Wayang is a Javanese word for particular kinds of theatre
When the term is used to refer to kinds of puppet theatre, sometimes the puppet itself is referred to as wayang. Performances of shadow puppet theatre are accompanied by a gamelan orchestra in Java, and by gender wayang in Bali.
UNESCO designated wayang kulit, a shadow puppet theatre and the best known of the Indonesian wayang, as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity on 7 November 2003. In return for the acknowledgment, UNESCO required Indonesians to preserve their heritage
Wayang is a generic term denoting traditional theatre in Indonesia. There is no evidence that wayang existed before Hinduism was brought to Southeast Asia from India around the first century CE. This leads to the hypothesis that the art was imported from India or China, both of which have a long tradition of shadow puppetry and theatre in general. However, there very well may have been indigenous storytelling traditions that had a profound impact on the development of the traditional puppet theatre.
The first record of a wayang performance is from an inscription dated 930 CE which says si Galigi mawayang, or "Sir Galigi played wayang". From that time till today it seems certain features of traditional puppet theatre have remained. Galigi was an itinerant performer who was requested to perform for a special royal occasion. At that event he performed a story about the hero Bhima from the Mahabharata. The kakawin Arjunawiwaha composed by Mpu Kanwa, the poet of Airlangga's court of Kahuripan kingdom, in 1035 CE describes santoṣâhĕlĕtan kĕlir sira sakêng sang hyang Jagatkāraṇa, which means "He is steadfast and just a wayang screen away from the 'Mover of the World'." Kelir is Javanese word for wayang screen, the verse eloquently analogue actual life with wayang performance where the almighty Jagatkāraṇa (the mover of the world) as the ultimate dalang (puppet master) is just a thin screen away from us mortals.
Wayang kulit is a unique form of theatre employing light and shadow. The puppets are crafted from buffalo hide and mounted on bamboo sticks. When held up behind a piece of white cloth, with an electric bulb or an oil lamp as the light source, shadows are cast on the screen. The plays are invariably based on romantic tales, especially adaptations of the classic Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Some of the plays are also based on local happening or other local secular stories. It is up to the conductor or dalang or master puppeteer to decide his direction
The dalang is the genius behind the entire performance. It is he who sits behind the screen and narrates the story. With a traditional orchestra in the background to provide a resonant melody and its conventional rhythm, the dalang modulates his voice to create suspense thus heightening the drama. Invariably, the play climaxes with the triumph of good over evil.
The figures of the wayang are also present in the paintings of that time, for example, the roof murals of the courtroom in Klungkung, Bali. They are still present in traditional Balinese painting today. The figures are painted, flat woodcarvings (a maximum of 5 to 15 mm thick—barely half an inch) with movable arms. The head is solidly attached to the body. Wayang klitik can be used to perform puppet plays either during the day or at night. This type of wayang is relatively rare.
Wayang today is both the most ancient and most popular form of puppet theatre in the world. Hundreds of people will stay up all night long to watch the superstar performers, dalang, who command extravagant fees and are international celebrities. Some of the most famous dalang in recent history are Ki Nartosabdho, Ki Anom Suroto, Ki Asep Sunandar Sunarya, Ki Sugino, and Ki Manteb Sudarsono.
Wayang kulit, or shadow puppets, are without a doubt the best known of the Indonesian wayang. Kulit means skin, and refers to the leather construction of the puppets that are carefully chiselled with very fine tools and supported with carefully shaped buffalo horn handles and control rods. The stories are usually drawn from the Hindu epics the Ramayana, the Mahabharata or from the Serat Menak, (a story about the heroism of Amir Hamza
There is a family of characters in Javanese wayang called Punakawan; they are sometimes referred to as "clown-servants" because they normally are associated with the story's hero, and provide humorous and philosophical interludes. Semar is the father of Gareng (oldest son), Petruk, and Bagong (youngest son). These characters did not originate in the Hindu epics, but were added later, possibly to introduce mystical aspects of Islam into the Hindu-Javanese stories.They provide something akin to a political cabaret, dealing with gossip and contemporary affairs.
The puppet figures themselves vary from place to place. In Central Java the city of Surakarta (Solo) and city of Yogyakarta are most famous and the most commonly imitated style of puppets. Regional styles of shadow puppets can also be found in West Java, Banyumas, Cirebon, Semarang, and East Java. Bali produces more compact and naturalistic figures, and Lombok has figures representing real people. Often modern-world objects as bicycles, automobiles, airplanes and ships will be added for comic effect, but for the most part the traditional puppet designs have changed little in the last 300 years.
Historically, the performance consisted of shadows cast on a cotton screen and an oil lamp. Today, the source of light used in wayang performance in Java is most often a halogen electric light. Some modern forms of wayang such as Wayang Sandosa created in the Art Academy at Surakarta (STSI) has employed spotlights, colored lights and other innovations.
The handwork involved in making a wayang kulit figure that is suitable for a performance takes several weeks, with the artists working together in groups. They start from master models (typically on paper) which are traced out onto skin or parchment, providing the figures with an outline and with indications of any holes that will need to be cut (such as for the mouth or eyes). The figures are then smoothed, usually with a glass bottle, and primed. The structure is inspected and eventually the details are worked through. A further smoothing follows before individual painting, which is undertaken by yet another craftsman. Finally, the movable parts (upper arms, lower arms with hands and the associated sticks for manipulation) mounted on the body, which has a central staff by which it is held. A crew makes up to ten figures at a time, typically completing that number over the course of a week. However, unfortunately there is not strong continuing demand for the top skills of wayang craftspersons and the relatively few experts still skilled at the art sometimes find it difficult to earn a satisfactory income.
The painting of less expensive puppets is handled expediently with a spray technique, using templates, and with a different person handling each color. Less expensive puppets, often sold to children during performances, are sometimes made on cardboard instead of leather.