Shadow puppet of Bima
Java, Indonesia, AD 1800-1816
This puppet depicts Bima, one of the brother heroes of the Indian epic the Mahabharata. It was used in performances ofthis epic during a ‘theatre of shadows’ performance at the Javanese court.
'The Theatre of Shadows' is an ancient art form, still performed today in Java and neighboring islands. There are different types of shadow theatre in other parts of South East Asia and India, with yet other traditions in China and the Middle East. Most of these go back to Indian prototypes and spread from the subcontinent along with Buddhism, Indian scripts, coinage and further elements of ancient Indian civilisation.
Javanese shadow theatre is called Wayang Kulit - literally ‘Skin Theatre’ referring to the thin, carefully prepared translucent buffalo hide the puppets are made from. The word Wayang is related to the Javanese word Bayang, which means spirit.
Modern performances can last through the night and are carried out by a single puppeteer (a dalang) who manipulates the characters, often two in one hand. The puppeteer speaks the parts of all the characters, and conducts the accompanying music performed by a gamelan orchestra, beating the time with a wooden hammer held in his toes.
The stories told are partly drawn from Javanese sources, and partly from the two Indian epics, the Mahabharata (the story of the Great War), and the Ramayana (the story of good king Rama) This example is of a character from the Mahabharata cycle of narratives.
The Javanese stories probably pre-date the arrival of Indian influences in the mid-first millennium AD. They contain imaginary beings, battling gods and giants, monsters and wonderful birds. Some tell the story of how rice came to earth for the first time and how the Rice Goddess cares for humanity.
Despite being a performance of an originally Indian(and Hindu) story, many of the rulers who commissioned the shadow theatre , and the people who watched it , would have been Javanese (and Muslim). Islam spread to Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines at a comparatively late date, largely in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
Indonesia is now the world’s most populous Islamic nation.