Shadow Puppets Part Of Javanese Culture

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Shadow theater is a unique form of theater that uses light and shadow to tell stories. This simple art form has been a part of cultures around the world for centuries, but the Javanese have taken the art to its highest level.

Known locally as Chinese shadowsthis part of Javanese culture has gained international recognition and respect. In 2003, UNESCO declared it a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In exchange for the recognition, UNESCO has asked Indonesians to preserve this important part of their heritage.

Indonesian puppeteers ply their trade to tell powerful stories about history, mythology and current events. Performances often last eight to nine hours. Wayang kulit is a unique form of theater that uses light and shadow. The puppets are made from buffalo leather and mounted on bamboo sticks. When held behind a piece of white cloth, with an electric bulb or oil lamp as the light source, shadows are cast onto the screen for the audience to enjoy.

THE shadow puppet the performances are accompanied by gamelan music. The puppeteer tells the stories of kings, princesses, ogres and knights, using deft hand movements and narrations. While traditional shows used cotton sheets and oil lamps to create light shows, today electric bulbs or other light sources are used. Many of the storylines draw from episodes seen in the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Wayang is a Javanese word for theatre. Kulit means leather and refers to the leather puppets used on stage.

The puppets feature intricately designed costumes and colors, to help the audience distinguish between the many different characters.

Wayang kulit combines deep spiritual meaning, entertaining storytelling, amazing music, deep philosophical messages, current political commentary, and bawdy humor. It is one of the most complete art forms, with everything in the hands of the dalang (puppeteer). The dalang is the genius behind the whole performance. It is he who sits behind the screen and tells the story. With a traditional orchestra in the background to provide a resonant melody and its conventional rhythm, the dalang modulates its voice to build suspense thereby heightening the drama. Invariably, the play culminates with the triumph of good over evil.

There has been some debate as to whether or not puppetry originated in Indonesia or was introduced from India or China. Indigenous origins are supported by scholars who point to connections between the jesters and ancestral spirits; the jester characters who appear in each play have no clear Indian precedent. Indeed, Semar, the chief jester, is sometimes said to be the ancestral spirit of the island of Java itself, and this character is sometimes used in healing or protective rites. Even today in some areas of Indonesia, sculptures, puppets and gongs are considered by some to be objects that ancestral spirits can temporarily inhabit. Puppet shows are held once a year in the cemeteries where the founders of each village are buried. Ancestors are believed to have particular favorite stories. There is evidence that local animism was a source of the puppet arts. In the past, if the crop was threatened by various pests, the story of the Indonesian goddess of rice, Sri, could be performed to ward off the attack. Today, such ritual stories are rarely performed, but they remain a part of art history.

Whether or not the impetus behind wayang is indigenous, widespread development of the art took place during the Hindu-Buddhist period, especially between 800 and 1500. According to myth, a prince named Aji Saka brought aspects of wayang to Java. of Indian culture. A long opening ritual of the wayang performance celebrates his arrival on the island; he arrived carrying hanacaraka, the Sanskrit Javanese alphabet, which he then divided into four, throwing a quarter in each of the four directions and thus transmitting literacy and prosperity throughout the country. The poetic language used by the puppeteers in songs and tales is infused with Sanskrit-based words. The repertoire is largely based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the great Hindu epics. Some scholars believe that Balinese puppetry traditions resemble, in the realistic shape of their puppets and the looser structure of their performance sequences, the art as performed in Java before the arrival of Islam in Indonesia in the 1500s. The Balinese (who remained Hindu) believe wayang was introduced by refugees from Majapahit, the last Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Java, when it fell around 1520.

Today leading wayang artists are known all over Java. They appear on television and radio, and tapes of their performances are available in shops. While it is still true that most major dalangs are descended from traditional artists’ families, in the twentieth century there began to be artists who were not trained by their own elders. Several schools now teach puppetry.

Wayang orang and wayang kulit performances are held regularly at the Keraton or Yogyakarta Sultan Palace AND Building Solo. To best witness this fabulous ballet from the Ramayana, watch it on full moon nights in the dry season between May and October, when the bright round moon shines directly on the elegant temples of Prambanan, providing an unforgettable backdrop for the show.

Visitors are invited to observe and learn the intricate process of making wayang kulit in Kepuhsari village, Wonogiri regency, Central Java. Watch wayang kulit on the link below.

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