Wayang kulit, or shadow puppets as they are more commonly known as in English, are part of an ancient heritage of pre-Hindu culture that still exists in many regions around Indonesia. The word wayang means puppet, while kulit means skin. Wayang puppets are cut from thin pieces of buffalo hide and intricately carved and decorated to symbolize different characters. The figures are braced with a single support stick and often have articulating arms and legs that can be manipulated to act out dramatic scenes.
In Bali a wayang kulit performance is a popular form of village entertainment that invariably accompanies a religious ceremony or rite. Performances are usually adaptations of epic legends and tales that are retold in story form against a white cloth screen that is lit with a shimmering oil lantern.
Wayang kulit is performed by a lone puppeteer called a dalang. The dalang is responsible for single-handedly working the puppets and simultaneously narrating the story by altering the tone of his voice to represent the various characters. Often a Balinese dalang is not only a performing artist, but also a religious leader or lay priest. He is able to initiate various purification ceremonies pertaining to the Hindu religion. A dalang must also be a master of language and have knowledge of ancient Javanese Kawi as well as being fluent in all levels of the Balinese dialect. The success of a wayang kulit performance relies entirely on the skill of the dalang and his ability to enthrall the audience by giving his puppets a sense of spirit.
A traditional wayang kuilt performance normally starts late into the evening and it can last up to several hours with the audience sitting crossed legged on the ground enjoying the slight chill of the night air. Each performance includes artistic elements of literature, drama and voice characterization where the dalang takes on the roles of director, choreographer and performer. The dalang must possess a diverse knowledge that covers topics in philosophy, religion, culture and current affairs. He must have the ability to summarize the story with fresh dialogue and add touches of humour. Often references are made to current news headlines and the inclusion of a few crude comments always arouses interest.
A dalang always travels with an assistant who has the job to keep the puppets in an orderly fashion. A small group of musicians also accompanies each puppet performance on a set of Balinese xylophone instruments made from bronze keys atop bamboo resonators. The music is purely a backup to the dialogue that erupts at a rapid pace to emphasize a particular scene and then dissolves into a gentle tinkle.
Many wayang kulit performances are inspired by the great Hindu epics of the Mahabharata and Rayamana, which are tales with the universal theme of the triumph of good over evil. Performances are cleverly entwined with subliminal ethical messages. Characters generally fall into the categories of good and bad. There are always scenes of battle, hostility and underhand trickery, but the closing act invariably depicts a glorious victory for the hero over his enemies. Despite scenes of violence, wayang kulit subconsciously teaches the audience the advantages of leading a moral and harmonious life.