Thursday, January 28, 2016

Wayang Kulit Puppet Making

Prior to seeing the Wayang puppet show in Yogyakarta, I arrived early so I could meet a puppet maker. I had purchased some leather puppets when in India and was eager to see the process for how the intricate Indonesian versions were made. 

Wayang means shadow and kulit means skin. The puppets are traced on and scratched in the hide of an oxen or bull. Sharp tools are used to cut out the main shape.The artist uses chisels with varying widths & curves to punch in the lace-like interior holes, sometimes using several different ones to form the desired shape of the negative spaces. This is all done on a sliced section of wood. Wax is used periodically to make the chisel punching more smooth. Arms and other pieces are jointed with thick plastic line or bone, and then are attached to the body.

The lace-like puppet is then sanded, after which the puppet is painted with water-based paints. Gold leaf, connoting dignity and serenity, provides some embellishment.
Colors chosen for the characters is symbolic. Black signifies anger or maturity; red is for tempestuousness; white is the color of youth. Interestingly, noble characters are typically smaller, with trim bodies and faces with long pointed noses and downward-gazing soybean shaped eyes. Conversely, demons or aggressive figures are much larger. Strong characters might be looking upward and have large, bulging eyes.

The upper body is much longer than than the legs and the arms are always elongated. During performances, the head is always placed flush against the screen so it is viewed clearly, while the lower portion is away slightly from the screen. In the resulting shadow, the body proportions appear correct. 
Intricate painted details
After the figures are painted, they are sewn onto the main stick (often made from bull horns) in three or four spots. The stick is tapered at the bottom to make it easy to stab into a soft log to support the character against the screen. Additional sticks are attached to the arms.

The Museum of International Folk Art has a fairly detailed video showing the different steps of Wayang Kulit puppet making.

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