Wayang, on this website, refers specifically to Javanese wayang kulit purwa—a performance art from Central and East Java using flat puppets cut from raw water-buffalo hide (wayang kulit), which cast striking shadows due to their intricate carvings, and which are also elaborately painted. “Purwa” refers to the body of stories told in this art form, based on the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics, as well as the Jawa Déwa, Lokapala, and Arjunasasrabau story cycles. This website presents the work of one artist, Purbo Asmoro, who was born in 1961 in Pacitan, East Java, but whose style is entirely based on performance practice from Surakarta (also known as Solo), Central Java and the surrounding areas: Klaten, Sragen, Wonogiri, Karanganyar, Sukoharjo, and Boyolali. This website does not attempt in any way to comment on either the history or development of performance practice in Yogyakarta, Banyumas, Cirebon, East Java, or any other regions where wayang kulit purwa is performed. “Wayang” can refer to either the performance art as a whole, or to the actual puppet figures themselves.
Dhalang refers to the master performer who single-handedly manipulates the wayang, delivers all the dialogue and narration, and presents the unique personality, voice, gait, and point of view of every character on the screen. A successful dhalang must be a compelling actor, as well as a natural poet, gripping orator, talented vocalist, dynamic choreographer, creative scriptwriter, effective musical conductor, spontaneous comedian, astute political and social commentator, and efficient business manager. Beyond being a virtuosic manipulator of puppets and shadows, he (the vast majority are men, although there are some prominent female dhalang) must also have a deep understanding of stylized Javanese classical dance movements, and be able to make these come alive through the wayang figures. Beyond being a storyteller, he is expected to have a vast repertory of traditional plotlines at his fingertips. Beyond being a poet and script writer, he must be an expert linguist, able to handle the complexities of Javanese speech levels and vocabulary sets, from ancient to modern, while taking on the personae of many different characters in quick succession. But most of all, he is an artist with something to say: a creative interpreter of stories, offering topical issues, moral messages, and conflict-rich scenarios for the audience to ponder through the colorful allegory of ancient tales.
Lakon are the stories as they are played out in wayang performances. These are not plays or scripts, but rather general plotlines fleshed out by the interpretation and spontaneity of the dhalang. Experienced dhalang never perform the same lakon (episode) in the same way twice. A dhalang will react to and integrate the needs of the sponsor, the situation, the audience, his own frame of mind, and current events at each performance—not just during the joke interludes, but in the way he unfolds the actual storyline itself. He will also inevitably change and grow as a performer, and over time come to present the same lakon in a multitude of ways with different twists and takes on the story. In one authoritative encyclopedia of lakon synopses compiled in 1995 by dhalang Tristuti Rahmadi Suryasaputra, the Mahabharata is broken into 122 commonly performed lakon, while the Ramayana is broken into 26 commonly performed lakon (for summaries of these epics, see Appendix 1). Aside from these episodes, which are directly based on standard Indian or Javanese-version storylines (pakem), the Javanese have created hundreds of their own (lakon carangan), with more being created by each generation. While generally based on the same characters and overall story outcomes, lakon carangan explore various intrigues not existing in the older Indian or Javanese Mahabharata or Ramayana. Although there are books in which entire lakon are written out like plays—sometimes transcribed from a live performance and sometimes created by request prior to a specific performance—the most experienced, talented, and professional dhalang do not use these as scripts to be read straight through during a performance.
Gamelan, as it relates to the world of modern-day wayang, refers specifically to the musical ensemble from Solo, Central Java, which in the context of this work is used to accompany current-day wayang performances, an ensemble consisting of some 20 to 30 musicians. Although predominantly an orchestra of bronze percussion, leadership roles are taken up by the drum (kendhang), and the lone bowed string instrument (rebab), while the vocalists are also prominent: female soloists called pesindhèn, and a chorus of male singers known as gérong. An absolutely central role in wayang is held by the gendèr player (see Figure 0-6), who plays almost non-stop throughout the night.