The History of Shadow Puppet Shows in Indonesia and Malaysia

Shadow puppet shows are historically important and continue to be incredibly popular in many countries. Although shadow puppetry has its origins in China and India, in Indonesia and Malaysia this form of puppetry carries much cultural significance and is full of tradition.

A little history

Shadow puppetry began thousands of years ago and is still used to convey folk tales and legends of the past. Many shadow puppetry performances have been developed around themes from Chinese operas and often take the form of religious epics in which good and evil do battle.

Greece and Turkey both have a rich history of shadow puppetry but plays in these countries are more often based on everyday life and employ features of physical comedy.

In the 17th century, shadow puppetry enjoyed incredible popularity as the special art of cutting silhouettes out of paper was in vogue. The first full-length animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, was made in 1926 by Lotte Reiniger, a shadow puppeteer from Germany. Reiniger used hand-cut opaque figures that, in silhouette, were brought to life on an animation table.

Traditional shadow puppets

Leather was used to make flat, traditional shadow puppets and particular areas within the puppet were punched out with a sharp knife to signify facial features and clothing. These puppets were created from individual pieces and connected using wire or string. Long rods were used to manoeuvre the puppets from behind a translucent white screen made from cloth or paper. The audience would have seen the moving shadows of the puppets, the cut out areas of which allowed the light to shine through.

Shadow puppets today

A wide range of materials, including wood, paper, plastic, cloth, plants, silk, utensils and feathers are used to create the shadow puppets used today. Typically, these contemporary puppets are made with three dimensional wire heads and bodies made of cloth.

Special lighting effects are often used, including different pieces of lighting technology used in theatres, projectors, reflected light and hand held lights.

Shadow puppetry in Indonesia

In Indonesia, shadow puppet theatre carries particular popularity in Java and Bali and is called Wayang Kulit.

In Java, it is not uncommon for a shadow puppet theatre performance to run for many hours — up to six hours and sometimes all night long (staff at various Bali resorts can provide details about performances taking place in the area). A Wayang Kulit company commonly consists of a puppet master, players and a female choral singer. Sometimes, a player will also take the part of a male choral singer.

In Indonesian shadow puppetry, the puppet master controls the puppets from behind a cotton screen that is illuminated by an oil or halogen lamp to create an effect that can be likened to animation. The puppets are animated through the movement of hands and the most skilled puppeteers can effectively show their puppets to be walking, dancing, fighting, nodding and laughing.

Wayang Kulit is so important and impressive that, in 2003, it was designated one of the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.

Shadow puppetry in Malaysia

The name Wayang Kulit is also the name by which shadow puppetry is known in Malaysia. In this country, such puppetry usually features mythical stories and tales of morality. Malay shadow plays are quite often considered the earliest forms of animation and almost always have an educational moral that is deduced through a battle. Many Malaysia hotels assist visitors with information and access to these performances.

In the northern parts of Malaysia, the Wayang Kulit carries a strong affinity with Thai shadow puppetry, while in southern Malaysia, the Javanese influence is far more apparent.

Malaysian shadow puppets are usually made from leather and moved using sticks or handles made from buffalo horns. The shadows of the puppets are created using an oil or halogen lamp from behind a piece of cotton cloth.

Shadow puppetry is an amazing and historically and culturally significant art form in Malaysia and Indonesia. Today, visitors to these countries are well advised to see a shadow puppet performance and witness the skillfulness and wonder that characterises this very old form of puppetry.

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