The Wayang Golek dolls are traditional Indonesian wooden doll puppets that are jointed with rods for puppet shadow theatre. The word “wayang” is derived from the Indonesian word that means shadow or ghost. It has been a popular Indonesian entertainment most especially with the shadow puppet theatre called “Wayang Kulit”. The word “kulit” means leather or skin. The wooden doll puppets’ history had been thought to have originated in China and then was introduced in Java in the 17th century. The pasisir region of Java had been one of the places where the tradition was popularly observed with plays depicting the stories of Amir Hamza. The Indonesian cities where the plays were popularly performed were Tegal, Jepara, Kabumen and Cirebon.
The difference of the wayang golek dolls from the wayang kulit and wayang karucil or klitik is that it is three-dimensional. It does not look flat and it is similarly structured to the dolls we see today. The puppeteer, who is also called as “dalang”, pulls strings and moves the rods connected to the dolls’ joints at the back of fabric screen where a lamp illuminates a yellow orange glow to it.
Due to the wide acceptance of this theatre art, the tradition spread out to West Java in the 18th century. This time, the stories were about The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. The tradition of wayang golek purwa was then born in the Western Java region which consisted of Bandung, Jakarta and Bogor. Yet with the influence of Islam in these regions, the puppets depict a different image which is far from the lifelike approach used in European vintage dolls. The eyes of these dolls were shaped differently along with over imposed noses since Islam prohibits the depiction of human form in these creations.
The art employed in these dolls along with the interplay of light and shadow used in the theatre performance makes the Wayang Kulit as one of the most unique heritage in the world. In November 7, 2003, this was even designated by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
One of the most famous clan of puppeteers to have preserved this tradition is the Sunarya family and the heritage continues until today. The carvings and perforations employed on the dolls have become ever more intricate and highly stylized in form today. The dolls have approximately 25 varieties of headdresses that represent powerful figures in the traditional Indonesian society. Until today, the form on these dolls typically depicts nobility, strength, wisdom, and patience.