10 Things You Should Know About: Wayang Kulit

For the latest part of our popular 10 Things You Should Know series, we delve into the world of Wayang Kulit performances that are popular across Southeast Asia. This series on Malay cultural forms is commissioned by Wisma Geylang Serai.

10 Things You Should Know is a series of short animated videos on aspects of Malay culture and heritage, made in partnership with Wisma Geylang Serai.

In our latest video of the series, we share 10 facts on Wayang Kulit, a shadow puppetry performance popular in numerous regions across Southeast Asia. 

The text below includes facts compiled by Soultari Amin Farid for a more thorough exploration of this art form. 

This video is also available on Youtube.

1. Wayang Kulit is a shadow puppetry tradition that is found in maritime Southeast Asia. It is believed to have been introduced to the region from India with the spread of Hinduism as evident from the texts that have traditionally inspired the stories of the Wayang Kulit. There are few versions of Wayang Kulit in the region: the most studied and popularly known is the Javanese one and others include the Wayang Kulit Siam of Kelantan, Malaysia and the Nang Taung of southern Thailand, as well as the huge static variants such as the Nang Yai of Thailand and Nang Sbek of Cambodia.

2. The practice involves the enactment of puppets by the puppet master, known as the dalang, who is most often a respectable male figure and he sits at close distance facing a white screen called the kelir. A light source which is traditionally an oil lamp hangs above him so that he is able to cast the shadows of the puppets onto the screen to narrate the story to an audience who is sitting on the other side of the screen.

3. The dalang who is also the music conductor enhances the narration of his stories with live music accompaniment consisting of an ensemble of gamelan musicians sitting behind him. He cues the ensemble with the kepyak, a cymbal-like percussion instrument, placed at his feet. As the orator, he must also master more than a hundred voices of different characters and their temperaments to help tell the story.

4. Wayang Kulit is ideally performed in an open air theatre, when it is dark enough for the source of light to cast shadows upon the screen. The performance may last for hours and shown in phases with its continuation to happen in subsequent days.

5. The puppets are made from cured cowhide and the puppet handles that are fastened to these flat figurines are made of cow horns. Each puppet is unique with specific differences in the shape of eyes, nose as well as the colours and shades painted onto the puppets to distinguish it from other characters and to define its personality.

6. These puppets are carved out from the imagination of puppet-makers who integrate indigenous aesthetics with the descriptions of characters inspired by the stories that came from ancient Indian texts. Wayang stories borrowed characters from local myths, Indian epics and heroes from Persian tales. Some of the popular texts that shaped the corpus of traditional Wayang Kulit stories were the Indian epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana as well as the East Javanese Panji cycles. Although these stories have their own adapted and localised versions, the bulk of the stock characters remain very similar.

7. Sceneries are also carved out to become shadowed entities in the Wayang Kulit. The most important and prominent is the Gunungan (mountains), or known by other names in the nusantara such as Kayon (tree) or the Pohon Beringin (banyan tree). This conical mountain-tree structure inherently depicts life and consists of intricate designs of a stylised tree. Often it includes animals and mythological creatures that are symbolically regarded as sacred.

8. The Gunungan is usually featured in the beginning and the end of a performance. It also functions as an entry point to bring people into a world of fascinating stories and characters. Other than that, it is used to depict a mountain, a cave, a forest or obstacles that hinder the journey of characters. When it is waved in circles, it gives an impression of a huge fire or thunderstorm. In some stories, the gunungan is used innovatively as a transport for the characters.

9. The Wayang Kulit of today acts as a bridge to an age-old tradition that is gradually evolving to incorporate new stories with characters that are more relevant to today’s multicultural and globally attuned audiences. It is no surprise to see puppets of familiar superheroes such as Superman and Batman appear as guest puppets in adapted stories.

10. Regardless of the innovation of stories, favourite stock characters of yesteryears such as Rama, Sinta, Arjuna, Hanuman and others, continue to resonate with an intergenerational audience. This proves that Wayang Kulit despite it being a traditional art form, continues to be a tradition that is adaptable and ever-evolving.

Resource List:

[1] “Wayang Kulit: Indonesia’s Extraordinary Shadow Puppetry Tradition” by Asia Society

https://asiasociety.org/new-york/wayang-kulit-indonesias-extraordinary-shadow-puppetry-tradition

[2] “The shadow puppet theatre of Malaysia : a study of wayang kulit with performance scripts and puppet designs” by Beth Othnes (2010) 

https://catalogue.nlb.gov.sg/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/FULL/WPAC/BIBENQ/347628603/88317596,0

[3] “Dimensions of Shadow Play in Malay Civilisation” by Faridah Noor Mohd Noor (2006)

https://catalogue.nlb.gov.sg/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/FULL/WPAC/BIBENQ/347628603/773004,26

[4] “A Wayang Kulit of Our Own” by OffStage Esplanade https://www.esplanade.com/offstage/arts/a-wayang-kulit-of-our-own

[5] “Wayang kulit with a superhero twist” by Casaandra Wong (August 19, 2017)

https://www.todayonline.com/entertainment/wayang-kulit-superhero-twist

[6] “Wayang, The World of Shadows and Puppets” by Asian Traditional Theatre & Dance

https://disco.teak.fi/asia/wayang-the-world-of-shadows-and-puppets/

10 Things You Should Know is the first of a series of videos on Malay culture and heritage, created by ArtsEquator and commissioned by Wisma Geylang Serai. It is a continuation of an earlier series by ArtsEquator, featuring Dikir Barat, Nanyin and Kavadi Attam, which you can check out here.

The videos in this series are sponsored by Wisma Geylang Serai. The money earned from paid advertising goes towards covering ArtsEquator’s running costs and paying our writers and content creators. We have a strict policy regarding which content which can and cannot be sponsored. To read more about our editorial policy, please go here.

About the author(s)

Muhd Noramin Mohd Farid (Soultari) is a choreographer, arts educator and researcher from Singapore. He received his Doctorate in Theatre and Dance studies (2021) from Royal Holloway, University of London, UK. He is a recipient of the ASEAN-India Youth Award (2018), Singapore Youth Award (2017), National Arts Council Scholarship (2017) and Goh Chok Tong Mendaki Youth Promise Award (2016). Amin is the Joint-Artistic Director of Bhumi Collective, a multidisciplinary performing art and producing company. He writes occasionally for Arts Equator, Straits Times and the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay.

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