Wayang, the Indonesian shadow theater

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History, characteristics and variants of the Wayang, the famous shadow theater of Java which has become a World Heritage Site

Javan or Indian origins?

There are two theories regarding the origins of this incredible art: one that links it to Java and one to India. According to the first, the wayang would be purely local in nature, on a par with things like batik and gamelan, the particular orchestra that accompanies each show. One of the explanations aimed at justifying this is that, although most of the stories are inspired by the Hindu world (with countless references to the Maharabhata and the Ramayana), all the technical terms are strictly in Javanese. According to those who support this thesis, moreover, the manufacture, the scenic work and the atmosphere that is created around it would be of extremely ancient origin and would be linked to the shamanism that has always been present on this island.


According to those who espouse the Indian thesis, however, the origins of the wayang would be to be found in the arrival from India of Buddhism and Hinduism which, in addition to bringing the aforementioned stories of the Maharabhata and the Ramayana, would also have introduced the art of theater shadows. In Andhra Pradesh the Tholu bommalata is still very popular today, a shadow theater that shares themes and a certain type of aesthetic representation. The fact is that nowadays the wayang is certainly and without a shadow of a doubt an artistic-cultural expression of Java, beyond any foreign influence.

Many variations of Wayang

In Javanese the term wayang simply means “shadow” or “imagination” and this has meant that over time very different forms of wayang appeared, distinguished by: materials used in manufacturing, expressive methods, stories told and origin. This has enriched the already vast cultural heritage even more, leading to the formation of at least 6 distinct wayangs as regards manufacturing and expressive modes and at least 5 as regards narrative cycles. In all these expressive forms there is always a sindhen, or a solo singer, and a wiyaga, a gamelan orchestra; in all, except the wayang wong and the wayang topeng, there is also the dalang, or the “puppeteer” key figure who de facto directs all the other elements as well. It should be emphasized that all the characters of the wayang, despite being a shadow theater, are richly and finely decorated, as a part of the public, usually men, was allowed to stay on the other side of the tarp and observe the shadows but the real puppets.

Wayang kulit

Wayang kulit are without a shadow of a doubt the best known variant of wayang and are typical of the Javanese island and culture. The term “kulit” means “leather” and refers to the fact that the latter are made of painted leather, with the temples that are instead shaped by buffalo horns. The characters and stories are mainly linked to the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, but there are also some figures of local folklore such as goddesses and the punokawan the local “buffoons”; it should be emphasized that stories and characters have remained almost unchanged over the last few centuries and from this we can deduce the very important role of the buffoons, less tied to the story being told and with more opportunities to talk about the present. There are many different styles that vary according to region, but the most famous and imitated wayang kulit are those of Yogyakarta.


Wayang golek

The Wayang golek are a typical variant of the Sundanese people, the second most populous ethnic group of Indonesia and Java, they have the particularity of being made of wood and of being three-dimensional. Little is known of the origins of this variant, but it may have come here from China and was certainly connected for a long time with the Islamic history of the island. In fact, it seems that, unlike the wayang kulit, the first stories to be told concerned above all those concerning Hamza, the uncle of the Prophet, and Sinan Kudus, a very important saint for the affirmation of Islam in these places; then there was also a penetration of the local culture (both the kejawen and the stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana), but these would appear at least a century later.


Wayang klitik

The Wayang klitikk are placed exactly between the two variants previously addressed, since, although the figures are very similar aesthetically to the kulit, they are made with wood, like the golek. Furthermore, the stories told are basically linked to the local folklore of Eastern Java, the place where this tradition has developed the most.


Wayang beber

The Wayang beber, unlike those previously met, are not based on a real theater, but more on showing images enriched by the narration of the dalang. The stories told tend to refer mainly to the tales of Panji, a legendary prince of East Java, and to stories about Bali.


Wayang wong

Wayang wong is a real form of local theater that leads the actors to take the role of puppets, imitating their movements and gestures, but combining dance and choreography. The stories dealt with refer mainly to the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Panji cycle. It is typical of Java (especially Yogyakarta, Surakarta and Jakarta) and Bali. It is not mandatory, but certain sub-forms of wayang wong also include the use of some masks aimed at imitating the various characters even more; one of them should be the Wayang topek, but honestly I don’t understand exactly the difference with the Wayang wong.


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