Balinese Shadow Puppet – Wayang Kulit

If you are more than just a casual tourist and interested deeply in Bali culture, then Wayang Kulit is perfect for you. This show is a traditional performing art of moving shadow puppets on a stretched of white cloth. The show will be only played during an evening of special days for Balinese like temple anniversary “odalan”, wedding, tooth filling ceremony “metatah”, and cremation. All stories to be told are mostly based on two Hindu epic stories of Ramayana and Mahabarata. 

The term Wayang Kulit is pretty self-descriptive, kulit means skin in Bahasa Indonesia and wayang means puppet. The puppet is commonly made from the buffalo or cow skin, decorated with matching leather lace, painted and finally braced with sticks. The sticks are used to control the movement of arms, legs and even sometimes jaws of the puppets. A single puppet may take a couple of weeks to make, imagine a whole set for a long story which can take up to hundreds of characters and background puppets; this could take months even a year.

The puppet masters are called dalang; he is also considered as a lay priest among Balinese and able to perform holy water blessing in some occasions. Not only have to be able to perform swiftly with dozens of characters in a story, but they also must be able to craft their own puppet sets, fluent in Javanese Kawi language, has a wide vocal range, great musical senses and basically everything that makes him a great showman to bring the puppets alive.

The writer was very lucky to have a chance of visiting Jagatnatha temple in Denpasar during its odalan and witness the wayang kulit show after praying together with other worshippers in the main temple area. It was about 7:30 pm when soft tinkling gamelan music began to play in the bale area next to the inner sanctum of the temple. Flocks of people were gathering in front of the white screen, spread between two pillars in the pavilion. Behind the screen, there is a full team of performers consisting of dalang the master puppet; two assistants called ketekong sitting on the right and left side of dalang and four gamelan players.

The show will be started when dalang lit up the traditional lamp call petromaks, followed by a prologue of the story that delivers together with the appearance of kayon (a puppet describing places or events on each scenes) which indicates the beginning of a story and changing of the settings later on the show. During the story being told, when a puppet character is on mute, its stick will be stabbed on a log of banana stem put at the floor of the stage. But once a character has its line, dalang will play it by pulling strings attached to arms and legs of the puppets. The assistant sitting on the right of dalang will pass the new characters that will appear on the screen, while the other assistant on the left will collect puppet characters that are no longer appear on the next scene.

Every scene of the show will be accompanied by gamelan music fits to the story of each scene. Energetic music will be played in the beginning or whenever good things happen in the story. During the battle scene, a furious tune will mash in, and of of course a mellow song will be played on a sad scene. The show will last for three to six hours non-stop, depending on what kind of event. Important guests, family and relatives are expected to stay for a whole show; however, when the invitees bring children or need to go working on the next day, they tend to leave earlier and use kids and work as an excuse.

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