Shadow plays or Wayang Kulit is a traditional and popular performance in Java, Indonesia. The first time I heard of Wayang Kulit, it seemed very familiar with “Mua Roi, puppetry” in Vietnam since they both use puppets to tell a story. I knew a very simple kind of puppetry when teaching kindergarten. Teachers made puppets of characters in stories and used them to tell stories for kids. Another puppetry that is more formal and organized than the one used in kindergartens is “Mua Roi Nuoc- Water puppetry.” Puppets perform on water. Thus I considered puppetry just as a kind of simple and popular musical entertainment in Vietnam.
In Java, Wayang Kulit is also a kind of puppetry, but Benjamin Brinner, the author of the book “Music in Central Java,” introduces the Wayang Kulit as an ancient art, which entertained Javanese audiences for centuries. It expresses profound messages of Javanese philosophy through symbols in physical setups of a wayang. For example, “Characters belonging to the ‘good’ side are arranged on the dhalang’s right while those from the ‘bad’ side are on his left” (Brinner 105), “the screen is the universe, the lamps are the sun, and the dhalang is God” (Brinner 106). These interpretations indicate specific elements in beliefs of major religions in Java such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity (Brinner 106). Moreover, a wayang also serves for other intentional functions such as for studying and even political purposes (Brinner 102). Other features of Javanese wayang which are very distinct from “Mua Roi” in Vietnam are conventions in a wayang performance, which guides how to be and how to perform a wayang. From these conventions, whoever is involved in a wayang performance has to reply to them strictly so that performers could cooperate well with each other, especially the master performer, dhalang, who plays the most important role in cueing other performers, and so audiences can follow the structure of a performance and understand it easily. Actually, when a wayang is performed outside Java like Ki Sutino, a dhalang, performed a wayang in the U.S. in 1991, the conventions were less strict than it is performed in Java. For example, the length of time of the performance was shorter and the music structure was flexible without following each piece of music exactly in the opening and closing of the show. However, Ki Sutino still presented specific characters of wayang as it is called a music for motion and emotion, and a music of an ancient art, a philosophy, and culture of Java.
In general, a Wayang Kulit consists of many essential elements such as a dhalang, stories, conventions, music, and the physical setup. The most important one is the dhalang, the shadow master who tells stories, manipulates the puppets and cues the gamelan. A chosen story is a very important element in a Wayang Kulit as well. In Central Java, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana cycles are two primary sources of wayang performances. These tales originated from India to Java and other parts of Southeast Asia over one thousand years ago (Brinner 107). Though the Javanese audience knows each character in these tales, they still get excited watching a wayang because each dhalang presents it specifically through a dhalang’s skills of puppet movement and singing.
Another important element is conventions such as the physical setup, plots and plot sources, making characters and characters types, using language and voice, movement patterns, and dramatic structure. Physical setup has to deal with how to setup the stage and the screen’s frame, as well as positions of puppets and performers on the stage. For example, the kayon, a very large puppet put in the center of the screen, signals a new portion of the play (Brinner 122). Plots and plot sources have to deal with popular stories of Javanese ancestors. Therefore, a dhalang can invent new characters but they must be kept within the traditional