Balinese Shadow Puppets

Assembled by Sean Smith

Historical / Cultural Significance

The shadow puppets, or Wayang, of Bali, are known to be the most prominent Balinese theatrical expression. Bali's culture is derived from pre-Hindu, Hindu, and Islamic influences. The wayang theatre preserves the country's Gubdy-Buddhist heritage. The plays are usually based on stories drawn from the Ramayana and Mahabharata Hindu epics. They communicate Bali's history, religious and spiritual teachings, poetry, and philosophy. The characters are demi-gods, demons, magic men, and romantic lovers. There are many different stories past through generations by the puppet theatre ranging from high drama, improvisation, and slapstick comedy.

The night performances of the wayang are for entertainment. A translucent rice paper screen is back-lit by flickering candles or a coconut husk oil lamp. Religious performances take place during the day. Often these performances will occur during, or prior to a ceremony of religious significance.

Only one puppeteer, called a dalang, puts on a performance. This person, often a priest, is a person greatly respected in his community. The dalang must be a very well educated and talented individual as his responsibility is vast. The rods of at least 20 wayang figures are manipulated as the dalang chants or sings his narration. He is accompanied by an orchestra of 4 metal-keyed instruments that sound like fairies (gamelan orchestra). The daland cues the orchestra with his feet while he improvises a complex network of intrigues from a simple plot. He must be able to produce a different voice for each character as well as to physically endure an all-evening performance. He is a master story-teller, a philosopher, a poet, an actor, and a teacher. It is said that the dalang is the greatest educator of the people.

The wayland serves to communicate the history, ideas, and principles of their culture. It pulls the Balanise together as a community and gives people an opportunity to view themselves "through the mirror of the mystic history; to view their current situation through a timeless perspective" (ShadowLight).

Principles and Elements of Design


Sinuous lines and angles intermingle, creating interesting puppets and shadows. Line is particularly important as it, not detail, is what catches the audience's attention.


Probabley the most important element is shape. When a puppet is in use, shape is what gives the essence of the characters. Perhaps a brutish demon has a large body, a tail, and wild hair. Generally, all shapes are very organic.


Negative and positive shapes work together to create intriguing silhouettes. The moveable positive shapes of the arms are defined by the negative shapes of the white screen.


Forms are two-dimensional and organic.


Texture exists on the puppets through decorative techniques. Painted patterns of swirls and diamonds, as well as other details, create the illusion of physical texture. Visual texture is also emphasized by the different paint finished.

Techniques and Methodology

The puppets are flat cut-out figures with moveable arms. There are usually joints at the shoulders and elbows. Traditionally, the puppets are made of leather, supported by sticks of horn, and detailled with ink. They are silhouetted onto translucent rice paper by a coconut husk lamp or candles.

Integration with Music, Dance, Drama

Puppets can be made as an art project that is integrated with Social Studies (a study of Indonesia), Language Arts (script writing), Drama (creating and producing a performance, voice emphasizing activities), PE (learn dances that accompany the stories of the dolls, i.e. the Wayang Wong dnace), Music (rhythms and beats, working with narration).


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