Drama: Javanese Wayang

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Wayang kulit, also known as wayang purwa ("shadow play"), is a type of puppet theater that is indigenous primarily to Java, the most populous island of Indonesia, but that flourishes also on the Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok and in the state of Kelantan on the Malay Peninsula. Wayang kulit is performed by a sacral puppeteer (dalang ), who, accompanied by the percussive yet flowing music of the gamelan orchestra, moves intricately crafted leather figures in front of an oil lamp to cast flickering shadows on a white screen as he chants mythological narrative in old sanskritized Javanese or other languages. Variants of wayang kulit include the wooden-rod puppet form wayang golek among the Sundanese of West Java and a human dance drama (wayang wong ) patterned after the puppet plays.

Wayang kulit traditionally lasts all nightfrom 9 pm to 7 amand is a rite as well as a drama. It is performed at weddings and circumcisions, to exorcise evil spirits, and to cure. Wayang kulit also embodies an elaborate mythology and philosophy. The two great Hindu epics, the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaa, are the mythological sources for some of the wayang kulit narrations. The Rāmāyaa depicts the quest of Prince Rāma, aided by the white monkey god Hanuman, for Princess Sītā, who is abducted by the monster king Rāvaa. The Mahābhārata portrays the battle between the five knightly brothers, the Pandavas, and the hundred rival princes, the Kurawas. But these plots are only a skeleton for a vast cycle of interlocking episodes developed by the Indonesians. In addition to the Hindu epics, variants of wayang kulit draw on stories from Arab, Javanese, and other traditions, as well as contemporary plays, including some ad-dressing such topical matters as family planning or national ideology.

Wayang kulit characters are categorized according to their status, temperament, and manner, and their interrelationships are plotted through intricate genealogies that trace them to the origins of the world. The refined characters tend to appear on the puppeteer's right, the crude ones on his left. The refined princes, epitomized by Arjuna of the Pandavas, have narrow, almond-shaped eyes, down-turned noses, slightly bowed heads, no chin whiskers, and delicate physiques. Crude monsters, typified by Buriswawa, are fat, with heavy, bristling eyebrows, round eyes, bulbous noses, and red faces. Battles between refined heroes and crude monsters carry psychological as well as political meanings, symbolizing the tension between fleshly desire and spiritual tranquillity. Related themes include the hero's search for his origin and destiny as he passes through temptations represented by forest nymphs, and his search for the self, symbolized by his climbing inside the ear of his own miniature replica to discover the universe inside the person. For Javanese, to experience the symbolism of a wayang play is vicariously to struggle through the life cycle and to undergo mystical exercises, and they have composed meditations and treatises on the plays that explicate their meanings in relation to Javanese philosophies and theologies, as well as world religions.

A central role is played by Semar, the short-legged, stout, hermaphroditic, and misshapen clown. Brother to Batara Guru (Śiva), Semar was of pre-Hindu, local Javanese origin (c. 600 ce), and he combines the earthly role of lowly servant with the powers and wisdom of the highest god. It is he who appears on the screen at midnight, when the elements rage, to restore order. Having a relation to the princes somewhat like that of Shakespeare's Falstaff to Prince Hal, Semar balances their extreme refinement, heroism, and nobility with his earthiness and buffoonery (a buffoonery that, when necessary, is transformed into awesome might).

If the clown-servant Semar represents, as some have suggested, the earthy Javanese substance beneath the courtly Hindu glaze, Prince Arjuna is the consummate Satriya, the cultured and noble knight. Before a great battle, Arjuna is troubled by the need to kill his cousins and boyhood playmates, the Kurava. In his distress he turns to his divine mentor, Ka, who is driving Arjuna's chariot. Ka explains that Arjuna must fulfill the code of his knightly caste and follow the predetermined path of his life: he must slay the enemy. He should perform that deed, however, while maintaining an inner detachment from it. Spiritual tranquillity in the midst of worldly conflict is a core ideal of Hinduized Javanese philosophy.

Wayang kulit has been part of Javanese experience for perhaps a thousand years, dating back at least to the time of King Airlangga in the eleventh century ce. Yet wayang kulit remains very much a living tradition, influencing the political and secular as well as the religious life of Indonesians. The late President Sukarno once wrote a newspaper column under the penname Bima, the blunt and strong Pandava brother, and he named a regiment after the female warrior Srikandi. Sukarno also referred to his relation to Indonesia as analogous to that of a dalang to his puppets, and in other ways he and others have drawn on the imagery of wayang in interpreting political life. Comic books on newsstands depict the adventures of Semar's sons Petruck and Gareng in contemporary costumes and situations. Pedicabs are painted with the image of Semar, and he is the guardian figure for a contemporary mystical cult. Classical performances of wayang kulit abound, not only in palaces and schools but also as part of community lifeat weddings and village festivals, amid the laughter of children and the gossip and meditative conversation of their elders.


A standard source on wayang kulit is J. Kats's Het Javaansche tooneel, pt. 1, Wajang poerwa (Weltevreden, 1923), which describes principal characters and some stories. Sedjarah wajang purwa, edited by Raden Hardjowirogo (Djakarta, 1955), provides descriptions of a larger number of characters. For Balinese dance and drama, the classic source is Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies's Dance and Drama in Bali (New York, 1938). Regarding wayang kulit in Malaya, see Jeanne Cuisinier's Le théâtre d'ombres à Kelantan, 2d ed. (Paris, 1957). An excellent brief introduction is Mantle Hood's "The Enduring Tradition: Music and Theater in Java and Bali," in Indonesia, edited by Ruth T. McVey (New Haven, 1963).

Translated texts of the Javanese plays, together with helpful interpretations, appear in On Thrones of Gold: Three Javanese Shadow Plays (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), edited by James R. Brandon. A profound comment on the meaning and worldview of the wayang is provided in A. L. Becker's "Textbuilding, Epistemology, and Aesthetics in Javanese Shadow Theater," in The Imagination of Reality: Essays in Southeast Asian Coherence Systems, edited by A. L. Becker and Aram A. Yengoyan (Norwood, N.J., 1979). A fascinating interpretation of mystical meanings of the wayang kulit is provided by Mangkunegara VII of the court of Surakarta in his On the Wajang Kulit and Its Symbolic and Mystical Elements, translated by Claire Holt (Ithaca, N.Y., 1957). A provocative sociological interpretation is given in Benedict R. O'G. Anderson's Mythology and the Tolerance of the Javanese (Ithaca, N.Y., 1965), and a useful ethnographic view is Clifford Geertz's Religion of Java (Glencoe, Ill., 1960), chap. 18.

Concerning ritual aspects of Balinese shadow plays, see Christian Hooykaas's Kama and Kala: Materials of the Study of Shadow Theatre in Bali (Amsterdam, 1973). For recent studies of wayang kulit, consult Mimi Herbert's Voices of the Puppet Masters (Jakarta and Honolulu, 2002), Alit Veldhuisen-Djajasoebrata's Shadow Theatre in Java (Amsterdam, 1999) and the University of Michigan Centers for Southeast Asian Studies' Puppet Theatre in Contemporary Indonesia (Ann Arbor, 2002).

James L. Peacock (1987 and 2005)