Pieces of Our Past
June 27, 2014
Artifact: Wayang kulit
Significance: Originally from Java, Indonesia, these two leather shadow puppets (wayang kulit) are part of a recently processed collection of artifacts from Arthur Kaul of Concordia Tract Missions. The collection contained numerous hand-crafted objects, including these puppets, which people had sent in gratitude for Christian tracts given to them.
Wayang kulit: Numerous countries in South East Asia have a shadow play tradition, including Indonesia. This tradition draws upon a common heritage in Indian culture and the stories are borrowed from the Hindu epics, the Rumayana and the Mahabharata. According to the Saint Louis Art Museum, the two puppets in the CHI collection were originally from Java, as no other shadow puppets outside Java have anything resembling the most striking characteristics: the elongated neck, the unnaturally extended shoulder and the excessively long arms. Wayang kulit have been performed for over 1,000 years in Java. One puppeteer (dalang) manipulates the puppets during the performance, narrates the story, speaks the dialogue and directs the orchestra.
The Characters: The most shadow play stories stem from the Mahabharata, with tales involving the Five Pandawa (the sons of King Pandu) and their enemies, the Korawa. There are accounts of quarrels and fights, births and marriages, and other events in the lives of the many kings, princes and princesses, knights and wise men. These two puppets seem to come from the tales of Pandawa. Each puppet represents a person in the stories, while simultaneously representing the predominant aspects of the nature of the person it depicts. This could be done through the shape and positioning of different body parts or through the color of the face.
The black puppet appears to be Arjuna and the red-faced puppet looks like Baladewa. Arjuna was a knight known as the most generous and chivalrous, was always high-minded toward his opponents and had been endowed with magical powers by the wise king Kresna. Baladewa, on the other hand, was a male prince character (Kresna’s brother) who sided with the enemies, the Korawas, despite being close with Arjuna. He was loyal, brave, hot-tempered, but easily outwitted by Kresna.
CHI thanks Mimi Huang at the Saint Louis Art Museum for her assistance and research into wayang kulit and the identities of these specific characters. Much of the information above was researched and written by Huang.