Javanese Shadow Puppets and Music Bring Another World to Life

java shadow puppets music

The centuries-old Javanese theatre art of wayang kulit casts its spellbinding shadows at UC Davis on April 24.

Wayang kulit (“shadow play”) marries music, storytelling and visual art through puppetry. It will be performed by dhalang (puppet master) and UC Berkeley lecturer Midiyanto, and the UC Berkeley Gamelan (percussion ensemble) Sari Raras. The story, based on The Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu epic poem, will be narrated in English and Javanese.

Meticulously handcrafted puppets tell a story that incorporates humor and action, current issues and philosophical teachings and elements of Javanese myth, legend and history. Colorful characters are helmed by the dhalang, who is the ringleader of the complex affair and often a spiritual leader.

The performance is presented by the UC Davis Department of Music

“Even though it is a puppet show, it’s not aimed at children although there is a lot of slapstick children will enjoy,” said Henry Spiller, music department chair and an ethnomusicologist who specializes in music from the Indonesian island of Java. “There are also more philosophical dramatic situations.” 

Along with providing an entertaining, cross-cultural experience for audience members, it also serves an educational purpose for UC Davis students. UC Davis also has a gamelan. 

“We often talk just about the music side, but Javanese music is very much tied to dance, puppetry, poems and historical and mythological narratives,” Spiller said. “Hosting wayang kulit provides a more complete vision of the arts of Java to our students.” 

The 3 p.m. performance will take place in the intimate Vanderhoef Studio Theatre of the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. It will be followed by a question and answer session with gamelan co-director and founder Ben Brinner, and Spiller, who will be performing with the group. 

Tickets are $10 for students and children and $20 for adults with discounts for faculty and staff. Go to mondaviarts.org to purchase tickets.

- Jeffrey Day, content strategist, College of Letters and Science. jaaday@ucdavis.edu