The shadow puppet plays, known as wayang kulit are popular not only in Bali but throughout Indonesia. Far more than mere entertainment, the wayang kulit is an extremely important vehicle of culture, serving as carrier of myth, morality play, and form of religious experience rolled into one.
The puppets are believed to have great spiritual power, and are “brought to life” by special ceremonies performed by the dalang, the puppet master and story teller. The dalang is a man of many talents: he must have a repertoire of hundreds of stories, play the music, have a flair for showmanship, perform the necessary sacred rituals, and also know how to make the intricate, flat, leather puppets.
Through the puppets, the dalang relates the story line (which the audience usually already knows by heart) and embellishes the universal themes through improvisational asides incorporating the local village’s gossip or happenings. These asides are usually hilarious to the audience.
The function of the shadow play is to educate as well as amuse, by portraying good and evil, with good always triumphing, although evil is never destroyed. In Hindu thought, good and evil are necessary parts of the whole and must exist in equilibrium.
In Bali, shadow plays are extremely popular, with performances given during sacred temple ceremonies, private family ceremonies, and in the villages, just for fun. A typical performance can last six hours or more, often ending at daybreak. The audience, including little children, sits on the ground, enthralled, for the entire story. Although involving much horseplay and slapstick comedy in the lighthearted Balinese fashion, every aspect of the shadow play has mystical overtones, symbolism, and esoteric meanings.
– Notes by Julia Ingersoll
Read the program notes from Tunas Mekar’s 1998 shadow play performance Kumbhakarna Lina (The Death of Kumbhakarna), with master dalang I Nyoman Sumandhi.
Go to Our Instruments to learn more about the gender wayang orchestra which accompanies the shadow play, and to listen to a sample of gender wayang music.