Destinations in Indonesia
Wayang Golek: The Legendary Wooden Puppet Theatre of West Java
The art of Wayang is one of the most prominent features of Indonesian culture. Renowned for its elaborate puppets, complex musical styles and deep philosophical teachings, this ancient form of storytelling flourished for centuries at the royal courts of Java and Bali as well as in rural areas. In 2003, UNESCO declared the art of Wayang as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The term ‘Wayang’ is derived from the Javanese word for shadow (or ‘bayang’ in Bahasa Indonesia language). Nowadays, it is most often associated with both the puppet itself as well as the complete puppet theatre performance.
Whilst, for the Javanese in Central and East Java, the art is presented in leather puppets (Wayang Kulit) and theatrical play (Wayang Wong), the Sundanese of West Java, on the other hand, developed a distinct form of Wayang called Wayang Golek or the Wooden Puppets.
Unlike its Wayang Kulit counterpart that portrays two dimensional characters made from meticulously carved cowhide, the puppets in Wayang Golek are three dimensional figures carved in wood. These puppets are operated from beneath by rods connected to the puppet's hands while a central control rod runs through the body to the head. The simple construction of the puppets belies their versatility, expressiveness and aptitude for imitating human dance. A character is expressed through facial features and the shape of the body, while the puppets' movements and voices are also determined by the character it portrays. .
Just as in Wayang Kulit, the Wayang Golek comprises not only the art form of puppetry, its carving and performance, but also its accompanying Gamelan Orchestra, singing, and epic story telling.
The central performer is the Dalang who alone handles the puppets while telling the story, and at the same time speaks the dialogues in the voices of the different characters.
Using the Sunda language of West Java, the Wayang Golek tells stories taken from Hindu’s classic saga such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. However. there are also Wayang Golek performances that tell the stories of the early spread of Islam in Java by Walangsungsang and Rara Santang, and other Sundanese tales.
Accompanying the Wayang Golek performance is the Sundanese Gamelan Orchestra which uses the traditional Salendro scale. The orchestra comprises of 2 saron, a peking, a selentem, a set of boning, a set of boning rincik, a set of kenong, a pair of gongs, a set of kendang percussion (1 kendang indung and 3 kendang kulanter), gambang, and a rebab. There is also a group of high pitched female singers known as sinden who sing the distinct songs of wayang.
According to several sources, Sunan Kudus, who was one of the 9 leaders who spread Islam on Java, known as the Wali Songo,- was the first to use Wayang Golek as the media to spread the Islam religion.
It is believed that the Sundanese Wayang Golek started to develop in the 17th century during the expansion of the new Mataram Sultanate. Some of the oldest traditions of wayang golek in fact originated from the northern coastal regions on both sides of the border between West and Central Java, such as in Cirebon, Brebes, and Tegal. In the 18th century the tradition moved to the mountainous region of Priangan in West Java Province where it eventually was used to tell stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in a tradition called Wayang Golek Purwa, that eventually developed in Bandung, Bogor and other surrounding regions.
While the main characters that are taken from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata epic poems are similar to those featured in the Wayang Kulit version of Central Java, however, a number of the punakawan (servants or jesters) were rendered Sundanese names and characteristics, such as Cepot or Astrajingga for the Javanese Bagong, and Dawala or Udel for the Javanese Petruk. These “sidekicks” with their comic characteristics also form a major appeal of West Java's Wayang Golek.