What are Wayang Kulit?

Wayang kulit are two dimensional stick puppets made from leather with movable arms and sometimes jaws and legs. Wayang on its own simply means puppet and kulit means leather, which is what they’re made of.

The leather is intricately carved so that light can pass through it, throwing a flickering shadow onto a white cloth screen light by an oil lamp at night performances. A banana tree trunk serves as the base of the stage and the puppets are stuck into this when they are not walking, running, fighting or flying. The puppeteer keeps his puppets in a large wooden box (keropak), which is also used in a percussive manner by tapping on it with a wooden knocker held in his hand or toes. Night performances are known as wayang peteng and usually the Mahabharata or Ramayana stories are told. Some puppeteers are also adept at telling local legends such as Calon Arang or Cupak.

Puppet shows called wayang lemah/gedog are often held during daylight hours for ceremonial purposes. It is not dark enough to cast a shadow on a screen, so a thick cotton thread is employed instead; the puppets are leant up against this. As this performance is primarily entertainment for the gods and the language used is very philosophical and often drowned out by other ceremonial activity, the audience is small and usually draws the attention of only young children or elderly men.

Performances are accompanied by a gamelan orchestra. Traditionally, this was a either a duet or quartet of 10-keyed gender, known as gender wayang. This was augmented for Ramayana, Calon Arang and Cupak performances with drums, flutes, cymbals, kettle gongs and a medium sized gong called bebatelan.

Over the last twenty years, puppeteers have started using larger gamelan orchestras with different tunings, such as gong kebyar, seven-tone semara pagulingan, semarandana, angklung, joged bumbung and even the more sacred selunding.

© 2016 Vaughan Hatch

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