by Cliff DeArment

Javanese Wayang Kulit shadow play takes place in the royal courts and villages of central Java. The purpose of Wayang is to educate and entertain. The performance, which continues all night, may begin as late as midnight and continue until sunrise.

There are two major court styles, from the palaces of Jogjakarta and Surakarta. The latter is cerebral and sedate in approach while the former is more vigorous. Other differences are subtle.

The Stage

The screen is a very wide sheet of linen up to eighteen feet across and about four or five feet tall. Only the center of the screen is actually used for action. The sides are filled by long rows of extra characters. The top and bottom of the screen are bordered with bands of red or black. The screen is stretched and hooked into an ornate wooden frame. The Wayang is usually presented in some type of pendopo, a solid raised platform with a tall roof and open walls.

The bottom of the screen is staked into three long sections of trunk from a banana tree which is mounted to the frame. Two sections lay end to end and another is placed in the middle at a lower level. The banana log is used to hold the characters upright and in place on the screen by stabbing their pointed handles firmly into the soft banana bark. Characters of lower status are placed on the lower log so that they appear to be seated on the floor.

The Javanese Dalang

The Javanese Dalang is an expert story teller, actor, singer, and character manipulator. Many traditions are upheld by the Dalang. Wayang may only be successfully performed on an auspicious day. The Dalang must enter the area from a particular direction at just the right time.

A Dalang is usually accompanied by an assistant who sits behind him in performance. The assistant must know the stories very well to be effective in anticipating the needs of the Dalang.

Character manipulation is a finely crafted art in Java, especially during battle scenes. Wayang are flipped, twirled, spun, and handled with great dexterity. The Javanese Dalang demonstrates exceptional coordination and choreography of movement, synchronized with percussive sound effects and the Gamelan orchestra.

The Kotak Chest of Characters

The large wooden chest of characters is called the Kotak (koh-tahk). It can be up to five feet long, two to three feet wide, and about two feet tall. The Kotak is placed to the near left of the Dalang. It's lid is placed to the Dalang's right as a holding tray for characters waiting to appear.

Many of the figures are placed along the sides of the screen long before the performance begins, but still more remain in the chest.

The Kotak also functions as a sound box which is struck by two small wooden hammers called Cempala (chehm-pah-lah). They are held between the toes of the right foot and in the left hand to strike the Kotak in rhythm. Three small bronze plates are hung over the side of the Kotak and also struck for accents of dance movements.

The Wayang Play

A Javanese Wayang begins with a dance of the Gunungan, or mountain, similar to the Balinese Kayon, but larger. At times two opposite Gunungan are used together. A long series of ceremonial meetings takes place featuring the primary characters of the story. A number of well known classical songs are performed by the Dalang in duet with the Gender, a lead instrument of the Gamelan accompaniment.

Most performances include poetic narration, clowning and slapstick, comment on current affairs, and struggles between good and evil inherent in the stories.


The most popular Wayang characters in Java are from the Mahabarata, Arjuna, Bima, Yudistira, and Krishna, and their opponents, Duryodana and Karna. Others include the monkey Hanuman, and the lovers Rama and Sita from the Ramayana.

Also popular are the clowns, Semar, Gareng, Bagong, Petruk, and others.

Characters on the side of good always enter the screen from the Dalang's right. Other characters enter from the left.


Javanese Wayang is accompanied by a Gamelan which includes gongs, bronze bar instruments, drums, and vocalists. Gamelan Wayang is smaller than the standard Javanese Gamelan Keliningan. It usually consists of thirteen instrumentalists.

The fourteen key Gender shares a prominent role with the drummer in realizing the performance. A complete Wayang could be over nine hours and the Gender plays almost constantly. Female vocalists known as Sinden are a recent addition to the orchestra.

Other Styles of Wayang in Java

Wayang Golek are three dimensional figures mounted on rods and no screen is used. Wayang Beber consists of picture scrolls which are unrolled as the story is told. Wayang Klitik uses flat characters similar to Wayang Kulit, but made of wood. Wayang Orang is a dance drama of actors as Wayang characters.