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theatre is considered to be a highlight of Javanese culture.
Over the centuries its religious character has increasingly
developed into a distinct art form; foreign influences introduced
new stories, characters were added, and new refined styles
were developed at the courts. There are various types of wayang,
but, in Java, the most important is the wayang purwa,
which uses kulit (flat cut-outs of painted leather
puppets) whose shadows are projected on a large white screen.
Wayang purwa makes use of the purwa repertoire:
the oldest stories about cosmic events and divine will are
represented; the course of events is seen as being predestined,
part of a cosmic law. The Javanese word purwa means
‘beginning’ or ‘first’ and derives,
probably, from the Sanskrit parwan, a word used to
denote the chapter of the Mahabharata.
the origins of wayang purwa have been subject to intense
scholarly debate in the last part of the Nineteenth and the
beginning of the Twentieth centuries, its precise origins
remain elusive. Some scholars view the wayang as an
ancestor cult, connected with dual organization initiation
rites in which young men learned the secrets of the tribe.
Wayang is clearly of Javanese origin with animistic
features. Originally it was not individuals who were depicted
on stage but legendary beings. These mythical figures, represented
by the most important puppets, were used to explain the relationship
between heaven and the human society; and the origin and the
structure of the world. The introduction of narratives, such
as the Indian epics, increased the number of puppets and brought
more individuality to the characters. The wayang
is part of the religious complex constructed around the concepts
of aulus-kasar, lair-batin and rasa.
Aulus means pure, refined, polished, exquisite, ethereal,
subtle, civilized, smooth. Kasar is merely the opposite:
impolite; rough; uncivilized. Lair means «the
outer realm of human behaviour»; batin «the
inner realm of inner experience.»
Rasa has two primary meanings: ‘feeling’
and ‘meaning’. As ‘feeling’ indicates
both feeling from without (taste, touch) and from within (emotional);
as ‘meaning’ indicates the implicit import, the
connotative ‘feeling’ of dance movements, polite
gesture and so forth.
a performance last an entire night, starts soon after sunset
with an overture (talu) of gamelan music and
continues without a break until dawn. The audience is not
expected to sit silently, people meet friends and talk to
them, look around, sometimes they get a snack from the stall,
those who need to rest take a nap, the point being not the
content of the story but the ritual efficacy of the performance.
Sometimes people regard the puppets themselves as being entered
by spirits during the performance; and a good dalang
(puppeteer) is often said to be entranced.
From experience everyone more or less knows how a wayang
play will proceed, and the exciting parts that they like to
watch: the fight scenes and, in particular, the moment when
the hero appears with his servants (panakawan) at midnight.
According to tradition, any one at wayang performance
is safe from evil influences which normally plague people,
even though they may be so far from the screen that they can
barely hear the voice of the dalang.
making of shadow puppets is a long and painstaking process.
Skin of a female buffalo of about four years of age, the ideal
type for texture and strength, is dried, scraped and cured
for up to ten years to achieve stiffness and eliminate warping
and splitting. On maturity, skin are carved and pierced to
fashion the required character. This technique involves extensive
knowledge of iconography and physiognomy, since all lines
– angles of the head, slant of the eyes and mouth, profile
of the body – are specific to the the character. When
carving is completed, the traditional pigments including powdered
burnt bone for white, lampblack, indigo, yellow ochre and
cinnabar for red in a gelatinous medium mixed from dried egg-white.
Gold leaf and pigment are applied in a medium of protein glue
derived from fish bones. The cempurit, or manipulating
rods, are made of buffalo horn, while the studs attaching
the jointed arms to the torso are of metal (sometimes gold),
bone, bamboo or, in rare courtly examples, gold studded with
a wayang kulit performance the shadow of the puppets
are cast on to a white fabric screen (kelir) in a wooden
frame. The puppets are fastened to a tortoise-shell stick,
running from head to below their feet, at which point the
dalang grasps the stick as a sort of handle. The arms,
the only movable parts, have the cempurit – short
sticks attached to them – which the dalang holds
in the same hand and manipulates with his fingers. He holds
the puppets up in either hand over his head and interposes
them between the light and the screen. If they are nobles,
as most are, he must be doubly careful never to let them get
lower than his head. From the dalang’s side of
the screen one thus sees the puppets themselves and their
shadows rising up dominant on the screen behind them. From
the reverse side of the wayang screen, one sees the
shadow of the puppets only. Over the head of the dalang
there is a special brass oil lamp (blencong) often
shaped like the mythical bird Garuda. The light shining
from the lamp on the head of the dalang – and
making possible the projection of the shadow of the puppets
on the screen – represents the divine light infused
through the upper chakra in the dalang (intermediary
between gods and humans). The puppets symbolize the original
entities, or the celestial archetypes; the white screen represents
the World. Thus, thanks to divine light, the ‘shadow’
of the archetypes are projected onto the phenomenal
world, where the dialectic of opposites takes place, but the
world is, and remains, a ‘word of shadows’.
front of the dalang, and parallel to the screen, there
are two banana tree trunks, one a little higher than the other,
into which the puppets are jabbed with their pointed handles
when they are not in use. Members of the just party are placed
on the right side, and members of the unjust party on the
left. The highest ranking figures are placed on the higher
trunk. To the left of the dalang there is a rectangular
chest (kotak) in which the puppets and other props
are kept. The chest has some small wooden or metal plates
attached to it, called keprak or kekrek, which
the dalang, sitting cross-legged in front of the screen
during the performance, tinkles with his right foot to indicate
the fury of the elements, the din of battle or the roaring
of a giant. Using his left hand, he taps the inside of the
chest with a small horn (cempala) or a wooden hammer
(tabuh keprak) to guide the gamelan players
sitting behind him. The lid of the chest sits on the right
of the dalang and contains the puppets he wants to
keep handy. Near the dalang there is also a bowl of
incense (padupan) which is lit at the beginning of
the performance, and a bowl (sajen) with sacrifices
for the spirits which might include food or flowers. Musical
accompaniment dates from as late as the eighteenth century;
gamelan music is essential to a wayang performance,
and the music is especially selected for each performance.
The gamelan orchestra presents to the ear the picture
of the inner life the shadow-play presents to the eye. It
is an entirely percussion orchestra, which may consist of
as many as fifty instruments in a very large court ensemble.
There are several tonal scales or modes, but in wayang
purwa the music is mostly in salendro, the five-tonal
scale of Javanese gamelan music, with approximately
equal intervals between the tones (barang, gulu,
dada, lima, nem). The music expresses
the atmosphere of the various sections of the performance
and accentuates the movements and words of the puppets. Some
wayang characters have their own particular melodies,
associated with their personalities and moods.
is highly respected and is often believed to possess supernatural
qualities – especially healing – because of his
position as mediator between people, gods and spirits. Linguistically,
the word dalang is thought to be associated with langlan,
which means ‘to go round’ something. A dalang
is a ‘wanderer’, but also a ‘diviner’,
a protector in a religious or magical sense. The work of the
dalang is difficult because he needs to have many talents
and to conform to a number of court-derived prescriptions
and traditions: antawacana (intonation), to make the
distinction between the voice of each character, all of which
have their own characteristic voice, and whose register and
sound are determined by the combination of the shape of the
eyes and the position of the head. A dalang has nine
voices for the main figures, as well as the typical language
of each one; rengep (to involve completely), to keep
the performance alive; enges (emotion), to create interest
in the characters and involve and move the audience, for instance,
during a dialogue between lovers; tutug (eloquence),
to recite prescribed dialogues or pagedongan (traditional,
fixed explanations); banyol (comedy), to make
the audience laugh; sabet (flow, wave), to handle the
puppets correctly, and properly distinguish between their
movements, especially during fight scenes; kawiraja
(kawi refers to the old Javanese mode of speech, raja
means ‘prince’), to be able to recite the traditional
eulogy prior to the performance; parama-kawi (parama
is the Sanskrit word meaning ‘high’), to correctly
explain the nicknames of the kings and nobles in the performance;
amardi-basa (to focus on language), to know the different
ways that gods, giants or humans speak in their various social
positions (hierarchy is strongly embedded in the Javanese
language, which has two completely separate vocabularies:
if the listener has a higher status krama is used,
but if he has a low status ngoko is used); parama-sastra,
to know the writings (layang) on which a performance
may be based, and which are necessary to determine the content
of the suluk (narrative announcements) and greget
saut (pieces of music); awicarita (knowledge of
many tales), to know all the tales referred to in a performance,
the character depicted by each puppet, and the significance
of each stage requisite; amardawa-lagu (melodious singing),
to know the verse measure and singing techniques which are
used in performance. A dalang also needs to observe
the following courtly prohibitions: he may not change the
form of a performance once it is recorded in the pakem
(handbooks of the court); he may not show any preference for
a character; he may not show himself during a performance,
or speak out of turn; he may not focus criticism on anyone,
or anger his audience; he may not make uncouth jokes; he must
make sure that the performance lasts for the correct duration
and that each aspect of the performance lasts the appropriate
signal the beginning and the end of the performance –
but also strong emotions, scene changes, the elements of fire,
earth, air and water – the dalang uses the gunungan,
the most important requisite in the wayang theatre.
The gunungan (gunung, mountain) or kayon
(forest) is a representation of the ancient Tree motif originating
from India. This consist of two parts: a mountain and a tree.
The Tree motif is rendered as a combination of two different
trees: the fig tree rooted in heaven; and the earthbound lotus
tree rising from the waters. The former, placed above, has
implanted its root in the top of the stem of the tree-shaped
lotus. The lotus is the very symbol of life springing from
the water. The celestial fig tree represents ‘creative breath’
or fire, which is as essential in creating life as the water’s
essence. In the Javanese gunungan the lotus part can
assume an hourglass form, with a small building with a pair
of closed doors, or that of a lake or pot filled with water.
Guardians stands on both sides of the stronghold. Their task
is to guard treasures, particularly the mount Meru (heavenly
mountain), and the liquid elixir of life. A pair of huge wings
flank the upper half. The shape of these wings may actually
be derived from lotus leaves or other vegetation. The gate
building with closed doors can be understood as female, whereas
the tree represents the male. Together and united they form
life. The gunungan is placed in the centre of
the screen before the drama begins, separating the opposed
groups of characters that lie to the right and left of the
dalang. The meditation undertaken by the dalang
before the performance seeks a train of associations leading
from the gods of the Hindu pantheon to the kayon. During
the performance, the gunungan is the backdrop with
which time and space are delineated, and it determines the
atmosphere. Its association with the Tree of Paradise
makes it an apt image to suggest the idyllic world of the
kingdoms of the wayang lakons (plays) before the activities
of men and supernatural beings upset the ideal balance.
the Javanese word for ‘play’, is an adaptation
of the classical wayang literature for wayang
performances, and is divided into fixed sections, these being
related to religious overtones of consecration and entering
a new state. The word lakon is derived from laku,
which means ‘go’ or ‘act’, but can also imply
‘adventure’ or ‘journey’ Each section
can be seen as a stop along the journey towards perfection.
The transition from one section to the next is marked by suluk,
the dalang’s recitative announcement of what is about
to happen. The wayang purwa repertoire consists of
four different performance cycles: the first, the preamble,
deals with the origins of the world and the vicissitudes of
the gods, and is inspired by both the Adiparwa, the
prologue of the Mahabharata, and ancient Indonesian
tales; the second, the Arjuna Sasra Bau cycle, deals with
the lineage of several prominent characters of the Ramayana,
including the birth of the twelve-headed giant known as Ravana
or Dasamuka, and his opponent Arjuna Sasra Bau, he of a thousand
arms, an incarnation of the god Visnu; the third cycle, the
Rama cycle, is based on the Ramayana, and tells the
story of the errant hero Rama, who goes in search of his wife
Sita kidnapped by the giant Ravana; the fourth cycle, the
Pandawa cycle is based on episodes from the Mahabharata,
the story of the struggle between the five Pandawa brothers
(Yudistira, Bima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sadewa) who rule the
country of Amarta and the hundred Korawa brothers of Ngastina
(led by Suyodana, Sakuni, Dorna and Karna, the dissident half-brother
to the Pendawa) which ends with the disastrous battle (Baratayuda)
lasted eighteen days during which the champions from each
side face one another.
stories states the formulation of how is action possible,
given compassion. Their philosophy is that insofar as one
can perceive ultimate reality, which is within oneself as
an ultimate feeling (rasa), one will be free of the
distracting effect of earthly emotions, not only compassion,
but anger, fear, love, hope, despair, and all. This gives
one great power, either for good, as in the case of the Pendawa,
or for evil, as in the case of the Korawa. Good and evil are
human values only, and God is in in everything, the hate and
the cruelty as well as the love and the compassion; and everything
is in God.
Pandawa, especially Arjuna, are always accompanied by their
five loyal servants clown by the name of panakawan:
Semar, a very fat man with big belly and enormous buttock;
and his sons Gareng, with his misshapen arms and cross-eyes;
Petruk, a tall man with a very long nose; Topog and Bagong,
with a squat body and very big eyes. Semar’s sons have been
brought to life by their father’s practice of meditation.
They live in the village of Karang Kabolotan, bolot
means human body's dirt. Panakawan (pana means ‘clear
vision, clever’ and kawan means ‘companion’),
thus, those who have clear vision and that can give a wise
advice. Although they are only servants, with ugly faces and
disproportional bodies, they are very wise and good advisers.
On the stage, the most pathetic scenes are often interrupted
by the panakawan. This occurs especially during the
gara-gara, the climax and turning point of the performance.
There is a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous;
wisdom easily becomes foolishness and vice versa. Humour
and satire have a protective and strengthening power and are
the counterbalance for passion, despair, and other deep feelings
which may disturb the harmony with their intensity. The Javanese
word for clown, badut, is derived from badot,
meaning ‘healer’. The panakawan are thought
to be purely Javanese by origin because of their roles as
mediators. They always refer to the ksatrias as
«Ndara Den Bagus» (ndara, from bendara,means
‘master’; den, abbreviation of Raden,
a male court title; bagus means good and handsome),
the whole meaning being «Master, do a good things».
or Sang Hyang Ismaya, the oldest and most important
of the panakawan, was originally a god, ‘the
twin brother of heaven’. He is the elder brother of
the highest god, Batara Guru. As a punishment for a misdeed
he was given a grotesque form and sent to earth to serve the
descendants of the gods (ksatrias). He is the guide
of the hero on a journey full of tribulations which the hero
must overcome before achieving his goal.
name Semar comes from the word samar (vague) and, as
a master of secret theology (kyai lurah), he can be
called ‘mysterious’. His words are from se[ngsem]
(to lure) and mar[sudi] (to search, to do) meaning
that one is lured to search or do good things. The other
names of Semar are:Badranaya: badra means ‘dark
cloud’; naya means ‘face’. As a clever
man, one has to have a bright face (has to be happy, do not
appear with dark face); Bojagati: boja (food)
symbolizing knowledge, gati (real, true) meaning a
true and correct knowledge, that is, a wise man always teaches
a true and correct lesson. Semar’s appearance befits his nature
and his place in the ancient mythological world: he is both
man and woman. In the dalang’s worlds: «Semar
can be called mysterious. Call him a man, and his face will
look like a woman’s; call him a woman and he will look like
a man. What does kyai lurah Semar look like? He has
a snub nose which is mrakateni (so charming that it
inspires love), watery eyes, puffy cheeks, also comely; he
is fat, but graceful; in short, everything about his person
is pleasing. Anyone in Semar’s company therefore wins the
love of the gods. Indeed, kyai lurah Semar is a mysterious
person, for he is not an ordinary human but a divinity from
the Suralaya (heaven), in reality, he is the Sang
Hyang (venerable god) Ismaya.»
wears a batik with kampuh polong patterns, with four
colours, meaning that there are four kind of lusts (nafsu):
red ~ amarah, anger, like the character of Rahwana;
yellow ~ supiyah, greedy like Sarpakenaka, Rahwana's
sister; black ~ aluamah, desire of eating and sleeping
like Kumbakarna; white ~ mutmainah, doesn't have any
desire, like holiness, in wayang is Wibisana. A man
should be able to harmonize these four nafsu for positive
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Mythology and the Tolerance of the Javanese, Cornell
University, Ithaca, NY. 1965.
J. R. BRANDON, On Thrones of Gold. Three Javanese
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A. DJAJASOEBRATA, Shadow Theatre in Java, Pepin, Amsterdam
C. GEERTZ, The Religion of Java, Free Press, New York
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ERNST HEINES, Wayang Kulit. Het schimmenspel van Java,
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algemeen en over de daarin vooromende Symbolische en Mystieke
Elementen, in «Djawa», XII, 1933.
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