Shadow Theatre in Java:
The Puppets, Performance and Repertoire

Alit Djajasoebrata

Pepin Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
Shadow Theatre in Java is a beautifully illustrated introduction to the most popular form of Javanese puppet theatre, wayang purwa, which employs flat leather puppets and is sometimes known as wayang kulit.

Part one surveys the different types of wayang and describes something of its origins and history and its place in everyday life. Part two describes how the puppets are made and major features of their iconography; it looks in detail at puppets of the Panakawan, the divine servants of the hero who provide comedy and commentary in performances. Part three describes the requirements for a wayang performance and its lakon or stages, and explains something of the skills and status of the dalang or puppeteer. And part four introduces the wayang repertoire, summarising the basic stories of the Arjuna Sasra Bau, Rama, and Pandawa cycles.

The text takes up perhaps a third of Shadow Theatre in Java; the rest is devoted to photographs. These include a few black and white photos of performances from early in the 20th century, but most are full-page colour images of puppets, displayed on plain backgrounds. The captions don't provide much context about the specific items — just sizes, approximate dates, and places of origin — but discuss general features of puppets and sometimes wander further. The caption accompanying one of the gunungan (representations of the elements), for example, contains a paragraph on kejawen (Javanese mysticism). Unfortunately the font used in the captions is way too small — and bumping that up a size or two would still have left plenty of whitespace.

That is the one design flaw, however; otherwise Shadow Theatre in Java is a gorgeous volume, with enough text to also be an informative one. Almost all the items photographed come from the collection of the Rotterdam Museum of Ethnology, but the result is a integrated book, not an exhibition catalog with extras.

October 2002

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- James R. Brandon - On Thrones of Gold: Three Javanese Shadow Plays
- books about Java + Javanese culture
- books about art + art history
- books about theatre + performance
%T Shadow Theatre in Java
%S The Puppets, Performance and Repertoire
%A Djajasoebrata, Alit
%I Pepin Press
%D 1999
%O hardcover, quarto, colour photographs
%G ISBN 9054960345
%P 152pp