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Wayang on International Stages...
Matthew Isaac Cohen sheds light on the ways of wayang

Wayang, the puppet theatre of Indonesia, was declared as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003. It is not the only puppet theatre with this status – but is in the company of Italy’s opera dei pupi (2001), Japan’s bunraku (2003) and Cambodia’s sbek thom (2005). Among these forms, wayang is by far and away the puppet theatre that comes closest to being a masterpiece of ‘humanity,’ as opposed to a particular nation or region.

Bunraku, for example, is a copyrighted name for a variety of Japanese joruri (puppet theatre), just as Muppet is a copyrighted name for a variety of mouth puppet with rodded arms. Bunraku can only be performed by the National Bunraku Theater, Muppets can only be manipulated by those designated by the Jim Henson Company. Using ‘Bunraku’ as a generic term for tabletop or back-operated puppet is not only wrong on aesthetic grounds, it also is a legal breech.  (See Penny Francis’ article, Bunraku and Tabletop: What’s in a Name? in AO 21.)

Wayang has a very different sort of genealogy and international presence. There is first a plurality of wayang theatres that have developed in Indonesia. The best known wayang types are wayang kulit and wayang golek. Wayang kulit are shadow puppets made from filigreed buffalo hide and manipulated from below by rods. Wayang golek are wooden rod puppets with cloth skirts. Other wayang forms include wayang krucil (also known as wayang klithik)—flat wooden puppets manipulated in the style of wayang kulit but without a screen; wayang wong (a theatrical form in which human actors take on puppet roles); and wayang beber (scroll theatre).

Both wayang kulit and wayang golek exist in various regional inflections in Indonesia. Wayang kulit in central Java, for example, is accompanied by a gamelan orchestra of 20 to 30 musicians and used to enact stories of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, Sanskirt epics transported to Indonesia in the first millennium of the common era. In contrast, wayang kulit Sasak (a form of wayang performed in Lombok, an island east of Bali) is accompanied by a small ensemble of drums, gongs, cymbals and a bamboo flute and used to enact stories of Islamic heroes, principally Amir Hamzah, the uncle of the Prophet Mohammad. Audiences watch wayang kulit in central Java from both sides of the shadow screen – today, most spectators prefer to watch the puppets and the gamelan than the shadows, and I have attended performances where access to the shadows was blocked by security guards. Wayang kulit Sasak is performed in elevated puppet booths, and spectators can only observe the shadows. Wayang golek is limited to the island of Java, but likewise exists in various regional inflections: wayang golek Sunda (also called wayang golek purwa), wayang menak, wayang cepak. Each has different story cycles, dramaturgical conventions, puppet styles, musical accompaniment

Wayang kulit has traveled internationally for centuries. Javanese migrants brought wayang kulit puppetry to Malaysia, Suriname and other countries and local variants became rooted in foreign soils. Indonesians have also developed numerous non-traditional wayang forms over the last century. These range from a variant of wayang created in the Indonesian revolution (1945-49) to flame anti-Dutch sentiments, a wayang form developed to tell animal stories to children and the postmodern experiments of Heri Dono, Slamet Gundhono and others.

Wayang puppets were collected by European travellers and museums, and the form has had discernable influence on European puppetry from the nineteenth century onwards. English stage director and theorist Edward Gordon Craig collected wayang kulit, and wrote about them, published illustrations of them and used them for teaching. Craig’s ‘black figures,’ which were used for both model theatre and as woodblocks for printing, have numerous wayang-like iconographic features. Craig edited his theatre journal The Mask under the pseudonym of John Semar – after Semar, the principal clown-servant of Javanese wayang kulit. Wayang golek was the primary inspiration for the rod puppet theatres of Richard Teschner (Austria), Nina Simonovich-Efimova and Ivan Efimov (Russia) and Marjorie Batchelder (USA). These puppeteers adapted the basic wayang golek design, making the puppets more expressive and capable of greater degrees of articulation. Few puppeteers working today recognize wayang golek as the key root source for rod puppetry – but before Batchelder coined the word ‘rod-puppet’ these puppets were generically referred to as wayang golek in the English puppet literature.

I can locate no accounts of European or American puppeteers studying directly with Indonesian puppet masters before the 1960s, and international tours by Indonesian puppeteers were very rare. Wayang was exhibited as a rare and exotic import by Jan Bussell and others of his generation. The situation is quite different today. Wayang are freely available for purchase in shops in Camden Market and Haddenham and on e-bay. There are many opportunities for foreigners to study puppetry in Indonesia—including a government Darmasiswa scholarship to study puppetry at prestigious conservatoires. British-based puppeteers who perform wayang include Tim Byard-Jones, Sarah Bilby, Bramantyo Prijosusilo, Anna Ingleby and the author.

Indonesian puppeteers who have performed in the United Kingdom in recent years include Joko Susilo, Asep Sunandar Sunarya, Purbo Asmoro, Slamet Gundhono, Sitras Anjilin and I Made Sidia (who appeared in the celebrated Australian-Indonesian production, The Theft of Sita).

Wayang is fully a part of the international puppetry scene, with many exciting developments ahead.

Matthew Isaac Cohen performed a 12-hour production of the Ramayana with the Southbank Gamelan Players at the British Library in May-June 2008; video clips and a podcast about this production can be found here. Please click here to listen to a podcast interview with Matthew about wayang. The author can be contacted at

Top images l to r: Traditional Wayang puppetry;
Matthew Isaac Cohen performing the Ramayana at the British Library (photo courtesy of the artist)
Bottom image: Australian-Indonesian production The Theft of Sita, presented in the UK at Riverside Studios

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