Puppets range from 10 to 30 inches high (25 to 75 cm). A basic village set has over 100. There are up to 500 in a palace set. Important characters are represented by several different versions in a set.
Hide is scraped thin to make it even, then cured so it will not warp. The best puppets are made from young female water buffalo parchment and the curing can take up to ten years. Village puppets use thicker water buffalo or goat hide, sometimes sticks and rice straw or even cardboard or scrap metal.
The puppet maker, using a template as a guide, scratches the outline and guide lines for details into the hide. He cuts the body free plus separate pieces for the arms. The details are punched with a wooden mallet and sets of metal punches and chisels. In a fine puppet, this takes weeks.
Puppets are fitted with long polished buffalo (kebu) horn or bamboo stick handles. The leather arms are hinged at the shoulders and elbows with metal, bone or bamboo studs, then fitted with sticks for the dalang to move. Expensive puppets made for display even have gold studs set with diamonds.
Better puppets are painted with traditional pigments including powdered burnt bone for white, lampblack, indigo, yellow ochre and cinnabar mixed in fish glue or egg tempera mediums and accented with gold leaf. Cheaper puppets are finished with store paint and gilt. Children often do the painting and the inked details so they will learn the different characters. Some characters are partially identified by their color: Vishnu is black; Siva has a gold face. Red shows a fiery temperament, white represents innocence or youth.
The puppet characters range between alus (extremely refined) and kasar (rough and crude). Refined, virtuous characters have small bodies, slitted oval eyes with pupils like rice grains, pointed noses and a modest downward gaze to delicate feet. More vigorous characters look up.
Middle size characters may be strong like good kings or princely warriors. For example, this puppet of Karno, one of the hundred Kurewas princes opposing the virtuous Pandawa princes.
More aggressive characters are physically bigger. Their noses and eyes get larger and rounder. Their teeth may show in a snarl. Some large puppets represent physically strong, but virtuous characters. Characters like ogres have only one arm.
Shadow puppets may have came from India with traders and priests who used them to explain the Hindu religion; however, they could predate Hindu influence as all the terms are Javanese. Puppet theater was established in the royal courts by the 1st century A.D. The first documentary evidence appears in the 11th - 13th centuries.
The highly stylized form of Javanese puppets is usually considered to be Islamic, but a similar style also appears on earlier Hindu carvings at Candi Panataran. Balinese shadow puppets are more naturalistic.
Besides the characters of humans and gods, there are puppets of birds, all kinds of domestic and wild animals like elephants, tigers and horses, even sets of weapons. Some puppets like the Batara Buru, equated with Siva standing on a bull, are powerful and seldom seen. Every set must have one, but it is kept in a special bag to protect it.
The puppets are always evolving, especially the clowns who sometimes ride motorbikes and smoke. The most important clowns are the Panakawan, who may represent pre-Hindu, Javanese guardian spirits. They do not appear in the Indian versions of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, but are among the more important characters in the Javanese versions.
Clowns act as advisors and supporters of the aristocracy in the puppet plays, but they represent the village and also the spirit of the land itself. They are buffoons and jesters, sensual and erotic, yet they are also the voice of common sense. Semar, the leader and most beloved of the Panakawan clowns, is sometimes referred to as a grand dalang, who mediates between the commoners and the gods.
Wayang kulit puppets are produced in workshops. The palaces (kratons) employ groups of highly skilled artisans. A village has a family that makes puppets for local use. Extended families produce puppets to sell.
A puppet maker we knew in Jogjakarta had been a dalang before WWII. After the war, he had nothing left except some clothes. He took his long trousers, cut them into bookmarks, painted them with the most popular of the wayang characters and sold them in the markets.
From this new beginning, he gradually worked up to a sprawling puppet workshop with dozens of rooms that spilled down the hillside to the river. Every little courtyard, even the pathways, were crammed with his relatives and other workers producing puppets. The top floors had large, airy performance rooms with puppet screens and gamelons. The street level had showrooms selling thousands of puppets of all kinds from the most expensive custom orders to tourist souvenir bookmarks.
Next: Wayang Golek | Indonesian Puppets | The Puppet Master and the Play | Wayang Cycles
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