The magic of a shadow puppet performance is considered very powerful in Java—so potent in fact, that everyone present is believed to be protected from evil influences while the play lasts. Yet this protection does not explain the popularity of the performances. Rather, the audience attends for the pleasure of seeing and hearing the familiar exploits of their ancestors enacted by puppets against a white screen.
Javanese puppet theater performs many cycles of plays from mythical origins to contemporary events. The four oldest cycles are known as wayang purwa, and relate Java’s legendary history.
Wayang specifically means “shadow”, but by extension has come to mean any of the three forms of Javanese puppets: wayang kulit (shadow puppets), wayang klitik (flat wood puppet), and wayang golek (rod puppets).
There are as many as 500 wayang kulit figures in an aristocratic set and as few as 100 in a village set. The manufacture of the puppets is very complicated and involves several different artisans. See puppets...Java / Indonesia
From ancient times the lives and beliefs of the Balinese have been influenced by the cultures of China and India as well as the nearby island of Java.
The Hindu influence is reflected in the Balinese version of the shadow theater (wayang kulit), which is the most important puppetry form on the island.
As is true in elsewhere in Asia, the puppets are designed with prescribed and immediately recognizable iconography Some have the distinguishing features of specific characters, others stand for character types such as royalty, women, demons and so on. The demons and witches are grosser in anatomy, and are scaled larger than humans and gods. Especially noble or godly figures are decorated with gold leaf. All the puppets’ headdresses, hairstyles, and costumes reflect the period of Javanese domination in Bali. Stylistically, Balinese puppets differ somewhat from those of Java. Their silhouettes and the incising of the figures tend to be more realistic, and the necks and shoulders follow human proportions more closely. See puppets...Bali
Puppet plays were drawn largely from the Jatakas, moral tales relating the past lives of the Buddha. These puppets were brought to Burma by proselytizing Indian monks. The Jatakas became the exclusive province of string puppets; live actors were not considered pure enough to perform such holy stories.
Performances lasted all night, and one play could extend over six or seven nights. Before each evening’s performance, the puppeteers offered flowers and prayers to the spirit and/or Buddha.
In Burma only string puppets are found. A troupe consisted of the puppeteers, assistant, musicians, and a manager who arranged contracts with sponsors. The Minister of Theater usually took puppeteers from the ranks of actors. Actors were considered to be rather lowly in the social order, but puppeteers often became respected members of society. See puppets...Burma
One Indian legend attributes the origin of puppets to Brahma (the creator of the world and the first deity of the Hindu triad). Brahma, in order to please his lovely wife Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, breathed and produced the first adi, the first nat puppeteer. He exhaled again, crating a figure, which he gave to the nat instructing him in the figure’s use in order that he might entertain and beguile Sarasvati. The nat intrigued her so successfully that Brahma banished him to earth; thus was the first bhat born. (The nat bhats are the Rajasthani caste of puppeteers.)
There are numerous centers of traditional forms of puppetry in India. Single string puppets (kathputli) are found in Rajasthan; hand puppets (gulabo-sitabo) appear in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh; very large rod puppets (putul nauch) occur in West Bengal,; Orissa has leather puppets (ravanachhaya); string puppets (sakhi kundhei), hand puppets (gopa lila or kundhei naia) and rod puppets (natya guda). In Andhara Pradesh the famous leather shadow figures (tholubommalatta) may be seen. Further South in Tamil Nadu (Madras) there are some shadow puppets and string puppets (hommalatttam) that remain popular. In Karnataka (Mysore), leather puppets (tholuhommalattam) are performed in several styles. Karnataka also has a vigorous style of string puppet (gombeyatta) based on the dance theater form known as Yakshagana. In Keerala the Ramayana is performed with leather shadow figures (tholpavaikuthu), while hand puppets (pavai Kathakali) imitate the Kathakali dance theater. See puppets...India
Shadow Figures vary in size according to the regional styles, but the anatomy and construction of the figures are similar throughout the country. A shadow puppet is generally jointed at the neck, waist, hips knees, shoulders, elbows, and wrists. Sometimes each hand is made of two or three parts. Headdresses and beards are either part of the head or detachable.
In many ways Chinese shadow puppets resemble characters from live drama. They are not realistic representations of individuals, but rather idealistic portraits of types. Like actors on the stage, shadow puppets are divided into four major categories: shen, the ordinary male characters; ching, male characters whose painted faces symbolize their extraordinary character traits; tan, female characters; and ch’ou, comic characters.
Three-dimensional puppets appeared in a wider range of plays than shadow puppets. Puppetry in the round dealt with history, supernatural events, romances, and courtroom cases. Short comic scenes opened the presentation early in the day, followed by long plays. Flutes and drums provided the basic musical accompany and a whistle was blown for special sound effects or to transform the performer’s voice for different roles.
Eight to thirty strings attached to a rectangular wooden block control string puppets. The puppeteer stands behind and above the playing area holding the block in his left hand and pulling the strings with his right. A puppeteer can handle one or two figures at the same time, but particularly complicated movements require two puppeteers working the same figure.
Hand puppet heads are carved from camphor wood. The head of a hand puppet is smaller than that of a string puppet. As in other forms of Chinese puppetry, the colors and motifs of hand puppet heads follow operatic styles. The carver is free to vary some details, however, and to make his figures more individualistic within the limits of the iconography. Hair and beard made of colored silk and glued on, are also stylized to match personality. White facial coloring indicates bravery; purple, joy; green, anxiety; black, the spiritual strength of justice and righteousness; blue, an evil nature. A character with a red face often has troubles. A multi-colored face suggests that the character has a complex personality. See puppets...China
Back to the top...