Not Your Father’s Shadow Puppets…

During my years as an undergraduate at University of Guelph, I enrolled in a course entitled Theatre Cultures (THST 3540). In it we examined a really fascinating form of shadow puppet theatre called Wayang Kulit (translated literally as: puppets made from [buffalo] skin). This form of ancient puppetry originated in the archipelago of Indonesia. Guess where we are now?

Yes, yes! You’re so smart!  We’re now in Jakarta (specifically) and today we visited the Wayang Museum with our Couch Surfing host’s seven year old son (Matt Joseph or “MJ”) and her house keeper (Anis). Traditional shadow puppets are crafted with dried buffalo skin. Each puppet takes about four days to make, which isn’t at all surprising considering the levels detailed craftsmanship seen in each puppet.

Wayang Kulit


Pretty impressive, especially considering the colours and decorations are never actually seen by the audience (it’s just their shadows that are seen). They use light from a coconut oil lamp to project the puppet’s shadows onto the back of a large, semi-transluscent leather screen. The flickering of the lamp makes the puppets appear to “breathe” and come to life. The puppeteer will retell traditional stories that highlight the moral and cultural values of Indonesian culture.

To the side of the screen is a Gamelan (orchestra) that plays ancient bells and percussive instruments to help in the story telling.

We were guided around by a spirited man who spoke little English but was able to answer all of the questions we had about the art. Indonesian theatre culture is very rich and colourful, in fact I saved some notes I took on the meaning behind the colours of the puppets from my studies in Guelph:

White: purity, self-control, detachment.

Yellow: same as above but with compassion.

Green: fertility and steadfastness and is associated with Vishnu.

Black: witches.

Blue: bravery and intelligence.

Red: associated with Brahma the creator and his element fire brings strife and symbolizes both courage and lack of self-control.


So what traits might this character display? (note: not a shadow puppet)


I find this all really interesting. Hopefully this style of puppetry will continue to live on for generations to come. With any luck, we’ll catch a live performance before we leave Indonesia. I think there’s something very special and intimate in this form of storytelling that most other mediums struggle to capture.