Balinese shadow puppet theater is a style of performance popular on the Indonesian island of Bali. The theater, also called Wayang, uses puppets attached to rods and moved behind a lit screen in a darkened room. Shadow puppet theater has a long and important history in Indonesia, with records of performance dating back to 930 C.E.
The two most commonly seen types of puppet in shadow puppet theater are wayang golek and wayang kulit. Golek puppets are three dimensional, carved from wood and operated by several attached rods. These puppets are generally beautifully painted, even though the decoration is not visible through the screen. Wayang kulit puppets are more common in Bali, and are made from leather and operated with buffalo-horn rods. Making the puppets is labor-intensive, with the most intricate taking months to complete.
Most of the plots of Balinese shadow puppet plays are taken from the two major Hindu texts, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Performances are held to celebrate major events and also as religious offerings to the gods. A shadow puppet theater performance can last several hours, although people are allowed to eat, talk, nap, and go in and out of the theater at will. Performances often feature comedic interludes, with a special subset of clown-like characters called the Punakawan providing bawdy humor.
The stories popular in wayang frequently revolve around the main character’s struggle to fulfill his or her dharma. In Hindu philosophy, dharma is a central concept, suggesting that each person has a duty or obligation they are meant to fulfill in life. Shadow puppet theater plays often act as a reminder of the rewards and perils of dealing with dharma, and honor the legendary figures of Hinduism that have succeeded in the lifelong quest to meet their obligation.
Puppets are operated by a master-puppeteer called a dalang. Most dalang are men, and they train for many years for their profession. During the performance, the dalang sits behind the cotton performance screen. Above his head hangs the light source, which is traditionally a lamp filled with coconut oil. Directly in front of him sits a debog, a soft wooden log into which he can stick the puppets to hold them in place.
To the right of the dalang is an intricately carved puppet chest that holds all of the puppets. As representations of the gods and sacred Hindu figures, the puppets are considered sacred and must be handled with extreme car. Depending on the type of puppet, certain traditions must be observed. At the beginning of every shadow puppet theater performance, a puppet representation of the tree of life, called a gunagun or kayon is placed in the center of the screen. Puppets representing noble or royal characters must never be allowed to dip below the level of the dalang’s head.
Shadow puppet theater has tremendous spiritual significance in Bali and throughout Indonesia. A dalang is believed to have special powers similar to a Native American shaman, including the ability to heal or exorcise evil. Those who attend a shadow puppet theater performance are believed to be temporarily warded from bad spirits and danger.
Performances of wayang are not only meant as retellings of historical epics. Some dalang use the Punakawan characters to tie in the traditional story to current events affecting the community. Because these characters are clowns, they are able to introduce these ideas comically, in the hopes of preventing any dissension or political outrage. Often, extra wayang performances are held in times of trouble or turmoil, in the hopes that the dalang can help solve the situation and restore balance to the community.