Wayang kulit

Wayang kulit is a form of traditional theatre in Southeast Asia. It involves a puppet shadow play performance with origins that are possibly linked to the Indian shadow play.1 There are many forms and types of wayang kulit in Asia. Those performed in Peninsular Malaysia have either Javanese or Patani (southern Thai) influences. Wayang kulit performances are usually accompanied by a gamelan (an Indonesian musical ensemble).2

The term wayang kulit literally means “shadows from hide”, and has a few meanings in the Southeast Asian context. In Indonesia, the term wayang kulit refers not only to the performance of a shadow play, but has also become synonymous with the hide puppets used to create the shadows.3 In Peninsular Malaysia, wayang kulit can be translated as a “show of skins”.4

The puppets
The puppets in wayang kulit come in many sizes, depending on the characters they portray. Malay shadow play puppets typically measure at least 71 cm long and are at most 30.5 cm wide.5 A complete shadow theatre has between 160 and 200 puppets categorised into deities, warriors, ogres, hermits, monkeys, soldiers, princesses, weapons, animals and mountains. Most Malay shadow play characters only have one articulating limb, while a majority of Javanese and Balinese puppets have both arms articulated.6 The puppets are carved out of cowhide in ornate designs, and then beautifully painted with bright colours. Female cowhide is preferred as it is larger and softer.7

The show
In wayang kulit, the puppets are moved behind a white cotton or unbleached muslin screen by a dalang, or “puppetmaster”.8 The dalang presides over the shadow play as its sole controlling performer who tells the story, and interprets characters and dialogue using a variety of voices. He manipulates all the puppets between a lamp and the screen to bring the puppet shadows to life. Most of the stories in the shadow plays of Java, Bali, the Malay Peninsula and mainland Southeast Asia are based on two well-known Hindu epics from India: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.9

Wayang kulit is accompanied by the music of the gamelan. While the dalang is speaking, the gamelan is silent except when it provides rattles and clanks to emphasise a statement or word. Gamelan players respond and play music intuitively to the timing and narration by the dalang. The repertoire typically consists of an overture as well as specific music for battle scenes, travelling scenes, entrances and exits of characters and the parade of warriors.10

One of Singapore’s last wayang kulit dalang was Wak Taslim Harjosanajo, who died in 1985.11

Contemporary adaptations
Shadow puppets from across the region gained new audiences as part of the ASEAN Puppetry Festival which was first held in 2006.12 In recent years, popular cultural references have made their way into this traditional art form.13 For instance, wayang kulit puppets resembling popular movie characters featured strongly at Aliwal Arts Night Crawl 2017.14


Endon Salleh

1. Mohd. Azmi Ibrahim and Ainu Sham Ramli, Shadow Play: Malay Traditional Theatre (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation, 2008), 9 (Call no. RSEA 791.5309595 MOH); Amin Sweeney, Malay Shadow Puppets: The Wayang Siam of Kelantan (London: British Museum Publications, 1980), 9. (Call no. RSEA 791.530959511 SWE)
2. Beth Osnes, The Shadow Puppet Theatre of Malaysia: A Study of Wayang Kulit with Performance Scripts and Puppet Designs (North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2010), 23, 79. (Call no. RSEA 791.5309595 OSN)
3. Roger Long, Javanese Shadow Theatre: Movement and Characterization in Ngayogyakarta Wayang Kulit (Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1982), 1. (Call no. RSEA 791.53095982 LON)
4. Osnes, Shadow Puppet Theatre of Malaysia, 10.
5. Ibrahim and Ramli, Shadow Play, 52.
6. Ibrahim and Ramli, Shadow Play, 54, 91; Sweeney, Malay Shadow Puppets, 25.
7. Ibrahim and Ramli, Shadow Play, 47.
8. Long, Javanese Shadow Theatre, 18; Ibrahim and Ramli, Shadow Play, 13.
9. Ibrahim and Ramli, Shadow Play, 13, 67.
10. Osnes, Shadow Puppet Theatre of Malaysia, 79.
11. Rohaniah Saini, Wayang Kulit Enjoys Brief Revival at Malay Village,” Straits Times, 10 March 1990, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Corrie Tan, “Puppets’ Grim Tales,” Straits Times, 30 October 2012, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Malay Cultural Showcase Launched,” Today, 14 October 2014, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Cassandra Wong, “Wayang Kulit with a Superhero Twist,” Today, 18 August 2017, 30. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Abdul Rahim A. Latiff, “Is Shadow Play in the Dark?” Straits Times, 7 May 1984, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

Alit Djajasoebrata, Shadow Theatre in Java: The Puppets, Performance and Repertoire (Amsterdam: Pepin Press, 1999). (Call no. RSEA 791.53095982 DJA)

Bernard Arps, Tall Tree, Nest of the Wind: The Javanese Shadow-Play Dewa Ruci Performed by Ki Anom Soeroto (Singapore: NUS Press, 2016). (Call no. RSEA 791.53095982 ARP)

Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof, The Malay Shadow Play: An Introduction (Penang: The Asian Centre, 1997). (Call no. RSEA 791.5309595 GHU)

Jan Mrazek, Phenomenology of a Puppet Theatre: Contemplations on the Art of Javanese Wayang Kulit (Leiden: KITLV, 2005). (Call no. RSEA 791.5309598 MRA)

Miguel Escobar Varela, “Contemporary Wayang Archive,” 2015.

Mubirman, Wayang Purwa: The Shadow Play of Indonesia (The Hague: van eventer-Maasstichting, 1960). (Call no. RCLOS 791.53 MOE)

Tyra af Kleen, Wayang – Javanese Theatre (Stockholm: Gothia, 1947). (Call no. RCLOS 792.09922 KLE)

Wayang Kulit Warisan Teater Melayu [Wayang Kulit Malay heritage theatre], 199-, videocassete. (Call no. Malay RAV 791.509595 WAY) 

The information in this article is valid as at December 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.



Puppet theater--Singapore
Shadow shows--Singapore