Wayang kulit shadow puppets (2), 'Arjuna' and 'Bima', heroes of the Mahabharata epic, unpainted pierced buffalo parchment, maker unknown, Java, Indonesia, 1970-1975
Wayang kulit (shadow puppets) are a favourite medium in Java and other parts of Southeast Asia for the dramatic performance of the two great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. These ancient morality tales were brought to Southeast Asia by Indian traders and travellers around the 8th century CE. Together with other elements of Indian culture, including art, literature, religion and social systems, these tales captured the imagination of many Southeast Asian peoples who incorporated them into their existing regional cultural forms. In Java, where these puppets come from, wayang performances have been held since the 1st century CE, and have become the basis of Javanese versions of the stories. Over time, characters such as the Pandawa brothers Arjuna and Bima from the Mahabarata, and Rama, Sita and Hanuman from the Ramayana, were blended with local ancestor figures and became firm favourites.
The puppets in this collection are known as 'wayang kulit' and are made from pierced buffalo-parchment. 'Kulit' means leather, 'wayang' means play, and wayang kulit is the most popular form of wayang. Two of the puppets in this collection are unfinished but one is complete - mounted on horn handles and painted. In Java, other puppet styles include three-dimensional 'wayang golek', and wooden 'wayang klitik' carved in shallow relief. Wayang topeng is performed by people wearing masks (topeng).
Wayang kulit enjoys a primary place in Javanese social life and is more than just entertainment. The stories have a universal appeal and a cohesive function socially, often including instructions on aesthetics and morality. Performances often last from dusk to dawn as a renowned dalang (puppet master) can keep his audience rapt throughout. The Arjuna character from the Mahabharata is of particular importance in this regard as, although not flawless, Arjuna is considered 'alus' - a combination of polite, humble and refined. The opposite to 'alus' is 'kasar' - a mode of behaviour that is crude and to be abhorred - and is displayed by the villains, who are of course always vanquished in the end.
The puppets have been formed according to traditional Javanese designs, and are in typical wayang style. The physical appearance, dress and ornament of individual characters change very little as they must be immediately recognisable to the audience in silhouette. These puppets represent two heroes and from the Indian epic poem the Mahabharata.
Cut from buffalo parchment and pierced to form the lace like design so effective when projected on a screen. According to the donor, these puppets were made in Java, Indonesia - probably by small boys about ten years old with sharp young eyes.
The accompanying receipt shows the puppets were bought on 18 September 1973.