The Shadow Orchestra


Semar,one of the most beloved of all the characters of Javanese wayang kulit plays. This particular puppet image was attached to a post by the University of Pekalongan.

In honor of the new Puppetland book released in .pdf format from Arc Dream Publishing, I’m writing a bit about the research into historical and contemporary puppetry that I did to generate the characters, conflicts and settings I contributed to the game.

There are four Shadow Puppet characters in my  “Pretty Polly” scenario, the friends and chosen family of the eponymous heroine. I chose to make them real traditional shadow puppets from Java, partially renamed to conform to the surreal creepy-humorous naming conventions of Puppetland.

I gave them the role of itinerant musicians, traveling as a family to entertain the masses and provide musical accompaniment to Pretty Polly’s magical performances as a dancer.

“Semar, Rama, Sindi and Simba are traditional-style shadow puppets from Java, depicting forms from the Wayang kulit tradition. They are beautifully cut from leather and decorated with paint, lacquer and buffalo horn. Although their construction makes them stronger, larger and more durable than paper Shadow Puppets, they lack many of the traditional strengths of the Shadow Puppet form, in particular the ability to become fully invisible.”

Semar, depicted very well above, is one of the most famous characters in Javanese literature. He is the father and leader of the Punakawan, the sacred clown servants of the epic stories that are performed on the island, and in many ways he is the guardian spirit of Java itself; demonic entities flee before him, and he is the voice of sanity in a sea of conflict.

A leather wayang shadow-pupet from Indonesia--likely depicting the great hero Rama, from the epic Ramayana.

A leather wayang shadow-pupet from Indonesia–likely depicting the great hero Rama, from the epic Ramayana.

Rama, who in my scenario appears as a dashing troubadour adventurer, is derived from the figure of the great prince of the epic Ramayana. Since Rama in his own story is a faithful husband and a rescuer of women in distress, I thought Pretty Polly would benefit from his protection.


A beautifully painted leather puppet of Sita, the wife of Rama.

The female characters of the Shadow Orchestra are derived from the Ramayana and other Indonesian epics.

Sindi is an elderly, motherly figure, perhaps an older version of a lady like Sita, the wife of Rama, or of Kunthi, the mother of the Punkawan clowns.


Kunthi, the mother of the Punkawan. The model of the ideal mother, her sons are always perfectly obedient.

The younger female character Simba, however, has much more in common with the fierce female warrior of Java’s puppet theater, the unstoppable Srikandi.

Dewi Srikandi: is the exact opposite of the refined, humble female who lives in the shadow of her husband. Srikandi is “talkative, strong willed, warm-hearted, fond of hunting, an excellent archer, she isquite ready to debate with [her husband] Ardjunå or take on a passing satryå in battle. She enjoys travelling about Java, either in search of her periodically missing husband or seeking adventures of her own . . . For the Javanese, Srikandi is the honored type of the active, energetic, disputatious, generous, go-getting woman” (Anderson 2009: 36).



There are many links on the web to learn more about Javanese shadow puppets, as well as several books on the subject. One of the resources I found most useful was a simple .pdf entitled Shadow Puppet Templates, which appears to course material from the University of Michigan.

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About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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