The shadow stories of Indonesia

Two of the wayang kulit shadow puppets currently on display at the Surrey Museum. | Photo courtesy of Surrey Museum

Two of the wayang kulit shadow puppets currently on display at the Surrey Museum. | Photo courtesy of Surrey Museum

The battle between good and evil is a story that transcends cultures around the world. Just like the narratives of today, the shadow puppets of Indonesia are used to tell grand tales that touch on universal themes: good versus evil, respect, duty, friendship, and loyalty. Each character has its own handmade puppet called a wayang kulit. To perform these stories, a puppeteer uses a standard wayang kulit collection, which consists of 60 to 120 puppets.

The history of a culture

The Surrey Museum currently has a number of shadow puppets on display, which are on loan from the Simon Fraser University (SFU) Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. This particular collection originated from two Java communities in Indonesia, and date back to the 1800s. Due to political unrest in the late 1960s, a significant number of Indonesians immigrated to Canada. Today, at least 14,000 people of Indonesian origin live in Canada. A part of their culture lives on through the shadow puppets donated to SFU.

“The collection was created over 100 years ago,” says Dr. Barbara J. Winter, curator of SFU’s Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. “[The shadow puppets] were made by dalangs, master puppeteers in Indonesia. [The puppets were] collected by the family of the man who donated [the collection] to our museum, Dr. Ferdinand Chen, who brought the puppets to Canada in the early 1960s.”

Although the art of shadow puppetry is not practiced often in this day and age, it once held great significance to the communities that did.

“It seems to me they were integral in a community sense before widespread media and television. This was a way the community would get together, and the community as a whole would come out and be entertained by this shadow puppet performance. It could last for hours. It could last all night,” says Winter.

Creating the legends

Indonesian dalangs would perform the shadow puppet narratives behind a lit screen to the sounds of a gamelan orchestra. The stories they told come from the Ramayana, a long epic poem based on Hindu mythology, and commonly focus on the exiled prince, Rama, and his wife, Sita.

The puppets themselves were typically constructed of stiff water buffalo leather and bones before the details were punched through with knives and chisels.

“What I find wonderful is that the puppets are designed to be seen in shadow, but they are so…not just intricately carved, which would be visible in the shadow…but they are so beautifully painted,” says Winter. “So you have this contrast between the reality and the other, this inner beauty that doesn’t show through.”

A community treasure

Over time, the legacy of the wayang kulit shadow puppets gained renown as an important part of culture and art. Because of this, UNESCO deemed the tradition a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The collection’s esteem was one of the reasons why the Surrey Museum took an interest and sought to assemble a display.

“This particular exhibit is part of what we refer to as our ‘Community Treasures’ exhibits,” says a Surrey Museum staff member. “It really appealed to us because of their rarity and that there really isn’t anything like this exhibited here in Canada. It was a great opportunity to exhibit a UNESCO treasure.”

Despite the relatively small number of shadow puppets on display at the Surrey Museum, there has been a notably positive response.

“I think the thing that seems to be noticed by everyone is the intricacy of these puppets,” a Surrey Museum staff member remarked. “Some have commented that the princess and prince – the heroes – at first glance, don’t look all that much different than the villains. They don’t fit into our traditional North American ideals of heroes.”

Shadow Stories of Indonesia
On display to Dec. 21

Surrey Museum
Free admission