the background to provide music and create suspense, thus heightening the drama.

The stories told are usually drawn from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The basic story remains the same; Rama’s beautiful wife Shinta (or Sita) is kidnapped by the demon king Rawana, and taken to his palace on the isle of Lanka. Indeed, our boat Wayang Kulit is the vessel in which he transports her. Rama and his brother Laksman seek the help of Hamuman, king of the monkeys, and his monkey army. Together they kill Rawana and rescue Shinta.

Dalang are highly respected in Indonesian culture for his knowledge, art and ability to bring life to the spiritual stories in the religious epics. And, invariably, the plays always climax with the triumph of good over evil.

A Wayang Kulit, perhaps representing the character ‘Durna’ from the Mahabharata

An example of a Wayang Kulit

A Wayang Kulit, representing the ship used to kidnap Sita in the Ramayana

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