Wayang kulit or shadow puppet theatre is a traditional art form from Indonesia and Malaysia. A solo puppeteer, known as a dhalang in Javanese, manipulates and provides voices for puppets cut from animal hide and painted on both sides. The shadows of these puppets fall on a white cotton screen. In Java, wayang performances are watched from both sides of the screen, as either a shadow show or a puppet show.
Performances in Java are accompanied by a full gamelan, which might have 15, 25 or more musicians. A typical performance begins at 7.30 or 8pm with a musical overture and runs until 3 am or later. Most plays are based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, which were imported from India to Java perhaps 1500 years ago. Dialogue is not written down, but largely extemporized based on oral formulae. Plays blend action, comedy, philosophy, romance and displays of statesmanship. Wayang kulit is so comprehensive in scope that it is described by many commentators as an encyclopaedia of Javanese culture.
Some performances have ritual significance. In these ritual dramas, the dhalang recites magical incantations and presents offerings to invisible spirts. One such performance, designed to drive away malevolent spirits, is translated in Matthew Cohen’s book Demon abduction: A wayang ritual drama from West Java (Lontar, 1999).
Wayang kulit is a living art form, and there are also many contemporary productions and cross-art collaborations.
Wayang was inscribed by UNESCO in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The art form has attracted much attention since the nineteenth century from artists in Europe, the United States and around the world. (See Matthew Cohen’s article Contemporary Wayang in Global Contexts.) In 1999, the first major gathering of international wayang practitioners (dubbed dalang mancanegara) occurred as part of the Pekan Wayang national festival at Taman Mini in Jakarta. Matthew Cohen was among those who performed at this festival, and he also spoke at the festival’s international seminar.