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Wayang Kulit Makers of Java

The Jungle Journal

16 Feb 2024

Indonesia’s centuries-old shadow puppet-making tradition as practiced by artisans today​

Yogya (pron. Jo-Ja) is considered the cultural centre of Java, and post-independence from the Dutch, it was briefly the capital of Indonesia. Wayang kulit makers tend to live and work in the outskirts of this particular city, where the roads narrow and tyre stores give way to sugar cane.

Wayang kulit, Indonesia’s sacred shadow puppet show, is a form of traditional theatre complete with gamelan orchestra and a puppet master called a dalang. It is mainly practiced in Java and Bali, based on Hindu stories such as the Mahabharata.

Top shows cost over 50,000,000 IRP (£2,600) to put on, including the Dalang, gamelan orchestra and decorative set. However, during the COVID pandemic walang kulit shows were banned as large gatherings were prohibited, so the creators turned to producing work for collectors.

Walang kulit puppets are produced on demand for both dalang and for collectors who spend tens of thousands of pounds to expand their collection. The true craftsmen follow the rules and customs set down centuries ago for the design and creation of the wayang kulit characters, which are far more intricate than souvenir versions. The production time for each puppet varries but ranges from two weeks to a month, depending on the amount of detailed work required.

The puppets themselves are made of fine buffalo skin (kulit means skin) which is sketched out, cut, shaped, sanded and then chiselled using a set of fine tools made from bicycle spokes.

The puppets are then delicately painted; the more expensive wayang kulit puppets feature gold leaf imported from China.

Some walang kulit makers use hammers made out of buffalo horn, and the rods, handling spine and joints are all made of buffalo bone. There are so many characters that when you ask the wayang kulit makers how many there are they tend to laugh and roll their eyes – every character has versions of the character as well.

While these artisans all learnt at the hands of a master before them, the revival in interest in the last 25 years in Java’s cultural heritage has led to walang kulit courses now being taught at Yogyakarta’s ISI Faculty of Fine Arts (Jurusan Seni Murni FSR ISI).

Those who collect walang kulit keep them in large coffin-like boxes, lying flat one on top of another, with each box dedicated to a craftsman. The mixing of puppets made by different makers would be noticed immediately.

Collectors can spend tens of thousands of pounds on expanding their set of puppets, joining waitlists to secure the most prized gold leaf puppets. Old wayang kulitpuppets are very treasured – I was shown one 150 years old.

Traditional performances of walang kulit can last for up to nine hours although these days there are ‘cut down’ versions for shorter, younger attention spans. It is the dalang, the puppet master, who controls the marionettes, putting on different voices and improvising with topical news, politics, and religious subjects of the day. Supporting him is a gamelan orchestra, a collection of Indonesian percussive instruments that are played such harmony that it is considered part of gotorong royung– the life philosophy of working together to communally support each other.

These shows and performances can be watched from the front where the colourful puppets appear as shadows illuminated by halogen lights, or from the back to see the dalang in action as the gamelan plays.

This photo essay features:

Mr Sarjiano, a walang kulit craftsman since 1980. Now operating out of a small workshop at the front of his house, he has been a guest presenter many times at schools to discuss and demonstrate his craft.

Mr Jumakir, has been a walang kulit craftsman for 46 years and is now working out of one of the more well-known studios, Sagio Griya Ukir Kulit (Sagio Puppet Handicraft).

Mr Suryadi, an extensive Wayang Kulit collector, who puts on shows once a week for local children to learn about the traditions at Kali Opak restaurant and gallery @kaliopak.wo

Tour organized by Mr Deny, Yogyakarta Tour Guide

Originally Published in The Jungle Journal

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