Shadow theatre is over 1000 years old and its origin in Java was inspired by Chinese and Indian puppet tradition. Indian influence is marked by a strong component of Buddhist philosophy and Hindu scripture. Indeed many stories are adapted from great Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Arjunawiwaha – a poem based on the life of Arjuna, a hero from Mahabharata, as well as Ramayana – an old Javanese (kawi) version of a famous Hindu epic were composed over 1000 years ago under the patronage of King Mpu Sindok and his later descendant King Airlangga. These stories blended with local folk and courtly elements provide a rich tapestry of narratives for the shadow theatre. Wayang kulit performances almost obsessively explore the struggle between good and wicked, between gods and devils. They invariably depict ethical dilemma and offer moral guidance.

Raksasa - a demonic character from Javanese shadow theatre.
Raksasa - a demonic character from Javanese shadow theatre. Image: Finton Mahony
© Australian Museum

In addition, Javanese wayang has an assembly of comical characters called punakawan, impersonated as foolish clown-servants. They often provide humorous and philosophical interludes. As well as invigorating performance punakawans help to insert subplots or commentary on current social and political issues.

But wayang kulit is not a pure performance. It has spiritual and magical significance for Javanese people. The performance is believed to protect from evil when the play is in progress and people take it as a ritual of religious nature. Puppet theatre is imbued with symbolism. The bright screen represents the actual world; the darkness represents after-life and its obscurity. The oil lamp used in shadow theatre symbolises the sun with its life-giving light and is sometimes in the shape of Garuda.

The puppets are made from buffalo hide (kulit) using special stencils, chisels and knives. Painted figures are fitted with rods of horn or bamboo so that their arms can move. There may be several puppets for a single character as it may be depicted in different clothing and mood implied by the colours. For example, gold indicates refinement, harmony, love, beauty and calmness. Red suggests vigour, boldness and passion. Black stands for contemplative mood and calmness or strength and anger. White represents virtue, purity and youth.

The over 300 puppets in our collection would be close to the number required for a modest street theatre and far less than the court theatre would comprise. But it provides an instructive example of this outstanding cultural tradition, which was nominated as the Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003.