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June 10, 2011

Wayang Kulit (Extraordinary Art of Java)

 A Javanese word meaning literally ‘shadow’ or ‘ghost’. Wayang is a theatrical performance of living actors, puppest, or of shadow images held before a lighted screen from behind. The world could also rever to the puppets themselves. In most forms, the dialogue is in Javanese or in Sundanese; sometimes the Indonesian language is used. Most often the chants are in Klaten (or Kawi), Old Javanese, as archaic a language Shakespearean English. Performances are held when some trantitional even happens in a person’a life; birthdays or weddings, an important religious occasion, or as ritual entertainment during family feasts or selametans. Promotions in rank, the building of a new swimming pool, coming of age (puberty) or a circumation ceremony, all could be an excuse for show.


Wayang stories are both entertainment and protection against the spirits; while you’re in the audience the spirits can’t get at you. Wayang drama from reflect all aspects of Javanese culture. Character are judged not by their actions but by their predetermined roles in the drama. Gestures are appreciated more than commonsense, style more than content. Courage, loyalty and refinement always win out in the end and fate is accepted without question. As a foreigner you won’t be able to follow all the stories, but you could never miss the atmosphere. The audience is the best show of all. Made up of just 20 people or as many as thousands, Javanese sit up all night long in a theatre reeking with clove cigarette smoke and packed to the over flowing. Babies fall asleep on mothers laps people tip off chairs in hysterics, while kids althernatley come awake and giggle in front of or behind the screen until dawn. Though they already know all the stories and roles backwards and forwards and are constantly moving around eating, sleeping and talking, the audience never loses the thread of the story. A show is like eavesdropping on neighbors, or on friends and relatives. The suspense is excruciating and they lose all sense of time. This 3000 year old mythology applies to today, it’s living and dynamic. The gods themselves not their shadows are on the screen. Wayang characters provide types to be emulated, giving the young an idea of what qualities and virtues to strive for.

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