Wayang is a generic word, meaning all the traditional forms of theatre in Indonesia. The more precise term Wayang Kulit indicates the shadow puppet theatre that is until now very popular in Central Java and many other South-East Asia regions.
It is believed that Wayang was brought to South-East Asia from India around the 1st Century CE, when Hinduism penetrated the whole region. This leads to the hypothesis that the art was imported from India or China, both of those countries having a long tradition of shadow puppetry and theatre in general. However, indigenous storytellers may have had an important role in the development of the traditional puppet theatre.
The first record of a Wayang performance is from an inscription dated 930 CE which says "si Galigi mawayang", or "Sir Galigi played wayang". Galigi was an itinerant performer who was requested to make a show during a special royal occasion. At that time, he performed a story about the hero Bhima from the Mahabharata.
Wayang kulit is a unique form of theatre employing puppets, light and shadows. The puppets are crafted from water buffalo hide and mounted on sticks, made of water buffalo horn, wood or bamboo. When held up and moved behind a large stretch of white cloth, with an electric bulb or an oil lamp as light source, shadows are cast on the screen. The plays are invariably based on romantic tales, especially adaptations of the classic Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Some of the plays also include local happenings or other gossips. It is up to the conductor, or dalang, or master puppeteer, to decide whether to act those improvisations or not.
The dalang is the director and the actor of the entire performance. He sits behind the screen and narrates the story. He's helped by a traditional orchestra in the background, that provides a melody and a rhythm to underline the plot, while he modulates his voice to create suspense during the drama. Invariably, the play ends with the triumph of Good over Evil.
Wayang is today the most ancient and most popular form of puppet theatre in the world. Millions of people watch the performances, that can last all night long, and follows the most famous dalang, some of them being international celebrities.
There is a group of characters in Javanese Wayang called Punakawan; they are sometimes referred to as "clown-servants" because they normally are servants of the story's heroes, and provide humorous and philosophical interludes. Semar is the father of Gareng, Petruk, and Bagong, and the four together form the most famous clown team of Indonesia. These characters are not taken from the Hindu epics, but were added later, possibly to introduce mystical aspects of Islam into the Hindu-Javanese stories. They provide a political-like cabaret, dealing with gossip and contemporary affairs.
The puppet figures and characters vary from place to place. In Central Java the most famous and commonly imitaded styles are those from the city of Surakarta (Solo) and the city of Yogyakarta. Regional styles of shadow puppets can also be found in West Java, Banyumas, Cirebon, Semarang, and East Java. Bali produces more compact and decorated figures, and Lombok has figures representing real people. Modern-world objects as bicycles, automobiles, airplanes and ships are sometimes added for comic effect, but, most of the time, the traditional puppet designs have changed little in the last 300 years.
Historically, the performance consisted of shadows cast on a cotton screen using the light of an oil lamp. Today, the source of light used in wayang performances in Java is often a halogen electric lamp.
The handwork involved in making a Wayang kulit figure that is suitable for a performance takes several weeks. The artists and the craftsmen work together in groups. They start from master models (typically on paper) which are traced out onto skin or parchment, providing the outline and the indications of any holes that will need to be cut (i.e. mouth or eyes). The figures are then smoothed, usually with a glass bottle, and primed. The structure is inspected and eventually the details are worked through. A further smoothing follows before hand-painting, which is done by a skilled craftsman. Finally, the movable parts (upper arms, lower arms with hands and the associated sticks for manipulation) are mounted on the body. The central stick, the real backbone of the puppet, is then accurately hand-stitched and the Wayang Kulit figure is ready for the performance.
The Shadow Puppet Theater is spread in several countries around the world, mainly in South-East Asia. But certainly Indonesia is where this tradition is still the most popular and alive. The island of Bali and definitively the central region of Java being the places of main activity.