As the story we are presenting is about characters from the ancient Indian Mahabharata epic—which has long been thought of as a cornerstone of Javanese mythology—these characters would be familiar to a Javanese audience. This epic story revolves around a set of male cousins of the knightly class, who grew up together and learned the art of war from the same revered teacher, Durnå, but who end up on opposite sides of a long-lived rivalry, ended only by the climactic final battle, the Baråtåyudhå, during which much blood is shed. Our episode takes place long after the family has split and Durnå has ended up officially supporting the Kuråwås, and shortly before the tragic war between the cousins.
On the one side we have the five Pendhåwå (pronounced “pǝn-daw-waw”) brothers, from two different mothers; on the other we have the one hundred Kuråwå brothers. The three eldest Pendhåwå brothers, all sons of Kunthi (pron. “koontee”), are as follows, from oldest to youngest (in Java, at least, they all have many names, depending on what stage of their lives they’re in): Puntådéwå (a.k.a. Yudhistirå) , Bråtåsénå (pron. “braw-taw-say-naw”—Sénå, for short, a.k.a. Bimå or Werkudårå), Arjunå (a.k.a. Janåkå or Permadi). The youngest two are twins, sons of Pandhu and Madrim; they do not figure in our version of the story. Puntådéwå is a saintly man who is slow to anger, honest to a fault, humble, and almost overly alus. Being alus—best translated as “having a refined nature”—is a highly valued trait in Javanese culture, and its most common antithesis, being kasar (crude, coarse), never has positive connotations, although it is often accepted as a fact of life. Bråtåsénå, with his deep, gruff voice, his large body, his rounded eyes and nose, and his lumbering gait, is outwardly kasar. Yet he is revered for his highly disciplined, moral nature. He is often put forward as an example of how appearances can be deceiving, and foreign visitors to Java with large bodies and rounded eyes can take comfort in his example. Arjunå is at the heart of a great many of the standard wayang plots, and for good reason: he is often thought of not only as the ideal lover, with his alus looks and personality (he has several wives who all adore him), but as the ideal warrior-knight, as well. His sense of duty, his skills on the battlefield, and his willingness to face challenges are second to none.
What caused the strife in the first place was a dispute over who should inherit control over the kingdom of Astinå, which had been ruled by Pandhu, father of the Pendhåwås, but which the Kuråwås also laid claim to, because their blind father, Dhestårastrå, had been the elder brother of Pandhu. As a result of an infamous dice game, the Pendhåwås lost control of Astinå and eventually founded the rival kingdom of Amartå (or Ngamartå).
Other characters who will appear include Hanoman, the albino monkey king, one of the heroes of the Ramayana epic, which recounts events that took place several generations before those between the Pendhåwås and Kuråwås. Hanuman is the son of lord Bayu, the god of wind, who also appears in this story. Another god who enters the story is lord Brahman, deity of fire.
Two ogres make an appearance, the two brothers Wahmukå and Harimukå. A dangerous sea serpent also plays a role.
One character that is unique to this story is the eponymous Déwåruci (pronounced “Day waw roo chee”) himself. This is a miniature version of Bråtåsénå who represents his true, inner nature.
Finally, four clown characters called punåkawan appear in nearly every shadow play, regardless of the specific story: father Semar and his three sons, Garèng, Pétruk, and Bagong (in descending order of age). These four act as servants to whichever member of the Pendhåwå family is the hero of the story at hand. Semar has a bulbous, famously ugly figure, and has some gross habits, like farting uncontrollably. Owing to some female traits, he can be considered intersexed. Although at times an object of mirth, he is one of the most revered and beloved of all characters, since he is a fallen god of great wisdom sometimes said to represent the Javanese people. Garèng is small, with a deformed foot that causes him to walk with a limping gait. He considers himself to be rather clever and likes to make plays on words. Pétruk is tall and likes to dance and sing, and to engage in horseplay. Often the dhalang identifies with him, speaking through him in the first person, announcing future performances and thanking the hosts, for instance, or interacting with the singers. The dim-witted Bagong, who has a speech defect that causes him to talk a bit like someone with a bad cold, physically resembles his father the most of the three sons.
One further shadow puppet needs to be mentioned, even though it is not a character per se, and that’s the kayon or gunungan. Kayon literally means “wood-related object” and gunungan means “mountain-related object.” This is one of the largest and most elaborately carved and painted puppets in the puppet box, and is highly symbolic on multiple levels. Its leaf-like shape does, indeed, sometimes represent a tree or a mountain. But it also can indicate the current state of the world: sometimes it is made to flutter closer and further from the light source, imparting a chaotic feel to the shadows; sometimes it is planted at an angle, indicating that all is not right with the world; and sometimes it is planted straight up and down in the middle of the screen, indicating that order has been restored. The direction of the slant also indicates which “act” of the play we are in.