Indonesian Wooden Puppet Theater
of West Java, the Amir Hamzah
Stories and the Localization of Islam
How can traditional art forms act as a window on
cultural syncretism? Specifically, what can the wayang
golek cepak, or wooden puppet theater of west Java,
tell us about the different cultures which came into
contact in the Indo-Malay archipelago?
Through observing and analyzing the elements of Javanese and
Sundanese wayang golek cepak puppets that reveal Arabic, Persian,
and Islamic influences, students will learn about how societies incorporate
and adapt elements of art forms that originated in other societies
and religious traditions. Students will learn about the concept of
Students will be able to:
- Describe elements of traditional forms o ## f puppet theater in Java.
- Identify cultural influences from various regions that are reflected
in wayang golek cepak, or the puppet theater of west Java.
- Discuss how traditional art forms incorporate, adapt, and reflect
elements of other societies and religious traditions over time.
- Understand and explore the concept of localization/syncretism.
- Build visual literacy through analyzing photographs of wooden
Two class periods
Visual Arts, Literature and Performance
Laurie J. Sears
- Student Packet with background Reading by Andrew Weintraub; Synopsis of “Menak Laré,” or “The Tale of Youth”; and Puppet Analysis Guide
- Photos of wayang golek puppets to analyze (see slideshow section on puppets)
- Southeast Asia Map: Conversion to Islam
- Political Map of Indo-Malay Region
- Map Showing Religions of the Indo-Malay Peninsula
- Photos of head cloths and how they are worn in
modern Indonesia, for enrichment and comparison
(on p. 92, “Different styles of headdresses worn
by Minangkabau men at a ceremony in Sumatra,
Indonesia. Photo A. Sutan Madjo Indo”).
- Short video clip of dalang (puppet master) Otong Rasta
in performance, to allow students to see the puppets
in motion and get a sense of the work of dalangs,
who are very important figures in Indonesian society.
- In anticipation of the lesson, ask students to read
the context essay by Andrew Weintraub as a homework
assignment. The teacher should also review the
essay by Laurie Sears, “Visual Arts, Literature, and
Performance” to be able to provide additional contextual
support in the following discussion.
- Distribute to students or project copies of two maps from the
set of project maps, Southeast Asia:
Conversion to Islam and Political Map of
the Indo-Malay Region. Have students locate places
mentioned in the Sears and Weintraub essays on the
maps, including: Java, Cirebon, Demak, and Kudus.
- Consider the concept of localization and syncretism as
reflected in puppet theater traditions.
- Discuss the question of why the wayang golek
cepak, with their Islamic and Arabic- and Persian influenced
themes and stories, are a tradition associated
with northwest Java, especially the area around
Cirebon, Demak, and Kudus.
- Also underscore the Indic influence in Java, already
established when Islam arrived, that is seen in
Javanese puppet theater through the Ramayana and
Mahabharata cycles of stories.
- Provide students with a copy of the play “Menak Laré.”
Share the reading as a class.
Discuss themes, characters, and genre through the
- In what region is this Indonesian play set? Why?
- Which skills seem to be the most important for the
characters in this story, especially Amir Hamzah?
- Why do you think it is important that he comes to
the aid of the king of Mekah?
- What level of society do the characters represent?
(Think, for example, of Nursiwan, Lamdaur,
Munningar, Bastari, Anjali, and Betaljemur.) Why do
you think this is? Why do you think people often enjoy
stories about people like this? Why would some people
rather see plays about ordinary people like themselves,
who do not have political or military power?
- Think about what kind of plays and stories endure
over many years and sometimes generations: some
kinds include history, romance, and adventure. Can
you think of any others? Do you see elements of
these different kinds of stories in “Menak Laré”?
- Are elements of different kinds of stories often mixed
together in novels, stories, plays, and movies that
you are familiar with? What are the different elements
of this story that you think would make it attractive to
audiences in Indonesia especially? Which elements
would make the play interesting and entertaining for
people in many different countries and societies?
- How easy was it for you to remember all the characters
and follow the action in the story the first time
you read it? If it was rather difficult, why? How easy
would it be for you to understand this story if you
had seen it for the first time in a puppet theater?
(Remember that most people in Indonesia do not
read the plays; they become familiar with them by
seeing them performed.)
- What are several reasons
the story might not seem so confusing for people in
Indonesia? (Remember that these stories about Amir
Hamzah, the wayang golek cepak or menak stories
are associated with a particular part of Indonesia,
the west coast of the important island of Java; not
everyone in Indonesia might be as familiar with them
as the people in that region.)
- Prepare students to analyze the visual representations
in Java’s wooden wayang golek cepak puppets
through an introductory discussion of images,
themes, and characters in this play. Provide the
class with the Puppet Analysis Guide handout and
a copy of “Menak Laré.” As a class, have students
look at the twelve photos of puppets used in this
story. Identify each puppet with the character it represents
in the play and review the character’s role in
- Divide students into three groups. (Multiple groups
analyzing the same characters can also be arranged
for classes with larger numbers of students.) Each
group should be given photos to compare, as indicated
below, and to use in completing the worksheet.
Have students discuss and record responses
to questions and share the information with the
class as a whole.
Have one group of students compare the pictures of
the two female characters, Muninggar and Bastari.
Describe them each in detail, paying close attention
to their headdresses, the way they are wearing their
scarves, and the different kinds of blouses each puppet
is wearing. What are the social statures of each
character? Why do you think their clothing might be
different? From what you can see in the photographs,
are their faces very different? If you have time, get
a picture of one of the male characters from your
teacher and compare the faces of the two female
characters with those of the male character, especially
the lines drawn on the faces. Are they similar
or different? If they are similar, why do you think this
is—what qualities that might be common to both the female and male character, such as youth, innocence,
or purity, do you think the puppet makers are
trying to convey? Using Weintraub’s characterization
of puppet types, describe their eyes, noses, body
types, head angles, mouths, and facial colors; and
see which type or types these characters belong to.
Have another group compare the photos of two heroic
male characters, Prince Abdulmutholib and the
hero Amir Hamzah, and another character, such as
the advisor Betaljemur or minister Bastak. Start with
the three characters’ headdresses, noting both differences
and similarities. From Andrew Weintraub’s
essay, you can tell that headdresses are a very important
part of the appearance and classification of
different kinds of Indonesian puppets. Why do you
think this is so? Are hats or headgear as important in
contemporary U.S. society? After comparing headgear,
notice the detailed work on the costumes of
the puppets. Note the different fabrics used for the
robes. Now compare the faces of the three puppets.
Slight differences distinguish Amir Hamzah from
Abdulmutholib, while Betaljemur (or Bastak) is very
different. Notice the small even features of some of
the characters and the exaggerated features of others,
the colors and size of the characters’ eyes, the
sizes of the mouths, the presence or absence and
type of mustaches and beards, and the purpose of
the lines painted on the puppets’ faces. What do you
think these differences are meant to convey? Again,
using Weintraub’s characterization of puppet types,
describe their eyes, noses, body types, head angles,
mouths, and facial colors, and see which type or
types these characters belong to.
Have another group compare puppets that portray
the king and giant Lamdaur of Ceylon, the military
leader Umarmadi of Kokarim (a kingdom in Africa),
and King Nursiwan, who begins as an enemy of
Amir Hamzah’s but is one of his future father-in-laws
(remember that Islam permits a man to have more
than one wife under certain conditions). Note the
color of Umarmadi’s face. What do you think this
striking color—very different from the white, pink or
pale brown colors of other puppets’ faces—is meant
to convey? What feature distinguishes the face of
King Lamdaur? Why do you think both Lamdaur and
Umarmadi are distinguished from Nursiwan either
by facial color or size of features, including beards
and mustaches? Note Lamdaur’s arched headdress.
According to Andrew Weintraub’s essay, what
influence might this style of headdress be due to?
(Remember where Lamdaur is supposed to come
from. What civilization in the region exerted an important
influence on his country? If you’re not sure,
take a look at Map 2. Political Map of Eurasia, in the
packet of project maps.) What skills are Lamdaur
and Umarmadi known for—governance, wisdom
in political affairs, or physical and military prowess?
How is this conveyed through their physical
features? (Here students could also compare photos
of a character such as the royal advisor Betaljemur.)
Use Weintraub’s characterization of puppet types to
describe their eyes, noses, body types, head angles,
mouths, and facial colors; and see if you can tell
to which type or types these characters belong.
- Once students have shared their worksheet responses,
engage the entire class in a whole group reflection on society, art, and change, reviewing the
key points below:
- Both wayang kulit (shadow puppet theater) and
wayang golek cepak (wooden puppet theater of
northwest Java) are traditional Indonesian art forms,
but since Indonesian Independence in 1949, puppet
theater performed with wayang golek cepak puppets
has lost popularity to some degree. The reasons for
this are complex and none can be proven with absolute
certainty, but Andrew Weintraub, the author of the
context essay and an expert on wayang golek cepak,
gives some possible reasons for the decline of the art.
He also says that a great puppet master of wayang
golek cepak theater continues to believe the art form
will eventually regain its pre-Independence popularity.
- What features of the puppets reflect elements of
cultures that have influenced Java over time? How
does the format of puppet theater reflect traditions of
the region? How does this traditional art form reflect
- What makes the popularity of different art forms—
music, dance, writing, crafts—rise and fall with time?
- Can you think of some examples of an art form losing
popularity in American culture, or in another society
you are familiar with? How about an art form or
style that was popular a long time ago, went out of
fashion, but was re-discovered and became popular
again later? Why do you think this happened?
- Why do new forms of culture prove more popular at
certain times than traditional ones, and vice versa?
- Can you think of an example of when a traditional
art form maintained its basic style but incorporated
new elements, or elements from another country?
Students will be assessed on their responses to guiding
questions and worksheet responses, as well as participation
in class discussion.
Use of visual analysis will support understanding of concepts
presented in text. Use of heterogeneous groups will
further support diverse learners. Provide students with
unit glossary to scaffold comprehension.
- Have students generate a short play from the script
provided for “Menak Laré,” or “The Tale of Youth.” Have
each student make a two dimensional representation of
one of the characters in the play, in profile, using poster
board and colored markers. Require students to utilize
Weintraub’s characterization of puppet types in their
construction and detail. Mount puppets on dowels for
use in a readers’ theater performance of the play.
- Ask students to research other traditions of other forms
of puppet theater, such as water puppets or shadow
puppets, found in other parts of Asia. As an alternative,
students may research and compare elements
of culture and localization/syncretism as reflected in
puppetry traditions in specific regions such as China,
India, Vietnam, Japan, and Turkey, for example.
Herbert, Mimi with Nur S. Rahardjo. Voices of the
Puppet Masters: The Wayang Golek Theater of Indonesia.
Jakarta/Honolulu, HI: Lontar Press/University of Hawai’i
This magnificently illustrated book tells the story of ten
living masters of the Indonesian wooden puppet tradition.
One chapter, “In His Father’s Footsteps,” is devoted to
Bandung-based dalang Otong Rasta, friend and longtime
colleague of Andrew Weintraub. Otong Rasta’s story emphasizes the family connections in the art of puppet
theater and the multiple talents of Indonesian puppet
masters (Otong Rasta is not only a dalang but also a
musician and puppet carver.)
Weintraub, Andrew N. Power Plays: Wayang Golek
Puppet Theater of West Java. Athens, OH: Ohio
University Press, 2004.
This study is a detailed and
lively account of the ways in which performers of this
major Asian theatrical form have engaged with political
discourses in Indonesia. Wayang golek has shaped, as
well, the technological and commercial conditions of art
and performance in a modernizing society. The author
uses interviews with performers, musical transcriptions,
translations of narrative and song texts, and archival materials
to analyze the shifting and flexible nature of the art
of the puppeteer. The accompanying CD-ROM includes
video and sound examples, photographs, and text. In one
video example, students can see Otong Rasta carving a
Wayang Golek: Performing Arts of Sunda; VHS, 23 minutes;
Open University, 1999.