Shadow puppetry (‘wayang kulit’) is one of Bali’s most popular and ancient art forms, with its origins going back to as early as the 9th century. Performing the twin functions of entertainment and moral instruction – the triumph of good over evil – with some bawdy humour thrown in, it still enthrals audiences young and old across the island.

The Puppets

The puppets are flat, two-dimensional figures, cut from goat leather with holes punched in it to let the light through. They form lively silhouettes when placed between an oil lamp (or nowadays an electric light) and a screen made with a large sheet of white linen stretched between two bamboo poles, and are then manipulated by the hands and feet of a skilled ‘wayang’ or puppet master.

The puppets come in the form of gods, kings, giants, demons and servants. Three of the most popular characters are Hanuman the monkey god, and Rama and Sita, lovers from the Hindu epic the Ramayana. Servant-puppets tend to be coarse and large-bellied in appearance, whereas other characters are more elegant, with narrow eyes to indicate a sophisticated persona. The puppets themselves are not seen during a ‘wayang kulit’ performance – only the shadows they cast are visible, and yet the leather is beautifully decorated in colours that provide symbolic information about the characters’ individual role in the story.

The Wayang (puppeteer)

The wayang, who usually makes his own puppets and passes these skills down through the family line, has up to 60 characters at his disposal, including gods, kings, giants, demons and servants. He gives each one the spark of life with its own unique voice and movements, as well as any other required sound effects, working with a gamelan orchestra and two assistants. Not only does the wayang occasionally sing, he is required to have knowledge of different languages, an astonishing recollection of the two major Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabarata, upon which the narration is normally based, and the ability to be playful and humorous to entrance his audiences. The wayang is often a kind of priest who performs cleansings and makes blessings before and after performances, which normally take place in a temple as part of a religious ceremony or celebration.