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Shadow puppet theatre

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Music
Wordcount: 3962 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Shadow puppet theatre

The shadow puppet play (wayang kulit) is an ancient form of traditional theatre in Malaysia. The stories are told by a puppet master (dalang) who manipulates the puppets (called wayang) which are seen in shadows projected on a screen. In this very old form of theatre a small ensemble plays the music to accompany the movement of the puppets and the events in the stories. In Malaysia there are 4 types of shadow puppet play, each with a specific name and distinctive style. These are wayang kulit Jawa (Javanese shadow puppet play), the wayang kulit gedek (mixture of Thai and Malay folk styles of shadow puppet play), the wayang kulit Melayu (Malay court form of shadow puppet play) and wayang kulit Kelantan (Kelantanese shadow puppet play)

The presence of foreign influences in puppets, repertoire or music does not in itself prove that the technique originates from the same source as these influences.

Wayang Kulit Jawa

The wayang kulit Jawa, Javanese influenced and originated in Indonesia and is performed today by the descendants of Javanese immigrants who settled in the southern state of Johore many decades ago. In Malaysia, this form of shadow play still maintains the basic features of the wayang kulit purwa of Indonesia, including the use of the stories and characters from the Mahabharata epic and the musical accompaniment of the Javanese Gamelan. The gamelan in this shadow play includes singers as well as xylophones, metallophones, and knobbed gongs just as in Indonesia. Malaysia maintains the basic feature of Wayang Kulit Purwa which consist the characteristic of Mahabharataepics and gamelan ensemble accompaniment. The ensemble included singer, xylophone, metallophone and gongs.

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Wayang Kulit Gedek

This wayangkulitgedek, performed in the northern peninsular states of Perlis, Kedah and Kelantan, is called Nang Talung in Thailand. This type of shadow puppet play originated in Southern Thailand and features small-sized, flat leather puppets. In Malaysia the wayanggedek is performed by Thai and Malay peoples using a mixture of the Thai and Malay language or just the southern Thai dialect, depending upon the audience. The stories feature local tales and episodes from the Ramayana epic (called the Ramakien in Thailand). The style of performance, music and puppet design show a distinct mixture of southern Thai and Malay traits including the small orchestra of drums, knobbed gongs, cymbals and bowed stringed instruments. In former times the wind instrument called pi or pi Jawa (a quadruple reed shawm) was included in this ensemble, and it is still often featured in the wayang gedek orchestra in Malaysia. However, today in southern Thailand the bow lutes called saw oo and saw duang (originating from the huqin family of Chinese bowed flutes) are preferred in place of the pi.

The drums in this ensemble include klong khat, thon and klong khaek, similar to the Malay geduk, gedumbak and gendang, respectively. A small pair of finger cymbals and the gong-chime called mong (2 knobbed gongs placed horizontally in a wooden box) are also used.


Wayang Kulit Melayu

The wayang kulit Melayu, also called wayang Jawa, is strongly influenced by the wayang kulit purwa of Indonnesia. In the 19th and 20th centuries this type of shadow play developed under the patronage of the sultan and existed as entertainment mainly for the aristocrats connected to the palaces of Kelantan and Kedah. In earlier times it was also performed in the Malay Sultanate of Patani. Today this Sultanate no longer exists, but the location of the former kingdom is in present-day southern Thailand.

The stories of the wayang kulit Melayu focus on episodes of the Mahabharata epic, and the form and design of the puppets are nearly identical to the style of puppets from Java and Indonesia. During World War II this type of shadow puppet theatre was not performed; but after the war years it was revived as entertainment for villagers without the patronage of the sultans. By the 1980s experienced puppet masters were ifficult to find ant the wayang kulit Melayu. Today, is rarely performed.

The orchestra consists of several bronze gongs including a pair of large, hanging gongs called tetawak, a single knobbed horizontal gong called the mong, and a set of 6 or more small horizontal gongs called the canang. In addition, a pair of kesi cymbals, a pair of elongated barrel, double-headed drums called gendang and one 2-stringed rebab are used. The rebab exhibits a mixture of Malay and Javanese features using only 2 strings as in the Javanese form, but with the body construction of the Malay rebab. A specific musical repertory existed for this type of shadow play, but today only a few pieces are still known.



The Wayang Kulit Kelantan is a folk theatre and is to be referred as Wayang Kulit Siam. This shadow puppets originally from and play around states in Kelantan, Kedah, Terengganu and formerly in Perak and Pahang. This is the most famous traditional puppet theatre among all. The former time, this performance is for ritual purpose, but today it been performed as an entertainment. The Ramayana epic is the main focus for the trunk and stories for Kelantanese shadow play.

The shadow play is 1 of the oldest theatrical art-forms in Asia and is found as far north as China and as far west as India and Turkey. Each country has its own form and style of shadow play, and there are variations within each of these forms.

The home of the shadow play still has not been identified with certainty, as an evident from the controversies regarding its origin. According to Otto Spies, Sabri East Siyavusgil and William Ridgeway, it originated in India. Berthold Laufer, citing China as its home, tells of a legend about the later Han Emperor Kuang Wu Ti (25-57 A.D.) who instructed the court shaman to cast shadows on a screen in an effort to recall the spirit of his departed wife. Hazeu, on the other hand, credits Java as its place of origin because of the Javanese terminology in the wayang purwa. There are scholars who support the India origin of the shadow theatre because of the repertoire of the South-East Asian shadow plays which mainly portray episodes from the 2 Hindu epics, the Ramayana & the Mahabharata. But as noted by Alessio Bombaci, the shadow play could have emerged on its own in all these places – India, China and West Asia, and from these separate areas spread to other countries through economic, political and cultural interaction. However whatever its genesis, the shadow play doubt began as an animistic ritual.

Even since its inception, the shadow play has been influenced by the religious beliefs prevalent in those countries where it has become established, to the extent that each variety reflects in microsm the religious history of its land of domicile. This is particularly true of the Malaysian shadow play whose rituals combine elements of animism, Hinduism and Islam.

As we have already seen, through the ages Malaysia has been influenced by strong Indian, Chinese, Thai and Javanese cultural influences, with the result that her shadow plays bear striking resemblances to the Thai nangtalung, the Khmer nang trolung, and the Javanese wayangpurwa.

The 4 types of shadow play found in Malaysia are wayang Jawa, wayang Melayu, wayang Kelantan & wayang gedek. Adapted from the Javanese wayang purwa, the first 2 are the wayang Jawa & wayang Melayu, both of which display similarities in structure, technique and performance with their Javanese counterpart. What differentiate the one from the other are the configuration of the puppets and the nature of their musical ensembles. The puppets of the wayang Jawa, which are highly stylized, have 2 moveable arms, while those of the less stylized wayang Melayu have only 1. While a gamelan ensemble accompanies the wayang Jawa, the wayang Melayu uses an indigenous musical ensemble. The repertoire of both the shadow plays consist of episodes from the Javanese and Malay versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, tales from the Panji cycles, the Islamic tales of Amir Hamzah, and local lore and legend.

The third type of shadow play, the wayang Kelantan, uses the technique of the Javanese wayang purwa to perform the Thai version of the Ramayana, as well as containing elements of local lore and legend. It differs from the fourth type, the wayang gedek, in the configuration of its puppets and in the nature of the accompanying musical ensemble. While the puppets of wayang Kelantan are seen only in profile, those of wayang gedek are a combination of full-faced and profiled puppets. Furthermore, the wayang Kelantan musical ensemble is larger than that of wayang gedek.


There are seventeen repertoires in Kelantan shadow theatre and to be divided into four categories – Ritualistic, emotional, designate individual character, and variety of occasions and designate action,

  1. Lagu Bertabuh
  2. Lagu Tuk Maha Siku
  3. Lagu Dewa Panah
  4. Lagu Perang
  5. LAgu Dalang Berkhabar
  6. Lagu Sri Rama Berkhabar Belas
  7. Lagu Sri Rama Berkhabar
  8. Lagu Hulubalang
  9. Lagu Sri Rama bErangkat Masuk Anjung
  10. Lagu Blai-Blai Berjalan
  11. Lagu Tukar Dalang
  12. Lagu Pak Dogol
  13. Lagu Mengulit
  14. Lagu Dewa Berjalan
  15. Lagu Binatang
  16. Lagu Maharaja Rawana
  17. Lagu Penutup

Mak Yong pieces are included in some of the repertoire like Lagu Yong Bertabuh , Sang Gendang , Pakyung Muda , and Lagu Barat. Younger troupe insert several modern pieces such as Lagu Joget Kelantan and LAgu Berlari Yong Muda , this is not appreciate by the older troupes to adulterate the music of shadow play; they only stick to their principle to performed traditionally pieces.

Lagu Perang (war music) is the most common piece to be play Kelantan shadow theatre. It is show in the opening continuation as Lagu Bertabuh , combat in between two Dewa Panah (mystical warriors), is all about fighting and battle in the play. A few pieces were often to be played are Lagu Hulubalang which indicates all warriors; it accompanies Sri Rama when he is ready for war, Hanuman, lesser princes, and all warriors.

Within the play proper of the shadow play performance, essential of the dramatic actions are played in the musical pieces. But, structural format is a definite before the ritualistic opening of the actual play performance.

Before the proper performance, Dalang Tua (elder Dalang ) will manipulate the puppets, sings and speaks every character’s part and conduct the orchestra. The buka puggang ( opening ceremony) which happened in Mak Yong, the real and nether worlds was connected in his acts. Lagu Bertabuh is a start of informing the villagers that the play is to begin, in another way is also a conclusion of the ritualistic ceremony.


The musical ensembles of the shadow play are percussion-dominated with either a solitary aerophone (wind) or a chordophone (string) instrument. The wayang Kelantan ensemble has the following instruments:

Idiophonic (Brass)

Orotund material is to made to Idiophones instruments .tetawak , kesi and canang occurs as a pairs in idiophone

The pairs tetawak are knobbed gongs which hung between wooden rack, padded beater is to hit the knob. The larger tetawak played lower pitch which called“tawak ibu” (mother tawak), the tawak anak (child tawak) played slightly higher pitch. Major third or perfect fifth is the tuning in between one set to another. The standardization of the tuning of tetawak so as canang are not the main important issue in music.

The canang is made of iron or metal, and it consists of two knobbed gongs, which hung horizontally on the wooden rack. The two gongs are hit by a pair of peddar beater, both gongs (anak canang and ibu canang ) played in different pitches( high and low pitch). Both gongs tuning interval may range from majorsecond to sixth.

The kesi cymbals have a cup-like protruding with a small hole to enable to two cymbals to be connected. It is made of booze or iron. Resonant, ringing sound occurs when striking by player on the pair of cymbals. Unison are played in two pieces of timbres with canang, canang anak (high pitch) played ringing timbre whilst canang ibu (low pitch) played damped timbre. Kesi is similar to the western cymbal.




Aerophonic (Wind)

The serunai, which falls into the shawm category, is a double reed instrument, varying in length from 12 to 18 inches and constructed from a variety of woods such as batang lada, lebam and nangka. It is divided into 3 sections, namely kepala (head), batang (stem) and pipit (mouth-piece) (Figure 1). Daun lunta, a type of fern leaf, is used for the reed. Altogether there are 8 sound holes on the serunai, seven on top and 1 below. It is adorned with intricate carvings and painted with various shades of colour. Its scale is shown in Example 1.

The serunai is played using circular breathing, a method by which the player completely mouths the double reed and blows continuously, without any pause to take breath. This is based on the bagpipe principle of retaining the air for continuous blowing. The belly and lungs are inflated by air, which is then pushed up to the mouth, resulting in the cheeks remaining constantly puffed out. Thus as the player blows, he also inhales using his belly. This technique is employed by all traditional wind-instrument players, as exemplified by the pi player in the traditional Thai musical ensemble.

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3 types of drum constitute the membranophone category. The first is a pair of mother and son cylindrical-shaped geduk, with the mother being the larger of the 2. Its dimension varies from 12 to 20 inches in length, with a front circumference between 30 to 37 inches and a back circumference of between 27 to 33 inches (Figure 2).

The body of the geduk is mostly made from kayu nangka, but kayu sena or kayu merbau is sometimes used. Both sides are covered with cow or buffalo hide. The 2 legs located at one end of the geduk serve to tilt it towards the drummer to facilitate his playing, which is done with a pair of drum sticks.

The pair of gendang, mother and son, are both barrel-shaped, with the mother being the larger of the 2. The mother drum measures from 20 to 22 inches in length, and has a front circumference which varies between 24 to 33 inches and a back circumference of between 24 to 29 inches. The length of the gendang anak (son drum) varies from 19 to 22 inches with a front circumference of between 22 to 25 inches and a back circumference of between 19 to 22 inches (Figure 3).

Gedumbak Gendang


More often than not, the body of the gendang is made from kayu nangka rather than from kayu merbau. Both the front and back faces of the drum are covered with animal skins, cow hide for the mother drum and goatskin for the son drum. Rattan strands are coiled around 1 end of the body as an anchor to stretch the skin and vary the tension of its surface. The drums are played with both hands, one for striking each face.

Texture and Form

The texture of shadow theatre can be categories as melodic line to be played by serunai, variety of drum rhythmic pattern and bronze instruments to play the element of gong.

The form and structure in each piece of shadow play is determined and defined by colotomic unit or gong unit in the music. The gong unit is a time unit marked at its end by lowest pitches gong is the tetawak ibu, which is stuck at the last beat of gong unit. Gong unit is to be served as a basis element to be play in shadow plays and Mak Yong.

The Puppet types, appearance and construction

Kelantan is a melting pot of cultural influences, and this fact is reflected in the shadow puppets of the Wayang Siam.

Two types of Malay WayangKulit (shadow Play) are found in north Malaya and southern Thailand: the Wayang Siam and the WayangJawa. Both, in spite of their names, are Malay forms, and their areas of distribution largely coincide, being found in the states bordering the Thai-Malaysian frontier. Of the two, by far the more popular is the Wayang Siam, there being in the region of three hundred dalang in the state of Kelantan alone which is the heart of Wayang Siam country today.

In contrast, the WayangJawa is now almost extinct: primarily an entertainment for aristocrats, it throve only under their patronage. Now this has been withdrawn, the WayangJawa has fallen into oblivion. Both Malay forms are similar in technique, the main differences being in matters of repertoire, appearance of the puppets and music.

Although the first glance the pinnacled crowns of the traditional male principals create the impression that the predominant is Thai, a closer examination reveals that they are by no means were imitations of Thai puppets but possess a quite distinctive style which is typically Kelantanese

Javanese and Balinese puppets have both arms articulated, the wayang siam and the southern thai shadow play with the exception of the clowns – only one movable arm.

Wayang Siam puppets fall into several categories according to their appearance and the nature of the character portrayed.

Distinguished: refined princes and traditional type refined demi-gods are easily recognized by their facial characteristics: the mouth and nose are small but well shaped, the nose and forhead being in a slightly concave line. The eye is high-set and narrow, somewhat similar to that of refined Javanese puppets. The overall impression is that the face conforms to the ideal of Malay beauty. The traditional form of this type wears the typically Thai pinnacled crown; the shoulders are square, reminiscent of Javanese puppets; the character usually carries a bow, as Seri Rama, or a sword, as Laksaman.

The facial characteristics of refined female puppets are similar to those of refined princes. The traditional female headdress is very distinctive, but nowadays it is very common for minor characters to be given modern hairdos and dressed in the latest Malay fashions.

Sometimes ugly old serving maids are introduced for comic effect and may be classed as clowns. The old lady show strong Javanese influence. A handful of Wayang Siam female puppets are depicted full face, and here large areas of the face are cut out to ensure that the features are visible.

The traditional- type ogre (raksasa) with his pinnacled crown and bob nose is quite similar to Thai puppets of this type. Javanese influence is not absent, however; note, for example, the double round eye. According to Javanese concepts, a round eye donates a character with a propensity for violence. Javanesse influence is even stronger in the puppets representing ogre officers. The body is still in the Wayag Siam style although the extended left shoulder is very Javanese but the head is usually an embellished imitation of Javanese model.

The ape puppet, with its pinnacled crow or pointed cap is again very Thai in appearance. As in the case of ogres, however, it is not uncommon to find minor ape warriors sporting a Javanese headdress. The sage or ascetic with his long beard, bent back and long staff to support him differs little from the same type of Thai puppet. Coarse puppet and demi-gods are rather poor imitation of Javanese models. The Javanese influence was not always direct; an interesting example of cultural diffusion is that some dalang used to copy the cigarette cards depicting Javanese puppets which were issued with the cigarettes of Thomas Bear Co. Ltd, a popular brand of cigarette in Kelantan before the Second World War!


Dalang can be found at padi harvest, the wayang season thus beginning of the rainy season. A popular dalang may expect to receive invitation to perform which will keep him occupied throughout the season, extending from about March to October. Dalang incomes entirely from the wayang and those that attempt to do so have a meager existence during the rainy season when they are forced to live on what has been saved during the wayang season which is seldom much. The dalang have a secondary occupation, and where the dalang does not enjoy much success, the wayang will be his secondary occupation.

Secondary occupations fall into two categories the magicoreligious and secular.

: the magico religious

: Secular

The other type of secondary work, which may be done in conjunction with a secular occupation, is that connected with magico-religious practice. Thus, approximately half of Kelantanese dalang – though less of the younger generation – practice native medicine and sorcery in their spare time.

The dalang has a dual role in society as a entertainer or spirit medium.

The traditional way of holding the wayang for entertainment purposes was that one man, a family or even a village would shoulder the expense on some great social occasion such as marriage or circumcision.

The performance definitely entertainment for humans not spirits.

These rituals are performed for various purposes, propitiation of spirits, releasing a person from a vow, and initiating a pupil, but their form is basically the same and consists of a synthesis of Javanesse wayang ritual and local spirit medium ship. The importance of these rituals is that performed to ward off the threat of cholera by placating the local spirits.

The dalang learn their art from a teacher, the few exceptions to this merely imitating the performances of others. The teacher is rarely the dalang’s father and the art is not hereditary. Comparison of the repertoire, performance and ritual of a dalang with those of his teacher reveals, almost without exception, considerable differences. There are several reasons for this: It is rare that a dalang learns everything from one source and it is not unsual to have had more than one teacher, though this may not be admitted.

A novice may learn the rudiments from a relative or neighbor who knows something of the art, and then join a troupe as a musician or have himself accepted as a pupil by a dalang of repute.

A dalang may further learn pieces of repertoire from persons who are not even dalang and information is also gleaned by observing the performances of other dalang. It is clear, therefore, that every dalang’s knowledge is to a greater or lesser extent a pot pourrigathered from several sources.

Several reasons for becoming a dalang but the primary motive is nearly always that he experiences intense pleasure from observing the wayang and that he has the urge and angin to perform himself.

Nowadays, however, the very great majority of performances are organized as a business enterprise.


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