In Chapter One, we mentioned a reference to puppets (or perhaps conjuring tricks) by Plato. We give now the full reference, which is also pertinent to our discussion of shadow theatre:
PLATO'S REPUBLIC, CHAPTER VII, "The Allegory of the Cave"
SOCRATES & GLAUCON
And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: - Behold! Human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screens which conjurors put up in front of their audience, and above which they show their wonders.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
No question, he replied.
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
That is certain.
Now here is something very interesting! This allegory, written in approximately 366 BC, mentions figures, a fire, conjurors (i.e., performing magicians), a curtain in front of the performers, an audience, plus speaking and moving shadows, in short, the essential elements of shadow theatre, all in one place! Could this be the earliest reference to shadow theatre? Shadow players are often described as magicians and conjurors. This reference does not show us any shadow plays, however--it is rather about a shadow parade, perhaps the original primitive form which later developed into the shadow theatre. (It seems shadow plays as we know them developed later, in India, which is demonstrated below.) The date of this reference is just before the invasion of Alexander the Great to India, in 326 BC. And shadow theatre in India is only mentioned in their literature after this period. Could it be that the ancient Greeks invented the shadow theatre and passed it on to India after their conquest of that land? It must be said that there is no proof of any contact between the ancient Greeks and Indians in the area of puppetry, or even, for that matter, in the area of theatre itself. So this is mere conjecture. There is also no proof of the existence of any form of shadow theatre in Greece until well past the time of the Renaissance.
We should compare this to the Chinese reference of 121 BC which is often given as proof of the existence of shadow theatre in China at that date, but is really about invoking a presence rather than any entertainment or theatre. It is even questionable whether or not there were any shadows shown. Gustave Schlegel gives three versions of the story, beginning with a quote from Professor de Groot's book The Religious System of China:
He says: "An early instance of identification of shadows with the souls of the dead we have in the following interesting lines of Sze-ma Ts'ien's Historical Records:
"Next year (B.C. 121) a man of the Ts'i region (in the present Shan-tung), named Shao-weng, visited the emperor to show him his ability with regard to kwei and shen. The Emperor had a favourite consort of the surname Wang; this lady had died, and Shao-weng, setting his arts at work, made the countenance of the lady Wang appear, together with that of the spirit of the furnace; and the Son of Heaven saw them within a curtain. He honoured Shao-weng with the title of General of Perfection of Learnedness, and bestowed on him a great many presents, treating him with the ceremonial instituted for official guests."
Then, from Yu Pao, a Chinese author, Schlegel gives the following other version:
…"Emperor Wu of the Han-dynasty placed his affections on the lady Li [Wang]; she departed this life and his thoughts were with her incessantly. Then a native of Ts'i, versed in occult arts, named Li Shao-weng, told him he could make her shen (ghost) appear. That night he stretched a curtain across the room, lighted lamps and torches, and told the Emperor to sit down by another curtain, and look from some distance. Then within the curtain a beauty appeared, whose form was that of the lady Li. The Emperor neared the curtain, sat down and strode along, but without succeeding in getting near and to see her."
Schlegel goes on with
A third notice, to which professor De Groot called to my attention, is found in the (…) [Chinese characters are written here] (Wylie, Notes on chinese literature, p. 154). This work was compiled in the 4th century of our era by Wang-kia and re-edited in ten volumes by Sao-khi. It is found in the Vth Chapter, fol. 3 and following.Rather than the shadow of the lady, my impression from all this is that the Emperor saw the figure, illuminated by torches, through the curtain, which was of a very light and transparent material. So a vague impression of her was evoked.
The author begins to state that Emperor Wu of the Han-dynasty was inconsolable on account of the demise of his favourite consort, Lady Li, so that all the pains his courtiers took to distract him with water-excursions, illuminations and mellow wines were of no avail.
His Majesty constantly dreamt of her, longing to see her back and his concubines then called at court a certain Li Shao-kiun. The Emperor asked him if it would be possible to see the lady Li again, whereupon Shao-kiun told him that he could let her appear from afar, but that he could not make her to be within the same curtain with His Majesty, saying that there was in the dark sea a kind of stone of a green colour, light as a feather, which in the greatest heat felt cold. When a human figure is carved of this stone, its understanding and soul is not less than that of real men. When this stone will be sent, the lady will appear…
The Emperor then said: Is it possible to get this stone figure? Whereupon Shao-kiun answered in the affirmative. He then gave order to carve a statue of the lady after a former picture, and when it was finished, he placed it within a curtain of light gauze, lovely as in life-time.
The Emperor, highly delighted, asked Shao-kiun if he could get nearer to her, whereupon Shao-kiun answered:
This would be as if one who had dreamt in the middle of the night of some thing, should wish to get nearer to it in day-time. This kind of stone is poisonous and ought to be looked at from a distance. It may not be pressed near….The Emperor then followed his advice, and when he had seen the lady, Shao-kiun gave order to pile this stone figure and make pills of it, which he made the Emperor swallow so that he ceased to think and dream of her.
Sunul Chakraborty says
that the ancient Indian art of storytelling with the help of pictures began
with the Harappans. (Indeed, one ancient Indian traditional folk tale is
shown on several Harappan seals in a progression of scenes.) "The archaeological
finds prove that pat, the folk painting of Bengal, is [of] great
antiquity and tradition dating back to the days before the arrival of the
Aryans in India." What he is referring to are the shows presented by picture
showmen, as they are called. These go by several modern Indian names: Killekyata,
Killikets (these two also present shadow plays), citrakathi, c[h]itrakar,
patua, patidar, pat, par, para, etc. Their ancient names were: yamapattaka,
mankha, maskari, and saubhika. The latter is however very controversial,
a difficult word, and much disputed among scholars. There is lack of agreement
on the meaning of saubhika mentioned in the ancient texts. But the
majority make out the meaning as either "picture showman" or "shadow player",
so already we see a link between picture narration and shadow theatre.
The father of Maksaliputta, Gosali, was a maskari by profession and his story as told in the Jatakas long ante-dates the birth of the Buddha. Thus the Buddhist literary evidence, cited here, bears out the possibility that pat was prevalent at least before the seventh century B.C. [Chakraborty]
The most important variety of picture show for our purposes is the par (or para) of Rajasthan. A par is a large cloth with narrative paintings upon it. Victor H. Mair describes par performances very thoroughly in his important book Painting and Performance:
A par performance is referred to as a par vacano ("recitation of the par painting") or bhagata and involves exposition and explanation of the painting through a number of different devices, chiefly song and chant... The performers are itinerant and pursue their occupation by journeying from village to village in search of a group willing to sponsor a performance. The singers who perform the par are called bhopo, a word that means roughly "priest for a folk-god" or "shaman"... Though the performance is basically a religious observance, the performers are drawn from the lower and occasionally middle classes...The par bhopo generally travel in groups of two--the patavi, who is the chief singer, and the diyalu/divala or diptyo ("light holder") bhopo, who is his assistant. They may be accompanied by optional vocalists called gayak[a],who may also play percussion instruments. The patavi bhopo dresses like a Rajput prince. The divala bhopo (bhopi if a woman) holds an oil lamp suspended from a stick to illuminate the par.
The reader should note that these shows are usually given at night, hence the use of a lamp to reveal the particular portion of the par pointed to by the bhopo with his pointer. This utilization of an oil lamp to illuminate the cloth is the key to our discussion of the origins of shadow theatre.
It has been remarked by many scholars and observers of Indian folklore that these picture shows greatly resemble the shadow shows of the same country: "In evolutionary terms, a shadow play figure is essentially a cutout from a narrative picture-scroll" (Mair). "...the character of the show [of the Kilikets, presenting shadow plays] closely resembling that of the Chitrakathis or picture-showmen of the North Konkan and Deccan" (Enthoven). "The Paithan paintings originated with a group of itinerant story tellers, the Chitrakathis, who used these pictures in day time to illustrate their recitals of epic stories in a similar way as the puppeteers used their leather puppets at night" (Stache-Rosen). "Paithan paintings indicate that they are almost the same in composition, rendering and execution as the leather puppets of Andhra" (Sadwelkar). "Whether the shows of the Citrakathis are exhibitions of cut-out pictures or of fixed paintings on paper or some other material, and whether the text is dramatic dialogue or epic recital, both sorts of entertainment have apparently sprung from the same root" (Meinhard).
Meher Contractor in 1968 gives an interesting description of an Indian shadow theatre form that is closest in resemblance to the picture shows, namely the Chakkla Gombai Atta. After describing the Pavai Kuthu (or pavaikuttu) puppets in Kerala as: "black and white and more or less immobile...On this screen are pinned the puppets, in story sequence and scenewise, with palm thorns...Sometimes the puppets are moved from behind the screen, but generally they are left immobile," Contractor continues:
The Chakkla Gombai Atta are presented also in the same manner as the above puppets and on festivals outside Lord Shiva's temples only. The difference is that these puppets do not have a row of lamps lit behind them, but as the narrator-cum-singer unfolds the story, so scenewise a person behind the screen moves an oil lamp or two, thus presenting the Ramayana in tableau form.
Here we have an almost identical performance technique to the par. This seems to be the only reference in any book or article to this variety of shadow play (except for an article by Charif Khaznadar, who took his facts from the article by Contractor), so it may be that this type of show is now extinct. In a later work by the same author (1984), detailing all the varieties of shadow theatre then in existence in India, Contractor does not mention the Chakkla Gombai Atta, nor anything resembling it.
Tilakasiri in 1969 describes the pavaikuttu of Kerala:
It is an art practised entirely by players begging for a living, moving from village to village in search of an audience. They are used to carrying just a few of these flat puppets, a white cloth, an oil lamp and a drum as their equipment. In this type of show the players do not move the puppets and make them act as in the varieties mentioned earlier but merely allow the shadows of the figures to fall on the cloth-screen. The musicians and reciters, however, furnish the songs and dialogues from the Puranic stories as a background accompaniment to the action.
The pavaikuttu has been documented very fully by many authors, and is generally played in the compound of various temples, in separate permanent structures called Koothu madam (play houses), that were especially built for presentation of these shadow plays.
The most primitive shadow show, besides the Chakkla Gombai Atta mentioned above, is the Ravana Chhaya in Orissa State. The shadow figures are completely black silhouettes fashioned out of leather (as in the other varieties already mentioned), of a very primitive design, and small in size. There are no moveable joints and the perforation of the leather showing clothing details and the eyes of the figures are also of a very simplified nature. (This may be either due to very ancient traditions, hence primitive design, passed down through the centuries, or merely an indication of a deterioration in craftsmanship.) This form of shadow play is now on the verge of extinction. A.C. Scott gives us further details:
By far the most vital and active form of shadow theatre still in existence in India is the tholu bommalta (or tholubomalatta) of Andhra Pradesh. Bil Baird, in his book The Art of the Puppet describes this variety:
...the puppets are made in a single piece from tanned goat hide and held erect with a bamboo grip. The performance is more like an animated illustration of a musically narrated theme, there is no dramatic gesticulation or dialogue. A long stretch of cloth is used for a screen and the lamps which are the source of light are in full view of the audience...The chief narrator sits in front of the screen and beats out the rhythm. His assistants work the puppets from behind the screen and sing in chorus certain sections of the narration which at times leads to the development of an argument between the chief narrator and the others.
Perhaps the most interesting of the south-Indian puppet types for me, however, were the tholubomalatta -- the articulated, leather, shadow puppets -- which are the probable ancestors of Indonesia's wayang. The Indian puppets are less delicately designed than the Indonesian, but are brilliantly colored and intricately pierced. They are extremely large: four or five feet is not an unusual height, although there are smaller ones. The figure of a king or a god often is made from deerskin, which is considered to be holier and more noble than ordinary leather, such as buffalo hide, and thus more fitting to the character. Tholubomalatta are made of "nonviolent leather," meaning that the skin comes from an animal that has died a natural death rather than one that has been slaughtered.
The figures are held in a vertical split cane. Two other canes animate the arms and hands. The legs swing freely from the knee. The heads are mostly in profile and often may be detached and interchanged.
Most often the plays derive from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and the shows frequently are given on temple grounds.
A typical shadow screen of a tholubomalatta show is constructed of two thin white saris. The saris are stretched, one above the other, and pinned together with date-palm thorns, making a screen of some seven by twenty feet. The bottom is knee high from the ground. This would be sufficient for a quite large audience. A single oil lamp suspended high in the back behind the screen creates the shadows.
The show lasts all night, and the puppeteer's craft is a highly athletic operation. He emphasizes the action by dancing and stamping on sounding boards below the screen, often shaking the bells on his ankles. His play may last for several months, literally. I wondered what kind of society would stay up all night for weeks on end and get any work done, but I found that the magic of play and festival are just as much part of the village Indian's life as his work. The audience comes and goes, tends its children, and eats its meals as the play proceeds. Everyone knows all the stories by heart, anyway.
A modern tholubomalatta show, in Andhra Pradesh
The skins of the figures are specially treated to make them transparent, then colored with dyes to produce colored shadows. It must be noted that there is usually more than one puppeteer for these shadow plays, and often there are included in the troupe women puppeteers and singers. The musical accompaniment usually consists of drums and other percussion instruments. There is a marked separation on the screen of the virtuous personages to the right and the wicked to the left.
Said to be the earliest reference to shadow dramas is the Buddhist Therigatha (circa. 1st century BC to 3rd century AD), wherein the songs of the elder nuns were taken down. However, other authorities take this as a reference to puppets worked by strings, since there is mention of such puppets earlier in the text. I give here both references concerned:
For I have seen well-painted puppets,
hitched up with sticks & strings,
made to dance in various ways.
When the sticks & strings are removed,
thrown away, scattered, shredded,
smashed into pieces, not to be found,
in what will the mind there make its home?
This body of mine, which is just like that,
when devoid of dhammas doesn't function.
When, devoid of dhammas, it doesn't function,
in what will the mind there make its home?
Like a mural you've seen, painted on a wall,
smeared with yellow orpiment,
there your vision has been distorted,
meaningless your human perception.
Like an evaporated mirage,
like a tree of gold in a dream,
like a shadow play [rupparupakam] in the midst of a crowd --
Of this passage, A. B. Keith says: "The term rupparupakam occurs in v. 394 of comparatively old Therigatha of the Bhuddist Canon, but it may indicate a puppet-play, and this is rendered very probable by the mention of a puppet only just before in the text." But the "well-painted puppets hitched up with sticks and strings" may in fact be a reference to the tholu bommalata, already described above, a form of shadow play utilizing transparent leather figures, painted in brilliant colors, with the limbs tied to the body by strings, and fitted with sticks for manipulation. Indeed, in India, oral tradition states that the tholu bommalata date back to 200 BC.
Victor H. Mair gives a concise run-down of the literary evidence for ancient Indian shadow theatre:
It is likely that the shadow play existed already in the first century B. I. E. [Before International Era], since there is a reference to rupparupakam in the Pali Therigatha ("Hymns of the Elder Nuns"). This may be compared to a reference to rupopajivana in the twelfth book of the Mahabharata (12.194, II. 5-6). The seventeenth-century commentator Nilakhantha offers the following explanation of the term: "Rupopajivana is known in the south as jalamandapika. In it, after a thin cloth has been spanned, the doings of kings, ministers, etc., are brought before the eyes by means of figures of leather."
(...) Coomaraswamy has provided positive evidence for the existence of the shadow play in South India and Ceylon during the twelfth century. This is in the Buddhist chronicle of Ceylon known as Mahavamsa (more specifically, its continuation in Culavamsa), 66.133: "Amongst the many Tamils and others (employed as spies) he (Gajabaha II, r. 1137 - 53 [I. E.] ) made such as were practiced in dance and song, to appear as showmen of leather figures (camma-rupa) and the like."
Another document, translated by Amulyachandra Sen, which seems to refer to shadow plays according to some, is the Fourth Rock Edict of Asoka, dated approximately 257 BC:
In times past, for many hundreds of years, ever increased the killing of animals and the hurting of living beings, improper behavior towards relatives, (and) improper behaviour towards Brahmanas and ascetics. But now, by the Dharma practices of the Beloved of the gods, King Priyadarsin [Asoka], the sound of the drum has become the sound of Dharma.
Such as did not take place before many hundreds of years by representations of (celestial) mansions, representations of elephants, and by showing the people fire-bodies and other heavenly sights, have now been promoted by the Dharma instructions of the Beloved of the gods, King Priyadarsin, the non-killing of animals, non-hurting of living beings, proper behaviour towards relatives, proper behaviour towards Brahmanas and ascetics, respectfulness towards mother (and) father, (and) respectfulness towards the aged.
Another, partial, translation into English (from M. L. Varadpande) of this Edict gives:
On account of the practice of dharma by King Priyadarshi, the beloved of gods, there is heard in place of sound of war drums, the sound of proclamation of dharma, exhibitions to the people of vimana, chariots, elephants, illuminations and divine representations.
This Edict is very reminiscent of an old letter, dated 22-11-1627 written by an Italian traveller Pierto Della-Velle, sent from Ikkeri (India), who mentions, according to The Encyclopedia of the Folk Culture of Karantaka under the heading "Puppetry", "a festival during which the streets and temples of the town were decorated and illuminated and transparent figures of elephants and horse riders were shown."
In India, we see that leather was the preferred material for the puppets since the very names of the various forms have the word "leather" in them, as part of their definitions. This likely means that other materials were used in the past (paper, palm leaves, etc.). In addition, the word referring to the figures themselves is "puppet" (or "doll", which are interchangeable), so "puppets" are equated with shadow theatre. As examples we have the tolubommalata ("the play of leather dolls") of Andhra Pradesh, the tolubommalata ("the play of leather dolls") of Tamil Nadu, the togalugombai atta ("the play of leather dolls") of Karnataka, and the tholupava kootu ("the play of leather dolls") of Kerala. Since the early literary references are mainly in support of shadow theatre, then a reference to "puppets" (as in the Mahabharata above), may be to shadow plays. The other probable reference to shadow plays (rupopajivana) in the Mahabharata, indicates that this form of theatre is older than the source of the reference.
In Indonesia, whereto Hindu culture spread around AD 100, we have the wayang theatre. (Wayang is derived from the root bayang, meaning shadow, and denotes all forms of theatre in Java, Bali, and Malaysia; the word itself means either drama, play, performance, theatre, or refers to a puppet, an illuminating fact for this paper.) One form of wayang theatre serves to demonstrate the possible origin of puppetry from picture explanations. Considered the oldest form of wayang, this is the wayang beber, a picture narration form. Its history is interesting and revealing for the demonstration of the origins of shadow theatre. H. Ulbricht recreates from Indonesian chronicles how, it is pretended, wayang beber developed and how later it was replaced by the already existing (his own view of the chronology) shadow theatre (wayang kulit):
In the year 861 the Hindu king Djayabaya of Mamenang, Java, ordered his artists to make drawings of the stone figures of his ancestors on palm leaves, and a chronicle reports that he called these copies Wayang Purwa. This is of interest in so far as it is the earliest known record of the term Wayang Purwa, though it then denoted something quite different from what is understood by this term today...Later kings had the collection copied on bark or paper. As paper was expensive it was not cut into pieces. The figures were drawn side by side along the whole length of the sheets which were then rolled around sticks and kept in the form of scrolls. When the kings wanted to see the drawings on special occasions, the scrolls were transferred from one stick to another, and the figures were explained ceremoniously. This so-called Wayang Beber was likewise unsuitable for casting shadows. It was not until local customs began to influence court life that the ancestors of the Hindu kings and Hindu dieties were painted on skin and cut out...
Ulbricht holds the completely erroneous opinion that "there was never a traditional shadow play in India". Indeed, his bibliographical sources seem to exclude later scholarship on this subject. Many have postulated that India brought both picture narration and their shadow plays to Indonesia. There is also the question of how much real history we are to find in such chronicles. Nevertheless, the development from drawings on palm leaves, to drawings on long scrolls, to cut out figures is revealing.
Another source for the history of wayang beber is the Dictionary of Traditional South-East Asian Theatre. There, its development is explained as follows:
Available sources seem to agree that wayang beber developed in Java fairly early, almost certainly before wayang kulit purwa, the classical Javanese shadow play. The original form is believed to have been developed in the year AD 939 when King Jayabaya of Memenang wanted images of his forefathers drawn. These were drawn en face on palmyra leaves (daun lontar) and were modeled on stone originals. Primitive performances using such leaves began in 1030 during the reign of Mpu Ajisaka, when a dalang began to use them to tell stories without musical accompaniment. In 1224, during the reign of King Suryawisesa of Jenggala in East Java, wayang beber was expanded and a gamelin orchestra in the slendro scale accompanied performances. The dalang also used Old Javanese (Kawi) poems to tell his story. The repertoire, consisting of stories derived from the Hindu epics, included the Mahabharata and Arjuna Wiwaha. It is believed that due to the small size of the pictures, they were circulated during or after the narration and recitation of poems instead of being displayed, as is the general practice in wayang beber.
Apparently, the first wayang beber scrolls on paper were created during the reign of King Suryahamilubur, the king of Jenggala, possibly in the year AD 1244 when he moved his palace (keraton) to Pajaran in West Java. During the same period, paper scrolls were also used in Majapahit by King Bratana...Up to this point in wayang beber history, the scrolls were painted in black and white. Colour pictures were introduced for the first time in 1378 during the Majapahit period by King Brawijaya I, with the colours playing symbolical roles in the representation of characters. The scrolls were also provided with wooden sticks at each end so that they could be spread out and planted on a wooden base. The first Muslim ruler in Java, Raden Patah, set up his court in Demak in 1518, and after the fall of Majapahit the wayang beber scrolls were carried off to Demak...Under the influence of the Muslim saints (wali) wayang beber was discouraged. Instead, wayang kulit was developed with the skin figures eschewing accurate human representation. Thus, both medium and form changed...in about 1630, when King Anaykrawti ruled in Mataram, wayang kulit purwa enjoyed some support while wayang beber was not seen.
You will note the similarity between the chronicles cited by Ulbricht and the Dictionary. The only problem is that the dates seem quite different in the respective portions referring to King (D)Jayabaya. This is explained by the fact that Ulbricht is using Indian Shaka-era years, which commence in AD 79 of our Christian calendar. This then makes the two dates match very closely if 79 years is added to Ulbricht's Shaka-year 861.
The reader is referred to our photograph of a wayang beber performance from 1900. We can see in this picture that the audience is ranged around the dalang, that the pictures painted on the scroll are mainly facing the audience, and the dalang is hidden behind the scroll. But the spectators seated behind the dalang see the pictures reversed via the light shining through the scroll. This is the first principle of shadow theatre. The source of light shines upon the cloth on the opposite side from the audience.
A Wayang Beber Performance, 1900
In Indonesia today, puppetry has
a great hold on the people. It is in this country that puppets are held in greater
esteem than anywhere in the world. Everyone knows all the puppet characters
and plays. Here, the most popular of all forms of puppetry is the wayang
kulit purwa (kulit means "leather", and purwa means "old"
or "ancient", so "ancient shadows of leather"):
Wayang kulit, shadow puppets, [are] the most common of all the wayang figures. They are about two feet high and are made from delicately patterned buffalo hide, the design being chiseled out of the leather and then the whole figure painted and gilded. Every aspect of the puppet's design is set down by tradition and is related to the character portrayed. Thus the audience gathers all the necessary information about the puppet's character from its appearance. Even the angle of the head is significant.Shadow of a Wayang Kulit Puppet
The Javanese puppeteer, the dalang, presents his shadow show from dusk to sunrise. The role of the dalang has been likened to that of the priest as in Java puppets are thought to be the incarnation of ancestral spirits, and thus the dalang is a medium between the spirits and his audience. He manipulates the puppets, speaks all the dialogue, and conducts the gamelan, the percussion orchestra which sits behind him.
The dalang's cotton screen, or kelir, is supported by bamboo sticks and is about five feet high and up to fifteen feet long. Two long stems of banana plants, placed along the bottom of the screen, are used to hold the puppets' rods when they are off stage, the good characters on the right, the evil on the left.
Until recently it was traditional for the men of the audience to sit behind the dalang and watch the actual puppets whilst the women sat in front of the screen and watched the shadows cast by the light of an oil lamp on the beautiful figures [Currell].
Wayang Kulit Performance in Java. The dalang is seated in front of the white screen (kelir) to the far left. He requires several assisants to hand him his puppets, ranged along the banana tree trunks, to the left and right of the dalang.
Javanese Wayang Kulit in action.
Baird says that "As in India,
the play is an all-night affair...Between the toes of his right foot, the dalang
holds a piece of horn with which he hammers on the chest [of wood, where he
keeps his puppets when they are not being used] in order to signal the orchestra,
or gamelan (usually four metallophones)...Princes, gods, and kings are
placed on the right [of the screen]. Witches, villains, giants, and demons are
at the left."
The wayang klitik (or wayang kerucil) is a form of puppetry directly developed from the shadow theatre. There is no screen, the puppets are flat, carved from wood, and sport leather arms. They are manipulated identically as for wayang kulit, i.e., from below with a main rod to the puppet's body, and thinner rods are attached to the hands. As in wayang kulit, the arms are jointed at the shoulders and elbows, and the figures follow designs exactly like the wayang kulit figures. The dalang sits on the floor and is the only manipulator. A gamelin orchestra is also used for performances of this genre.
Wayang Klitik Puppets
Next, seemingly developed from wayang klitik is the wayang golek. These are three-dimensional carved figurines of wood with operation performed identically to the wayang kulit, with even the same procedure of using banana stem logs to stick the puppets in. There is, of course, no screen of any kind, but both the wayang klitik and the wayang golek have a vestige remaining of the shadow screen: a frame through which the puppets are shown. Sometimes, in the wayang golek, a screen is in place, but with a square hole cut into it through which the puppets are displayed.
A Wayang Golek Puppet
Many authorities of Indonesian
theatre advance the theory that the wayang is a wholly Indonesian creation,
and "only became Hinduized in the course of its history." But the similarities
to Indian shadow theatre are too great to ignore, so the theory that India passed
on their shadow play traditions to Indonesia cannot be ruled out. Besides the
oldest Javanese shadow plays (wayang purwa) consisting of parts of either
the Mahabharata or the Ramayana, the actual technic and even the
material for the puppets (leather) are practically identical to those in India.
Consider also the same all-night performances, the same use of oil lamps, the
same separation of the heroes to the right of the screen and the devils to the
left, the similar preparations prior to the plays with offerings and prayers
to the gods, the same use of sound effects by the puppeteer using his feet upon
a wooden object or board, the same use of exclusively percussion instruments
for musical accompaniment, the same use of a vertical split cane on the bodies
of the puppets, along with a cane attached to each of the arms, etc.
All peoples who possess a traditional shadow theatre use perforated leather. This would seem to indicate that the particular land received their shadow theatre at that point in their development, i.e., when the leather came to have punched holes to show details in the figures. But this particular development could have been learned by travellers coming home and showing their countrymen what they saw abroad. The dates of the introduction of new techniques for shadow theatre are unknown. The original shadow plays obviously used only black and white shadows, without perforations, probably also without any movement of the figures, with just a narration provided, and without musical accompaniment.
Amin Sweeney says that actual transmission of culture is not really necessary for other countries to have similar theatres. A traveler to a distant land need only witness a shadow performance once in order to learn the technique. So when this traveler returns home, he shows others the method, and then a shadow play develops that seems indigenous in many respects.
The pavaikuttu of India is a good example of one possible source of Indonesian wayang kulit, as the puppets' designs are very similar, especially to the figures of the Balinese wayang kulit, which retain more of the old Hindu character in the configuration of the puppets than those in Java. (The wayang kulit in Java has now a Muslim influence, that religion being brought to Java in the 1400's. The Balinese have never converted to Islam.) Those in favour of an Indonesian origin for wayang mention an approximate date of origin of 1500 BC, and the name for this early pre-Hindu wayang is given as wayang bayangan. But this date and this name are pure speculation. To my knowledge, there are no records placing the existence of wayang any time before AD 860. In that year, an Old Javanese (Kawi) charter issued by Maharaja Sri Lokapala mentions three sorts of performers: atapukan, aringgit, and abanol. Ringgit is described in an 11th century Javanese poem as a leather shadow figure. In this charter there is mention of "all sorts of servants of the inner apartments (hailing from)" Campa, Kalinga, Aryya, Ceylon, Gauda (Bengal), Cola, Malabar, Pegu, Karnataka, and Khmer, and several of these are Indian place names.
The first mention of something called wayang is in a stone inscription by King Balitung dated AD 907, which uses the word mawayang, meaning "performing wayang." The story that was performed on this occasion of a dedication for a monastery was entitled Bimmaya Kumara, and Bima is a god-hero from the Mahabharata. This wayang may not necessarily be the shadow theatre - it is possible this refers to wayang beber. However, since wayang is a word derived from bayang meaning shadow, this first occurrence of that word likely refers to shadow plays, and also because it is postulated (on good grounds) that all forms of theatre in Java were derived from the shadow play.
Much of the reason for the earlier certainty that the wayang originated in Indonesia, is that Indian shadow theatre was only discovered in India in 1935. Prior to this date, all proofs for the existence of shadow plays in India were from a few scattered references in ancient Indian literature, which were open to other interpretations. Consequently, most scholars had nothing from India to compare to the wayang until 1935, and the majority of writers had studied the wayang in great depth before that time.
But even without shadow theatre being known in India, there was much about the wayang to indicate an Indian origin, and several authorities have "proven" such only by reference to the wayang alone, and its predominantly Hindu character. Since 1935, the Indian shadow play has been studied almost as thoroughly as the wayang, and we hear very little now about an Indonesian origin for the wayang. Jacques Brunet has discussed this situation:
It seems that it would be difficult to deny the Indian origin of the shadow theatres of Southeast Asia. Many western authors formerly tried to prove - in view of the very powerful impression that such a spectacle made on them - that the shadow theatres came into being in Indonesia. But these arguments seem today to have been abandoned in the light of a closer investigation of the various styles and techniques employed in these theatres.
The Chinese had shadow theatre since around the 11th century AD. This is attested in the historical documents. William Dolby describes their earliest references:
The first surviving records of shadow shows come from the Sung dynasty, before which there is no real evidence of their existence in China. Kao Ch'eng (S'ung dynasty) has the following: "...In the time of Emperor Jen-tsung [r. 1023-63] of the Sung dynasty there were townsmen who excelled in telling tales of the Three Kingdoms, and someone adapted their stories, linking them up, and made shadow-men [ying-jen], the first of these being representations of the wars of Tripartite Division [of China between the states] of Wei, Shu, and Wu."And from Chang Lei in 1052-1112 (quoted by Dolby):
"In the capital there was a wealthy young man, who, orphaned when young, had full control of his family wealth. He was led astray in every way by a gang of layabout rogues. And the young man was extremely fond of watching performances of shadow shows [nung ying-hsi]. Whenever the point was reached where [the famous warrior general] Kuan Yu was to be slain, he would at once burst into tears over it, and enjoined the puppeteer to postpone it for a while."
In this paper we have largely ignored traditional legends and myths on the origins of puppets and shadow dramas. The Chinese possess legends and myths on the origin of their shadow theatre and puppets, as does India, Turkey, and the Indonesians. The Chinese stories are often recounted in puppet histories, but are merely folk tales and we must steer clear of such things in scholarly research. In Rod-Puppets and the Human Theatre, by Marjorie H. Batchelder, it is pointed out that, according to Pauline Benton "there is no indication from history that this event [see the Chinese legend from 121 BC, mentioned above] was the origin of shadow plays, and [she] thinks it is exceedingly doubtful."
Chapter One - Toys, Dolls, and Automata
Chapter Three - Puppetry Operational Procedures & Other Thoughts
Chapter Four - Europe and Asia in the Era A.D.
Chapter Five - Conclusion and References