Shadow Puppets from Java

Originally Published in 1930

View PDF

PLATE X shows a Javanese puppet, made of leather, representing the hero Ardjuna. He was, in the Javanese legend borrowed from an old Indian epic, one of five princes, sons of Pandu, who waged a desperate war with the sons of Dresterata, the brother of Pandu, for the recovery of the kingdom which the latter, known as the Kurawa, had usurped. Ardjuna was one of the most redoubtable champions of the dispossessed Pandawa. There is something knightly (in the sense of our romantic conception of the heroes of European chivalry) about the character of Ardjuna. He is gentle and compassionate when the stern necessities of war do not constrain him to ruthlessness, and his prowess in the boudoir is hardly less notable than in the stricken field.

A shadow puppet and it's shadow, a head with curved hair and spindly arms that can be manipulated
Plate X — The Hero Ardjuna
Javanese Shadow Puppet
Museum Object Number: 29-91-45
Image Number: 2355

The peculiar form of bodily features and costume of these silhouettes is characteristic of this department of the Javanese theatre. There are other types of Javanese marionette, including figures modelled in the round, of which latter the Museum has now a few, and will shortly acquire a number more; but the kind of puppet shown in the photograph is particularly favoured for representations of the classical legends.

The shadows of the figures are thrown upon a strongly lighted translucent screen, so as to be visible to the women in the audience, sitting on the side of the screen remote from the showman, who manipulates the puppets to illustrate his recital of their words or actions. The men sit on the showman’s side, so that they see the figures themselves as well as their shadows. This is one reason why the figures are elaborately painted in bright colours. The perforations which outline the details of costume are designed to show the latter effectively in the shadows cast on the screen.

The showman sits near the screen, between this and a lamp hung behind him. The puppets, to be ready for the performance, are stuck upright by their pointed handles in a banana or plantain stem which lies along the base of the frame holding the screen. As, in his recitation, the showman reaches the part of each character, he lifts out the proper puppet, and, setting it in the middle of the “stage,” manipulates the sticks attached to the arms so as to produce the gestures traditionally appropriate to the action. His recital of the poem in which the story is related is punctuated, at crucial moments, by the clashing of the gongs of the band placed near the showman.

Cite This Article

"Shadow Puppets from Java." Museum Bulletin I, no. 3 (March, 1930): 23-26. Accessed July 24, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to