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Java (Jawa) is an island of Indonesia and the site of its capital city, Jakarta. Once the center of powerful Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, Islamic sultanates, and the core of the colonial Dutch East Indies, Java now plays a dominant role in the economic and political life of Indonesia. Home to a population of 130 million in 2006, it is the most populous island in the world. Java is also one of the most densely populated regions on Earth.

Wayang kulit
Mirror of the Javanese society

On warm evenings in many places a traditional and centuries old ritual is happening in Central Java. Tempted by the sounds of the gamelan young and old come together to be enchanted by heroes from a far past, which move as shadows on a white cloth. Unto deep in the night the public is attracted by the wayang kulitplay, in which exciting stories are changed with jokes from the daily life.

The shadow play is a part of the rich Javanese wayang kulit if puppet playing tradition. The material makes the choice of the different forms of wayang. There are flat puppets of leather, flat wooden puppets and paper wayang roles. The most popular is the wayang kulit shadow play (also known as wayang purwa, oldest wayang), where flat leather puppets are forming shadows on a screen in front of the public.
Picture: Wayang dalang
There are different theories about the origin of wayang. The most common and accepted explanation is that it came out of ancient rites with their contact to worship of ancestors. The puppet show nowadays is a mix of native, ceremonial rituals and the royal art of India. However the main lines of the events are based on Indian stories about heroes like Ramayana and Mahabharata, many stories are played that can't be found in old Sanskrit texts and don't have and Indian equivalent either. Above all the proud and unapproachable Indian personalities are adapted to more Javanese style of personalities.

In this way the oldest of the five Pandawa-brothers from the Mahabharata, the king Yudistira, is so clear of temper that his blood is transparent. The very strong Bima, the second pandawa-brother, is a mystical rescuer, which doesn't bow for anyone except for his own inner Godly adviser. The handsome Arjuna, the third in line, is loved on Java as well as for his actions on the battlefield as well as his capabilities in the sleeping room.

The dalang

The person that shows the wayang is called the dalang, he's a true artist. In the nine hours of show he doesn't only play the puppets, but he also translates the voices of the fifty personalities, gives hints to the players of the gamelan, sings and reads out loud. He guides the dialogues with knocking on the wall of the wayang-box and enhances the battlefields by kicking against a number of iron keys, a skill which tells much about his qualities for some. Carefully he builds a story, giving attention to the fact that the attention to is never fades.

Dalangs have a repertoire of hundreds of stories, so they can fulfill any wish. Some dalangs are known because of their stunning dialogues, others because of their skill what about movement of the puppets, the fighting scenes, their mystical knowledge or their good dance and jokes. A good dalang plays with his spectators; in the story he can react on things that happen the same day, or make a joke about the host, which will cause big amusement of the spectators. The show is guided by the gamelan and one or more singers ( pesinden ). Each self-respecting dalang will not leave one chance to fool the singers ans musicians. Dalangs spend years to study the wayang tradition. In the past youngsters who wanted to become dalang, were trained by already professional dalangs. Most of the times the skills will stay in the family, and will be thought from generation to a new generation.

To be resistant against the hard work in the night, and to keep the spectators interested, the dalangs train their condition and strength of mind. Therefore they do mystical practice , under them the nightly walks through the city in special dates, meditation on cemeteries and days of loneliness on cool mountain slopes. Ascetics is a proved way to gain power and strength. which are both important to fight black magic. Black magic can be called in a show full of gods and demons.
Picture: Wayang suroto
The Javanese are convinced that the charisma and the power of the dalang are sent to the audience during the show. Also the gamelan music has a protecting influence in the audience, while staying awake late means a strong mind. A special kind of stories is used for banning rituals. These stories, originated from the traditional belief in spirits and magic, have everything to do with the banning of the man-eating Batara Kala.

For centuries the shadow play has been tightly connected with religious ceremonies and transitional rites. Fitting happenings for special things like marriages, birth, circumcision, funeral and the fulfillment of a promise. Some wayang shows are used for cleaning the house from bad spirits and to keep it safe. In the past the dalangs were mainly used for entertainment for ceremonial happenings; nowadays this kind of shows are mainly done on national and religious holidays.

United knowledge

In a society, which for the storage and passing through of knowledge was mainly pointed to oral delivery in the forms of a story, the shadow play had an important role. The tradition of wayang embodies the Javanese knowledge, ethics and religion. The puppet show has an ideological function: is stresses the importance of mystic and the right behavior and use of language. Sometimes advises to the host are not avoided and nowadays the wayang shows have a role in the campaigns of the government, for example birth control.
Wayang is a mirror, in which the Javanese sees himself. Personalities are representing the models of behavior and even physical stereotypes, varying from a fine construction to a rough person and large to small. All personalities are recognizable because of their attributes. The styled puppets is believed to be originated because the Islam forbade any kind of form of showing human forms. Remarkable is that in Javanese eyes the cute heroes from the west are not very handsome at all, the most loved puppets in the front, the servant Semar and his three sons. The round-shaped Semar is called prehistoric because of his low jokes. His powerful charge is believed to be god-like.

The wayang kulit puppets are made from buffalo skin, which is being scraped, spanned and dried, before the puppet is carefully cut into shape. The standard puppets also have standard attributes, which all have their own meaning, and they are cut in a special pattern either, the last item is the eye, because that's the moment they start to life. Coloring of the puppet also has a pattern. Main colors are black, blue, yellow and red; some of the skin can be covered in gold of gold paint. A golden face indicates dignity. Red for aggression and black for wisdom. The wayang puppets from the kraton belong to the holy heirloom and are given some air every 35 days.

Wayang in the modern world

Until in the 20th century wayang traditons in the royal houses and the villages developed parallel, but separated. Later the palaces opened special dalang schools, in which the capabilities of the puppet players are trained for the aristocratic elite. In the twenties of the 20th century the tradition at the royal house of Solo became the measurement for everything that had to do with wayang. Since 1950 many dalangs return to the less refined village traditions of the past.

Traditional wayang shows normally lasted for nights. Before the regular educational system was known in the countryside children also stayed awake for that. Nowadays a wayang show seldom lasts longer than one night.
Picture: Wayang puppet
More and more dalangs learn the profession in school. Solo knows, besides sources which are organized by the kraton, a high school and academic education for traditional arts. Teachers stress the faultless reproduction of the existing texts and the technical aspects of the show. Although academic taught dalangs are very skilled, the institutions normally hire a dalang from a village then they have a show on their own. Their technical skill maybe somewhat less, but his story is more lively and humorist than the one of the academic shows.

The village wayang tradition is putting new elements in their old proven receipt of wayang shows. Disco lights, motorcyclists and women with long trousers are common now. the changes, which do not threaten the old stereotypes from the past, are being disapproved by purists, guarantee that wayang will be loved by the people as well.

In the 20th century the aim of the government is to protect the rules and aesthetics of the tradition and at the same time to take care of the numbers of people that are visiting wayang kulit. The villagers are everything but afraid that wayang will die out; they are not satisfied at the way their financial position doesn't allow them to pay more for the tradition.

In some walks of life in Central Java wayang is flourishing more than ever. But it's a different type of wayang that is showed in the royal houses and villages on the countryside. Very popular are those kinds that react against the style that was obliged in the twenties and thirties of the 20th century. They are been passed on by dalangs which like to break with the common styles.

Last revised on December 27, 2009
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