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One of the most impressive cultural phenomena of Indonesia, and, primarily of Java Island, is puppet-show. Its oldest type is vayang-kulit or vayang-purvo (“kulit” – leather, “purvo” – ancient). In its origin it is connected with the ancestors’ cult and, therefore, it used to have ritual importance. According to one Indonesian expert on theatre, vayang is a “reality-based play that reflects actual deeds of people”. According to some beliefs, the shadow play brings luck, so puppeteers (dalang) are always welcomed at weddings and in cases when harvest is threatened by drought or when relatives want to help a diseased.

Flat puppets with open-work are made of buffalo skin. They have sharp conventionalized facial features, they are always turned half-faced, and they have moving arms. A theatrical performance begins when it gets dark and can last all night. A dalang puppeteer sits in front of a white screen on which puppets and their shadows can be seen, as there is a lamp installed above it. A dalang is not only a puppeteer – he is also a narrator, singer and dancer. The repertoire is usually constituted by Indian-Javanese plots in which the heroes of Indian myths and epics “Mahabharata” and “Ramayana” are the main characters.

Vayang-golek – the theater of three-dimensional puppets is popular with the Sundanese. On Java of special popularity are the theater of actors in masks (vayang-topeng) and the theater of actors without masks (vayang-vong). The traditional musical-dancing drama is a variation of the latter.

Bronze tray with images of Javanese puppet-show heroes.
Indonesia, Java. The Javanese. Early 20th cent.