Wayang is an Javanese word which means shadow or ghost; it is used to describe a theatrical performance which may be staged by live actors (wayang orang), three dimensional wooden puppets (wayang golek) or shadows of leather puppets which are manipulated before a backlit screen (wayang kulit or wayang purwa).
The performances, popular throughout Java and Bali, are often accompanied by the music of a gamelan orchestra and/or a singer or chorus. The most common themes for performance are the great pan-Asian epic tales such as the Ramayana or the Mahabharata; these tell of the creation of the universe, of good and bad, of cosmic balance, of life and death. But really, any story can be told in a wayang performance. During political campaigns leading up to hotly contested Indonesian elections, for example, puppeteers (dalang) might be hired to stage didactic wayang kulit urging people to vote for a particular party or individual.
I will confine my discussion hereafter to the wayang kulit, the most popular and best-known of the Javanese and Balinese wayang. The art itself is ancient and dates back, in Java, to at least the tenth century, during which time the island was Hindu. Though Islam swept Java - but not Bali - in the 15th and 16th centuries, this art form was so well entrenched that it survived as a vital part of the culture.
The puppets used in the wayang kulit are traditionally made from water buffalo skin that is cleaned, dried and cured - one source says for up to ten years - and then carved and pierced in a traditional pattern. Each character is distinguished by particular features such as the angle of the head, shape of the nose, profile of the body, and so on. Although the puppets are generally only viewed in silhouette, they are elaborately painted using natural pigments. The puppet's arms are jointed and attached to rods, as is the body, so that the puppeteer can manipulate the figure during the performance.
The performance usually begins at sundown which, in the tropics, occurs about the same time all year round; it may last the entire night. The audience sits on mats or simple benches, but isn't expected to stay put quietly all night long; people come and go, chat with their friends, buy snacks, joke: in short, behave as normal. The puppeteer (usually a man) sits behind a makeshift wall, the bottom half of which is opague, the top a translucent screen - usually cotton - behind which is set a light, previously a torch, now a usually an oil or even electric lamp, representing the divine light. The puppets are arranged in racks (or just jammed into a banana tree trunk) on either side of the puppeteer, the evil characters a little lower and on the left, the just characters a little higher and on the right.
During the performance the puppeteer must be careful to keep the puppets representing gods and other divinities higher than his own head, relative height being an important indicator of status throughout Asia. One or two characters - usually not more, for there is only one puppeteer - are active at a time. The puppeteer grasps the sticks of the puppets and presses the figures against the screen so that their shadows are visible to the audience; he recreates the specific voice and style of movement of each character and also interjects appropriate sound effects using bells and drums which he agitates with his feet. The puppeteer is a respected artist, presenting highly ritualized and stylized tales in the prescribed fashion, capturing all the nuances of the characters and the epic tale. Each performance is a virtuosic display of memory, eloquence, and concentration.
Although wayang kulit performances might at first blush appear to be typical Indonesian tourist attractions, you will find that the audience contains many local people, for wayang is still much-loved today. Wayang performances are regularly held to celebrate important rites of passage such as weddings and births. And in Bali there is a specific wayang kulit which is only performed at cremations, in the daylight, with no shadows; the puppets are simply manipulated in plain view.