Facial and Gesture Expressions in the Wayang Performance

The wayang performance is a one of the famous art performance from the Java Island. It is a kind of performance that told stories (usually the epic Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bharatayudha) with the puppets as the actors on stage. The puppeteer is known as dalang. There are several kinds of wayang forms, but two forms that are the most famous are wayang kulit (shadow puppet, with a 2D puppet and played in front of a white screen. The audience watched the silhouette projected on the other side of the screen) and wayang golek (golek puppet, with a 3D puppet, just like the puppets in The Muppet Show).

Both the puppets in the wayang kulit and wayang golek are one solid puppet, and during the play/performance, each puppet represents one character. Each puppet would be used from the start until the end of the play, without any changes in the middle play (such as changing the face) to show different kind of emotion, that usually done in the 3D puppet animation.

To show different kind of characters and each characters changing of emotion during the play, the dalang would relay on the gesture of each puppet. And the characterization of each puppet could be seen in how the form itself.

Wayang Kulit Characters

The puppet used in the wayang kulit performance is made from lamb skin, and the form is carved with care and detail to create each character. And every form that shapes the face and its part has specific purpose and meaning regarding the personality and characterization of each character. Basically, there are three kinds of character: The Satria/noble type, The Ponggawa/warrior type and The Buta/giant type.

The form of the face for each type is mostly the same. Such as the form of the face of every Satria type character is based on the same form. Because The Satria type is described as gentle, polite and tender characters, they have a small, half closed eye with sharp nose and half closed mouth. The small eye is symbolize the Satria’s ability to persist the worldly temptation and desire, while the half closed mouth to symbolize that they do not talk much as the noble.

The Ponggawa type is a brave and heroic character and is visualized as rougher character than the Satria type. They have soy bean shaped eye with long and well-shaped nose.

The Buta type is the roughest and toughest character (in relation with physical abilities), armed with anger, emotional and short tempered attitude. Therefore, they have rounded and wide opened eyes, big nose and opened mouth.

Four basic eye shapes to differentiate the characterization in wayang kulit: the small half closed eye (top left), the soy bean shaped eye (top right) and the rounded and wide opened eye (bottom left). There are variations such as in the bottom right that is used to represent the tricky and cunning character.

To differentiate of each character from every type (because there many characters for each type), wayang kulit uses the apparel, gesture and color of the face.

For characters that have calm, patience and dedication, they are presented through the bowed head position. The more ambitious, aggressive, arrogant and impatient attitude characters are presented through the head held high position. The neutral characters are presented in the head facing straight ahead.

Three kinds of head position to represent each different character: from the most calm and patience (left), neutral (middle) and aggressive (right)

Beside the gesture, the color of the face is another significant characterization in describing attitude and personalities. Black represents mature and calmness. Red describes emotional and uncontrollable desire. White represents noble heritage, young spirit, pureness and beauty. Yellow/Gold has double meaning: it could represent noble heritage or beauty (and sometimes, both). Blue represent coward ness.


The character Bima from the noble Pandawa Lima is a robust, giant-man, with straight forward attitude and kind heart. So he is presented in combination of ponggawa shaped nose, giant shaped eye with the black color and bowed head.

This is Cakil character, a giant with arrogant (because he always refuses losing in the fight he faces), cunning and tricky personalities. He is visualized with the head held high, a giant nose and mouth, cunning shaped eyes and pink colored face.


The giant king that is evil, ambitious and arrogant. He is also very emotional and quick to anger, symbolize by the red colored face, and the head held high. The crown he wears represents his status as king.


Sadewa -a noble satria type of character- is a mature, calm, patience personalities and yet a little proud of himself. He is visualized in the head facing straight, with black colored face.

Drupadi is a princess and later becoming the queen of Amarta, after she married Yudhistira, King of Amarta. She has calm and patience character and is very loyal to her husband. Therefore she is visualized with the bowed head and black colored face.

Srikandi is also a princess but not just the ordinary princess. She has tomboyish character and eventually is a skillful warrior especially in archery. To show the different with other princess that usually calm and obedient, she is presented in the head held high position (to show her aggressiveness, ambition and tomboyish personality). Because she is in fact a princess, she has yellow/gold colored face.

The above samples are how the visualization of each character represents their unique personalities. In the wayang performance, this visual characterization is also emphasized by the whole gesture of the body, the kind of clothes they wear and how they moved.

The Wayang Golek Performance

The wayang golek puppets are made from wood, and have similar expression to show each character’s personalities with wayang kulit. Because the puppets are in 3D form, the shape of each type of characters (The Satria, Ponggawa and Giant type) could be show to the extreme.

The satria class usually has similar face form, with the eyes are drawn onto the surface of the face while the ponggawa and giant’s eyes are carved to form the face. The position of the head and the face colors also used to describe each character. But some colors, such as blue that is used to represent cowardness in wayang kulit, have different meaning in wayang golek, since it is used for the Gatotkaca character that able to fly -therefore blue resembles the sky. The expression of each character could be seen in the following images.

The different personalities of each characters presented here is emphasizes with their specific gesture, shape and colors (not showed here). In the same type (such as the Satria type, two pictures at the bottom), we could acknowledge that the character in the bottom left has modest and calm type in contrast to the character in the bottom right who seem more arrogant and confident.

resume of facial expression research – april 2006, from various resources. all images are drawn by hafiz based on several references.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

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  2. Trackback: Seluk Beluk WAYANG « habillawa
  3. bidadarisukses
    May 25, 2015 @ 23:38:05

    thanks for your picture🙂

    Reply

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