Wayang is the shadow play which uses leather of wooden puppets to dramatize stories from the Javanese version of the Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana or mythological versions of the history of the kingdoms of pre-colonial Java.
The shadow play is called so because the puppets, which are flat cutouts of leather, painted in gold, red, blues and blacks are made the cast large shadows on a white screen. The dalang, as the puppeteer is called, sits on a mat in front of the screen. A gamelan orchestra is behind him and an oil lamp hangs above his head (traditionally: nowadays, in the towns at least, an electric lamp is used). The puppet are fastened to a tortoise-shell stick, running from head to below their joined feet, at which point the dalang grasps the stick as a sort of handle. The movable arms, the only movable parts, also have short sticks attached to them which the dalang holds in the same hand and manipulates with his fingers. He holds the puppets up and either hand over his head and interposes them between the light and the screen. If they are nobles, as most are, he must be doubly careful never to let them get lower than his head. From the dalang’s side of the screen one thus sees the puppets themselves and their shadows rising up dominant on the screen behind them. From the reverse side of the wayang screen, one sees the shadows of the puppets only.
Along the base of the screen, in front of the dalang, there is a banana tree-trunk into which are stuck the puppets not immediately in use. As the play, which usually lasts all night progresses, the dalang takes the replaces characters from the tree-trunk as he needs them and manipulates the puppets immediately in play. (Mostly they are either enganged one another or, in the case of the clowns, in some kind of burlesque) he imitates all the voices called for, sings when singing is appropriate, kids an iron clapper with his foot to keep the rhythm and to symbolize the sounds of war and as he has only the bare outline of the story given to him by tradition, makes up most of details of the plot as he goes along, particularly in the comic scenes, which often contain elements of contemporary social criticism. He does this the whole night long, sitting until the dawn with his feet folded inwards in the formal Javanese sitting posture, performing with a dexterity, a fertility of invention and a physical endurance which are together remarkable.