Ancient History of Shadow Puppetry

At the 1999 Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting, a paper was presented which states that missionary Buddhist priests took the art of shadow puppetry from India to both Indonesia and China during the Buddhist expansion from the sixth through ninth centuries. Although this theory is feasible and intriguing, the popularity of the Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana in Southeast Asia suggests that it was the Hindu culture, instead of the Buddhist culture, that accompanied the shadow puppetry from India. However, Buddhism may have played a big role in the introduction of shadow puppetry in China. In fact, picture recitations might have been performed in Buddhist temples during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE).

The art of shadow puppetry, or shadow play, is an ancient form of storytelling which utilizes flat figures (shadow puppets) to create cut-out figures which are then held between a source of light and a translucent screen. It has a long history in China, India, Nepal, and Southeast Asia, as well as in Turkey and Greece, surviving everything from war and famine to cultural revolutions. Shadow puppetry is so embraced by many different cultures that each culture seems to have their own history and legend of the first shadow play performance— therefore claiming it, or at least different versions of it, as their own.

Woman in White Tank Top Sitting on Bed

The Andhra Sarwaswamu states that Indian kings who invaded Java (now part of Indonesia) in the sixth century introduced shadow puppetry to the island. However, the present Indonesian shadow puppetry is so much more elaborate than the ancient traces of this art in India, leading many to maintain that it was an autochthonous Indonesian tradition.

One example of this is that although the Indian shadow puppet performances either have very few or no musical instruments at all, shadow plays in Indonesia are accompanied by extensive ensembles of gamelan music. Another difference between the Indonesian shadow puppetry we know today and its older forms is that, while the Chinese shadow plays are considered a form of opera in China, the Indonesian shadow puppetry has become its own art form, separate from the theater in Java. 

Arjuna dan Buto Cakil pada pertunjukan wayang kulit di Semarang, Jawa Tengah.jpg
Arjuna and Buto Cakil in a Wayang performance in Semarang, Central Java

The earliest surviving records of wayang (Indonesian shadow puppetry) on copper plates dated 840 and 907 CE referred to shadow plays and performers. The first copper plate, dated 840 CE, mentions the names of six officials who were either performers themselves or who supervised musicians, clowns, and possibly wayang performers. The second copper plate, from 907 CE, describes dances, epic recitations, and a shadow play performance.

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