Wayang kulit

Singapore Infopedia


Wayang kulit is a form of traditional theatre in Southeast Asia. It involves a puppet shadow play performance with origins that are possibly linked to the Indian shadow play.1 There are many forms and types of wayang kulit in Asia. Those performed in Peninsular Malaysia have either Javanese or Patani (southern Thai) influences. Wayang kulit performances are usually accompanied by a gamelan (an Indonesian musical ensemble).2

The term wayang kulit literally means “shadows from hide”, and has a few meanings in the Southeast Asian context. In Indonesia, the term wayang kulit refers not only to the performance of a shadow play, but has also become synonymous with the hide puppets used to create the shadows.3 In Peninsular Malaysia, wayang kulit can be translated as a “show of skins”.4

The puppets
The puppets in wayang kulit come in many sizes, depending on the characters they portray. Malay shadow play puppets typically measure at least 71 cm long and are at most 30.5 cm wide.5 A complete shadow theatre has between 160 and 200 puppets categorised into deities, warriors, ogres, hermits, monkeys, soldiers, princesses, weapons, animals and mountains. Most Malay shadow play characters only have one articulating limb, while a majority of Javanese and Balinese puppets have both arms articulated.6 The puppets are carved out of cowhide in ornate designs, and then beautifully painted with bright colours. Female cowhide is preferred as it is larger and softer.7

The show
In wayang kulit, the puppets are moved behind a white cotton or unbleached muslin screen by a dalang, or “puppetmaster”.8 The dalang presides over the shadow play as its sole controlling performer who tells the story, and interprets characters and dialogue using a variety of voices. He manipulates all the puppets between a lamp and the screen to bring the puppet shadows to life. Most of the stories in the shadow plays of Java, Bali, the Malay Peninsula and mainland Southeast Asia are based on two well-known Hindu epics from India: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.9

Wayang kulit is accompanied by the music of the gamelan. While the dalang is speaking, the gamelan is silent except when it provides rattles and clanks to emphasise a statement or word. Gamelan players respond and play music intuitively to the timing and narration by the dalang. The repertoire typically consists of an overture as well as specific music for battle scenes, travelling scenes, entrances and exits of characters and the parade of warriors.10

One of Singapore’s last wayang kulit dalang was Wak Taslim Harjosanajo, who died in 1985.11

Contemporary adaptations
Shadow puppets from across the region gained new audiences as part of the ASEAN Puppetry Festival which was first held in 2006.12 In recent years, popular cultural references have made their way into this traditional art form.13 For instance, wayang kulit puppets resembling popular movie characters featured strongly at Aliwal Arts Night Crawl 2017.14


Endon Salleh

1. Mohd. Azmi Ibrahim and Ainu Sham Ramli, Shadow Play: Malay Traditional Theatre (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation, 2008), 9 (Call no. RSEA 791.5309595 MOH); Amin Sweeney, Malay Shadow Puppets: The Wayang Siam of Kelantan (London: British Museum Publications, 1980), 9. (Call no. RSEA 791.530959511 SWE)
2. Beth Osnes, The Shadow Puppet Theatre of Malaysia: A Study of Wayang Kulit with Performance Scripts and Puppet Designs (North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2010), 23, 79. (Call no. RSEA 791.5309595 OSN)
3. Roger Long, Javanese Shadow Theatre: Movement and Characterization in Ngayogyakarta Wayang Kulit (Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1982), 1. (Call no. RSEA 791.53095982 LON)
4. Osnes, Shadow Puppet Theatre of Malaysia, 10.
5. Ibrahim and Ramli, Shadow Play, 52.
6. Ibrahim and Ramli, Shadow Play, 54, 91; Sweeney, Malay Shadow Puppets, 25.
7. Ibrahim and Ramli, Shadow Play, 47.
8. Long, Javanese Shadow Theatre, 18; Ibrahim and Ramli, Shadow Play, 13.
9. Ibrahim and Ramli, Shadow Play, 13, 67.
10. Osnes, Shadow Puppet Theatre of Malaysia, 79.
11. Rohaniah Saini, Wayang Kulit Enjoys Brief Revival at Malay Village,” Straits Times, 10 March 1990, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Corrie Tan, “Puppets’ Grim Tales,” Straits Times, 30 October 2012, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Malay Cultural Showcase Launched,” Today, 14 October 2014, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Cassandra Wong, “Wayang Kulit with a Superhero Twist,” Today, 18 August 2017, 30. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Abdul Rahim A. Latiff, “Is Shadow Play in the Dark?” Straits Times, 7 May 1984, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

Alit Djajasoebrata, Shadow Theatre in Java: The Puppets, Performance and Repertoire (Amsterdam: Pepin Press, 1999). (Call no. RSEA 791.53095982 DJA)

Bernard Arps, Tall Tree, Nest of the Wind: The Javanese Shadow-Play Dewa Ruci Performed by Ki Anom Soeroto (Singapore: NUS Press, 2016). (Call no. RSEA 791.53095982 ARP)

Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof, The Malay Shadow Play: An Introduction (Penang: The Asian Centre, 1997). (Call no. RSEA 791.5309595 GHU)

Jan Mrazek, Phenomenology of a Puppet Theatre: Contemplations on the Art of Javanese Wayang Kulit (Leiden: KITLV, 2005). (Call no. RSEA 791.5309598 MRA)

Miguel Escobar Varela, “Contemporary Wayang Archive,” 2015.

Mubirman, Wayang Purwa: The Shadow Play of Indonesia (The Hague: van eventer-Maasstichting, 1960). (Call no. RCLOS 791.53 MOE)

Tyra af Kleen, Wayang – Javanese Theatre (Stockholm: Gothia, 1947). (Call no. RCLOS 792.09922 KLE)

Wayang Kulit Warisan Teater Melayu [Wayang Kulit Malay heritage theatre], 199-, videocassete. (Call no. Malay RAV 791.509595 WAY) 

The information in this article is valid as at December 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.



Rights Statement

The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without first gaining the permission of the copyright holder.

More to Explore

Thirunalan Sasitharan


Thirunalan Sasitharan (b. 1958, Singapore–), also known as Sasi, is an actor, art critic, arts educator, activist, former journalist and former philosophy teacher. Besides being an outstanding actor, Sasitharan is one of the foremost thinkers in the local arts community and a leader in some of the most significant arts...

Joanna Wong Quee Heng


Joanna Wong Quee Heng (b. 1939, Penang, Malaya–) is a leading exponent of Cantonese opera in Singapore. Although an amateur artist, Wong’s artistic skills have won her praises from Beijing opera scholars. She has also pioneered many novel ideas to promote Cantonese opera among the young and non-Chinese speaking audiences....

Royston Tan


Royston Tan (b. 5 October 1976, Singapore–) is an award-winning Singaporean film-maker who is hailed as one of the most promising talents in the local film-making industry. Most of Tan’s works focus on social issues and seek to challenge the boundaries of societal expectations. As such, he is often regarded...

Drama festival


Drama festival was first launched in August 1978 as part of goverment initiatives to invigorate the local arts scene....

Choo Hoey


Choo Hoey (b. 20 October 1934, Palembang, Sumatra, Indonesia–) is the founder and conductor emeritus of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). He was the SSO’s resident conductor and music director from 1979 to 1996. A master in his field, Choo has gained a reputation for his expert handling of the...

Christopher Henry Rothwell Allen


Christopher Henry Rothwell Allen (b. 1933, Bombay, India–d. 2004, United Kingdom), more popularly known as Christopher Allen or Chris Allen, was an amateur actor and director who came to Singapore in 1954. He was a prominent member of the expatriate theatre company, Stage Club, which he joined in 1960. With...

Choo Hwee Lim


Choo Hwee Lim (b. 28 September 1931, Singapore–d. 12 May 2008, Singapore) was an important figure in the development of choral music and opera in Singapore. An accomplished baritone singer and music teacher, Choo spotted, encouraged and nurtured once-unknown music talents and gave them opportunities to shine. A co-founding director...

Stella Kon


Stella Kon (b.1944, Edinburgh, Scotland–), playwright, novelist, short story writer and poet, is best known for her monodrama Emily of Emerald Hill, which has been performed locally as well as internationally. The winner of several playwriting competitions in the early 1980s, Kon currently resides in Singapore. ...

Lim Yau


Lim Yau (born 1952, Singapore) is a prominent orchestral and choral conductor whose long conducting career has included stints as Resident Conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and Music Director of the Singapore Symphony Chorus (SSC). He is reputed to be the only conductor to have premiered works by...

World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) Singapore


World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) Singapore was an arts event that made its debut in 1998 at the Festival of Arts. The first WOMAD to be held in Southeast Asia, the event ran for 10 years in Singapore before it was put on hold in 2007....