One of the arts spread through the indianization of Southeast Asia was shadow puppetry. Shadow puppets have a long history in India and different parts of the sub-continent have their versions of it. The shows are usually put on during Hindu festivals and stories drawn from Indian epics feature prominently. [Read more: “The Mahabharata“] Sometimes the shows are performed by families of itinerant puppeteers.
From India the tradition spread to all of Southeast Asia. In Indonesia it is known as wayang or wayang kulit, and it is commonly performed in Java and Bali. Wayang means “shadow,” “imagination” or “spirit,” in Javanese and kulit means “skin,” since the puppets usually a made from leather. In Bali the performance typically starts and night and continues until dawn. The flat puppet has moveable joints that are animated by hand, using rods connected to the puppet. A skilled puppeteer can make the shadows walk, dance, fight, nod and laugh. A complete troupe of wayang kulit performers also includes singers and gamelan players — the gamelan is an ensemble of musicians playing various percussion instruments.
Shadow puppets have been popular in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Malaysia too. Also here the performances have been staged during temple festivals and story-lines from Indian epics are common. Here too the puppets are made of leather and manipulated by sticks. The shadows are cast using an oil lamp or a halogen light onto a cotton cloth background. In Indonesia and Malaysia, shadow puppets have been one of the way of bypassing Muslim prohibitions on the representation of human forms. It is not a puppet, after all, only the shadow of a puppet.
There is concern regarding the future of shadow puppetry in Southeast Asia. The art is well documented in museums, and it is commonly performed for tourists, but it is rather more uncertain whether the art will survive as a genuinely popular form of entertainment. There is today a lot of competition from other forms of shadow plays — movies, television, YouTube clips. In 2003, Unesco designated wayang kulit, as an example of a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”