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A person seated, facing away, maneuvers two intricately carved and colored two-dimension shadow puppets against a white screen.

Photo by Grace Kolin, Wikimedia Commons

  • In Javanese Wayang Kulit and Contemporary Shadow Puppetry, the Medium Is the Message

    While I am accustomed to what is clearly visible, the colors of my everyday surroundings, I often fail to contemplate the shadows left behind.

    Shadows give form to what is illuminated, revealing the textures and edges of what is visible. They dance, vibrate, and bend in submission to a source of light. Worldwide, ancient cultures discovered the potential of harnessed light and shadow to breathe life into some of humanity’s great epics. Mentions of shadow puppetry appear in Chinese and Indian texts 200 years prior to the Christian era. Since then, the influence of shadow puppetry has spanned millennia to find a place in modern video, film, and theater. Studying the art form reveals a dynamic tradition that deepens the magic that continues to enchant artists and audiences around the globe.

    In the ancient Javanese tradition of wayang kulit, the medium of shadow puppetry is nothing short of a metaphor for the human soul. According to anthropologist Clifford Geertz, the puppeteer, or dhalang, intentionally designs and colors leather shadow puppets to symbolize the character’s inner qualities. For instance, Bima from the Hindu epic The Mahabharata, is often crafted with a painted black face indicating humility, inner calm, and self-control.

    During a performance, the dhalang sees the puppet itself behind the screen and, by extension, the character’s painted inner qualities. The audience sees Bima’s shadow on the screen. This shadow represents his outward behavior in the world.

    A two-dimensional, articulated shadow puppet of a human figure laying flat, with the rod to control it coming down from the hand on the right. Its body is painted gold with red embellishments, and its head is black, with facial features in gold and red.
    Shadow puppet of the character Bima from the epic story The Mahabharata. Made of hide, horn, gold leaf. Carved, painted, and gilded.
    Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum
    Closeup of the head of the puppet in the previous photo. A feathered red mustache and swirling shapes carved in the black hair are visible.
    Shadow puppet of the character Bima from the epic story The Mahabharata. Made of hide, horn, gold leaf. Carved, painted, and gilded.
    Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum

    A gamelan, a traditional orchestra made up of bronze gongs and other percussion instruments, provides the soundtrack to Bima’s movements. Musical changes reflect his personality and emotions. The dhalang’s absolute control over the puppet, the ability to see their puppet’s inner qualities, and their command over the gamelan parallels God’s power over men.

    Combined, these elements form a symbolic framework, expressing a worldview in which the heroes, villains, and great wars of mythology aren’t to be thought of as living outside of ourselves, but as an intimate performance of forces within each of us. In the Javanese conception of soul, psychological forces of courage, purity, and will are embodied in characters that play a part in the grand epic that is each human life. The characters’ shadows become an active meditation for the audience. Wayang kulit suggests that practical, everyday decisions shape an individual’s overall character and determine whether heroic characteristics like Bima’s ultimately prevail.

    The dhalang plays a multifaceted role as a leader in wayang kulit and Javanese society. Many puppeteers even harness the art form’s popularity to spread political messages.

    “The dhalang is very highly respected by the community—a very important man,” says Midiyanto, a Javanese dhalang and gamelan instructor at UC Berkeley. “When he is not performing, he acts as a spiritual advisor and healer. While performing wayang kulit, he teaches what is good and bad manners, lessons about how to live a good life, and spreads political messages from the local government. When there is a political campaign, the politicians will ask the dhalangs to spread their campaign messages to the people of Java. A dhalang has the ability to reach thousands of people with a performance.”  

    A puppeteer crouches in front of a white screen, holding a 2D puppet to its surface, lit by an oil lamp.
    A dhalang behind the screen during a traditional wayang kulit performance.
    Photo by P Manuada Mersana Sury, Wikimedia Commons

    Javanese wayang kulit is one manifestation of shadow puppetry’s rich and layered history. Shadow play serves a vital cultural role throughout Southeast Asia, China, Nepal, India, Turkey, Armenia, and Greece, acting as a medium for entertainment, social, and religious gathering.

    In recent years, due in part to industrialization, urbanization, and increasing access to television, indigenous forms of shadow play are rare. However, universities and the internet have democratized the art form, allowing shadow play to reach a growing contemporary audience. While many of wayang kulit’s characters and stories are the same as they were a hundred years ago, scholar Barbara Hatley writes about how today’s young dhalangs often emphasize the ambitions and tastes of modern Indonesian youth. For example, among the wayang kulit characters, the values of bravery and loyalty have replaced gentleness and contemplation. Also, puppeteers have added more humorous sequences and contemporary references.

    While traditional shadow puppetry practices are evolving from the inside out, migration has made for ongoing cultural exchange from the outside in. Beginning in the 1960s, American artists traveled to Southeast Asia to study traditional shadow puppetry, while Western university funding for visiting Asian artists brought dhalangmasters to the United States. Today, wayang kulit masters perform internationally and collaborate with artists and theater companies around the world. Western puppeteers and animators look to traditional shadow puppetry practices for creative inspiration.

    Silhouettes of four stylized human figures in shadow puppet form again a screen. On either side of them are space-shaped stationary scenery pieces.
    The puppet shadows represent the characters’ outward behavior in the world.
    Photo by Ivuvisua, Wikimedia Commons

    According to Kathy Foley and Rainer Reusch, contributors to the World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts, this new cooperation created a shadow puppetry renaissance in the 1970s and ’80s with major centers in Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, Korea, China, and Southeast Asia. Since then, the mysterious allure of projected shadow and the power of silhouette as a narrative device continue to inspire artists to dream up innovative ways to incorporate the art form into their performance repertoire.

    The contemporary theater collective Manual Cinema formed in Chicago in 2010 with the mission of employing shadow puppetry to tell new stories. Artistic directors Julia Miller and Kyle Vegter describe how, for the audience, shadow puppet silhouettes offer an ambiguous space where viewers are invited to place themselves in a character’s role.

    “The silhouette has a lot of detail, but there is also space in it that the audience can often make connections for themselves,” Miller explains. “Because we do have a nose, a mouth, and an eyelash, but there is room to place someone that they know on that character or an experience they had on that character. When we talk to the audience afterward, it is impactful to them. There is something magical about seeing them come to life. It’s also a negotiation between you and the audience in that this isn’t real, but we’re all making it real together.”

    Manual Cinema performances contain no dialogue. A live orchestra plays to original scores that amplify the emotions of the characters, just as the gamelan orchestra does in wayang kulit. The puppet silhouettes and the omission of dialogue provide the space for audiences to superimpose themselves upon the characters. The story arc and music elicit memories of connection, loneliness, love, loss, and tribulation. In this way, the puppeteers and members of the audience are co-creators of the narrative.

    Video directed by Helen Lehrer

    Recently, Manual Cinema’s work was featured in the major live-action horror film Candyman, marking a historic moment for the art of shadow puppetry.

    “We ended up doing a lot of experimentation with ‘traditional’ shadow puppetry that we’d never explored before, including sometimes using a flame as a light source, which goes all the way back to ancient forms of shadow play,” co-artistic director Drew Dir reflected in an interview with Colossal.

    “I think it further calcified the deep history and the folklorish elements of the Candyman story and the stories around trauma in general—how we express it, how we turn it into tales to pass down to our children,” Nia DaCosta, the film’s director, reflected in a Garage Magazine interview. “The pro was that I got to lean on the genius of the amazing minds at Manual Cinema. It was also useful in order to portray violence against Black people without having to show real Black people being brutalized.”

    The unique form of audience engagement that shadow puppetry offers manifested tastefully for the Candyman narrative. The first trailer for the film, released in June 2020, “turned out to be more like a short film than a trailer,” Dir told Colossal. It is composed entirely of shadow puppetry without dialogue, in Manual Cinema’s signature style, and features mini vignettes “based on real victims from American history who suffered racial violence and whose unrecognized trauma might haunt us today.”

    Despite a global culture where live-action film and 3D animation dominate the mainstream entertainment industry, shadow puppetry continues to hold a timeless power that draws people to the medium.

    The language of shadow puppetry has a primal and mysterious appeal, like sitting around a crackling campfire on a pitch-black night. Its power is ingrained in our need to gather in community and be transported by stories that invite the personal stirrings of the moment. Audiences of shadow play must only suspend their disbelief to undergo a reflective experience on the condition of their own souls.

    Shadow puppet silhouettes on a white screen. The scene depicts a man at an easel, painting the woman seated in front of him.
    A scene from Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta and co-written by Oscar-winner Jordan Peele, with shadow puppetry by Manual Cinema.
    Photo © Universal Pictures

    Helen Lehrer is a multimedia shadow play artist and a former media intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She created the puppetry for Gary The Bard’s song “The Vagrant Lyre Girl.”


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