Saturday, January 30, 2010

Wayang Kulit Balinese Shadows Puppet Theater (2): "The Sacrifice of Bima" (The Performance)

Wayang Kulit Performance: The Sacrifice of Bima.
Wayang Kulit (By Gustavo Thomas © 2012. All Rights Reserved)

Once having explained (with help of a Balinese master, of course) the details of both the Wayang Kulit and the performance I witnessed at the Oka Kartini Gallery on July 19th 2009 (see my Blog post about it:, we can go on to the filmed material of the performance (which lasted approximately 20 minutes) and my experience there.

Evidently, ancient Balinese and Sanskrit were incomprehensible to me, but not so the sound of the singing (or reciting) and the music, nor the aesthetic visual aspect and the actions (I think in the video you will be able to appreciate it quite well in a manner similar to how I I lived it). Yet, there are some comments that I would like to share with you:


In addition to the characters that were presented in the video in the previous post, you will note the presence of a sort of leaf or butterfly (when it moves); it is a tree, "the tree of life" or Kayonan. It is one of the most important puppets and appears both at the beginning and at the end of each performance: it represents the centre, the life force, balance, which is why negative characters are placed on one side and the positive ones on the other one, with the Kayonan in the middle.

The length and public of the performance

The performance lasted a little over an hour and I noticed something that Covarrubias mentions in his book about public attitudes abroad (1): faced with a lack of understanding of the text and the lack of an ear educated to listen to the sounds of that language and music, they just started to get bored, but not so the Balinese public and some others (including me) that found an interest in them and struggled to keep from falling with the rest, but the common foreign public did fall into boredom. Some children went out to play, but others remained; in the end whole families were leaving the place before the end of the performance.

Covarrubias explains (2) it is not a children's theater, it is a religious drama featuring mythological epics that last 6 to 8 hours, full of beauty and codes that even the more stringent Balinese intellectuals enjoy (3); it is the case that the shadows, fire, song, and puppetry get the Balinese children's attention, but that's just a bonus. Hence its difficulty, hence the apparent lack of interest beyond a few minutes during the performance of almost a fifth of its normal length!

Unlike some Chinese shadow theater companies, the Balinese have not changed their themes and stagings for a child audience, nor do they show just excerpts so small only the fight scenes and acrobatics games are displayed (4). Moreover, Chinese puppets have an unparalleled movement while the Balinese ones may, in some cases, only move their arms (5)

Wayang Kulit (By Gustavo Thomas © 2012. All Rights Reserved)

The Dalang and improvisation

The technique of the Dalang (the master manipulator) is, without any doubt, the same both for this performance as well as for the one he performs inside a temple, and the only fault, if I can call it that, are some comments in English ( "Hello, How are you? Do you speak English?, etc.). that, nevertheless, belongs to improvised moments of comedy that exist in long for-Balinese-only performances too; that comedy is contemporary (with up-to-date jokes), improvised and, as I mentioned, part of the tradition of representing the Wayang Kulit.

The Dalang and battles

As expected, the battle scenes have the most movement and dramatic power of representation, and at some point we lose the awareness that this whole movement is performed by a single person behind the screen, the Dalang.

The puppets and their material behind the screen

When you see the puppets of the Balinese shadow theatre in the windows of the shops or even in a stack while carried by the company's aides, one cannot perceive the beauty they achieve when they become shadows with help of the lit oil lamp, literally giving them the energy that the Dalang then activates to achieve the movement of life. I had had such an experience in Cambodia, in Siem Reap (6) with this same type of puppets, but that performance was done by children who had developed their technique and who somehow didn't make us see their puppets in the best way possible; but here, with a Dalang (an expert), the images remained in my memory and I remember especially the light passing through the holes carved on the doll as truly spectacular moments.

I personally enjoyed the continuous image of the tree, even more so when it "flies" like a butterfly and goes away and comes back again with the flame of the lamp in the center; in the same manner, the sound of the small Gamelan orchestra (bieng the first time I listened to it beyond restaurants' or shops' background) made me enjoy the show a lot.

About the videos

The performance was about an hour and half long with no intermissions; the numbering of the videos is due to the fact that Youtube does not allow posting more than 10 minutes of material, so I split the performance into three parts (5 if I count the two extras videos, the introduction one and the one of the shots from behind the screen).

Video: Wayang Kulit "The Sacrifice of Bima" (Third part)

(1) Covarrubias "Island of Bali" page 237.
(2) Covarrubias "Island of Bali" pages 234-237
(3) Certain types of stories are performed only for the deity, as is the case with the theater and dance from India.
My post on a shadow theater performance in Wuzhen, China, is a perfect example of such only-for-kids performances: Wuzhen (II) A Chinese Shadow Theatre Experience.
(5) Some of the puppets from Java's shadow puppet theater can move the jaw.
(6) See my post on three performances of shadow theater in Siem Reap, Cambodia:
Three Shadows Puppet Theatre Plays in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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  1. Hi Gustavo,
    my name is Stephanie,im a graduate architecture student at Rhode Island School of Design ( I'm currently doing my final thesis project, and the program of my thesis is the wayang kulit. I'm just wondering if its possible for me include some of your images and your videos as part of my presentation? I'm having my final presentation next Friday, 21st of May 2010. You can have a quick browse at my degree project blog (which i haven't been updating) to have a quick look at what my interests are (

    Hope to hear from you soon


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