Wayang klitik puppet

Wayang puppet

Materials: carved wood, painted
Dimensions:  39 centimeters tall
Place acquired:  Greenwich market, London
Place of manufacture: Java, Indonesia

Storytelling always relies on a suspension of disbelief. We may know that in reality we are in a theatre watching actors, or sitting in a cinema gazing at a flat moving image, but we are also able to forget these peripheral details for a while and immerse ourselves in the world of the story. Modern western culture tends to try to make that as seamless as possible. We have grown to expect as perfect an illusion as our technology will allow. It makes it easier to enter the world of the story. Maybe that’s why puppet theatre is no longer a major cultural form in the west. We are too distracted by the strings, the rods, and the all-too-obvious puppeteers. In the west puppets are for children, who are not so worried by this artifice, and have perhaps not yet learned to take the world too literally.

Other cultures don’t have these problems. In Indonesia wayang, or puppet theatre has a very long and rich history and is still an enormously popular art form. There is a wide repertoire of stories from old folk tales, to stories from Islamic texts, to the great Hindu epics, often leavened with modern satirical content.

Wayang has three main forms. There is wayang golek, where the puppets are three-dimensional figures, elaborately painted and clothed. They are performed day or night in direct light.

Then there is wayang kulit, the famous shadow puppet form of the theatre. Here the puppets are flat cut-outs made from leather parchment, their shadows projected on to a fabric screen lit from behind, and performed at night.

But this particular puppet, representing Arjuna, one of the heroes of the Hindu epic The Mahabarata, is from the wayang klitik. This is a ‘half-way’ form where the puppets are made from flat sheets of wood and elaborately painted. They can work either as shadow puppets or in direct light. The word klitik is onomotopaeic, from the clicking sound the wooden puppets make as they are worked.

Some sources claim that golek is the oldest, hindu form of the theatre, and that the kulit shadow form evolved to work around the later islamic prohibition on representing human figures (we see only the shadows, not the actual puppets). This highlights an interesting point. The constant, enduring feature in this tradition is the method of storytelling – wayang. It morphs and adapts to the mores of different belief systems, but without a vibrant method of telling stories the beliefs themselves cannot thrive. Belief and storytelling are inextricably linked.