It is difficult to convey in a few words just how central wayang (shadow theater) is in Javanese culture, nor how rich and complex it is. Truly a total work art, it encompasses poetry, song, dialogue, highly literary description, instrumental music, mythology, drama, humor, psychological insight, philosophy, spiritual knowledge, intricate visual art, and hit tunes, along with occasional forrays into political satire and gender bending. Although children often attend the all-night performances that are typical in Java, this is not primarily children’s entertainment, but something far deeper and complex, with multiple layers of symbolism.
At the center of the shadow theater is the dhalang, or puppeteer, who not only manipulates all the two-dimensional puppets, he also provides all their voices in improvised dialogue, imparting the distinctive way of speaking peculiar to each character. (Most dhalangs are men, with some notable exceptions.) He provides the narration and sings occasional mood songs that break up the action and set the scene, so he must master literary Javanese and have a beautiful singing voice. He must be an expert musician, since he gives frequent signals to the musicians, either through coded words that announce specific pieces or through tapped signals he provides with a beater, held in his hand or between his toes, that raps against the wooden puppet box or against a set of clanging bronze percussion plates suspended from the box. While he is narrating, he must keep track of where in a piece the musicians are so that he can give the signal to move on to something new at an appropriate place in the music. He must know all the stories and back stories, which, for the most part, are taken from the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata, with many specifically Javanese adaptations and additions. He must be an accomplished storyteller, with a vivid imagination and a sense of drama. He must have deep philosophical and psychological insight, as one of his functions is to provide guidelines for living a virtuous and successful life. He must be a brilliant comic, as the drama is frequently interrupted with comedy. He must have great stamina, as he needs to be able to perform, without leaving his cross-legged position, for eight hours straight, typically from about 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. He must have great charisma and the ability to structure the drama so as to be able to hold an audience throughout the night. And, last but not least, he must be highly trained in spiritual matters, as his performances often put him, the musicians, and the audience, in close touch with the spirit world: great benefit can accrue from these performances, but catastrophe can ensue if the dhalang is not spiritually ready.
The music is provided by a gamelan ensemble of roughly twenty musicians, which include at least one female and several male singers. The instruments of the gamelan are mostly tuned percussion, along with double-headed drums, a two-stringed spike-lute, a bamboo flute, and a plucked zither (although the last two named are not always present). These various elements perform layered melodies that weave together without forming chords or harmonies, and which are structured into time cycles marked at appropriate points by various sizes of gongs. The gamelan is tuned to pitches that cannot be fitted into the half-steps and whole-steps of Western scales. The most important of the musicians is the drummer, who must not only provide sound effects during battle scenes and such, he must also pass on the dhalang’s signals to the musicans—who must in turn be ready at a moment’s notice to stop, start, get louder, softer, faster, or slower, or change to another piece altogether: there are no easy parts in wayang music. The repertoire varies according to the dramatic situation: palace scenes require slow, stately, refined music with sinuous melodies; battle scenes call for loud, repetitive music with short cycles that can be started and stopped with little advance warning.
The puppets used are made of water-buffalo rawhide that is perforated with a set of chisels then elaborately painted. The human figures, perhaps as a result of Islamic influence, look very stylized—quite distant from naturalistic depictions, but utterly appropriate and natural-looking to Javanese eyes, which are accustomed to how each of the hundred-and-fifty or so commonly used characters typically look. These puppets are miracles of design: they are among the most intricate art objects one could ever hope to encounter, with their elaborately punched-out filigree and their amazingly detailed painting; yet each character is recognizable at a distance of fifty yards (popular dhalangs attract audiences in the thousands). The visual arts represented include not only sculpture (through the chiseling) and painting, but also clothing design and batik patterns, since the iconography encompasses a veritable catalogue of fourteenth century Javanese court attire as remembered and reinterpreted by later artists. The question often arises as to why shadow puppets are so lavishly painted. The most likely answer is that human audiences—particularly nowadays—often view from the puppeteer’s (and the gamelan’s) side of the screen; but perhaps it also has something to do with ritual nature of most performances and the spirit world that is often the primary intended audience: offerings such as these performances should be as lavish as one can make them.
Although this is an ancient art going back several centuries, and the stories depicted in it go back around 2500 years (or at least a thousand years in their Javanese versions), like all traditions, it is in a constant state of development. The past twenty years have seen some particularly bold innovations, and the wayang of today looks and feels quite different from that of a generation ago, while at the same time retaining its core identity as the premier art form of Java.