Wayang kulit shadow puppet, 'Sumbadra' (Arjuna's No. 1 wife), pierced and painted buffalo parchment / horn, maker unknown, Java, Indonesia, 1970
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. 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 have become the basis of popular Javanese versions of the stories.
The puppets in this collection are known as 'wayang kulit'; they are made from pierced buffalo-parchment ('kulit' means 'leather') and are the most popular form of wayang (play). Two of the puppets are unfinished but this example 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, which enjoys a primary place in Javanese social life, is more than just entertainment. Performances often last from dusk to dawn as a renowned dalang (puppet master) can keep his audience rapt throughout. The stories have universal appeal and a cohesive function socially, often including instruction on aesthetics and morality. The Arjuna character from the Mahabharata, Sumbudra's husband, is of particular importance in this regard as, although not flawless, Arjuna is 'alus' - a combination of polite, humble and refined. The opposite to 'alus' is 'kasar' - a way of behaving that is crude and to be abhorred - and displayed by the villains, who are of course always vanquished in the end.
The design of the puppet, with its long nose and forward-leaning posture is characteristic of the wayang form. The puppet, which was made in Java, in Indonesia, was cut from buffalo parchment, pierced to give it the characteristic lace-like appearance when projeted on a screen, then brightly painted and mounted on horn handles for manipulation. According to the donor, puppets like these were "made by small boys of about ten years old with sharp eyes".
The puppet was purchased by the donor in Jakarta, Indonesia on 18 September 1973 to use in audio-visuals for Educational Media Australia.