The beginnings of Indonesian wayang (“shadow”) have been traced to around 1500 B.C.E. Indonesian wayang, a medium of sophisticated literary content filled with philosophical and ethical principles, is best known today for its shadow puppet theatres, the classical Wayang Kulit Purwa and Wayang Golek Sunda, and the human classical dance-drama, Wayang Orang. These dramatic, visual and narrative art forms have developed over many centuries into some of the world's great artistic traditions. While most of the wayang stories are still based on Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, to portray good and evil, wayang has, in recent years, become an effective educational tool to raise awareness about social issues such as HIV/AIDS and environmental protection.
It is estimated that there are more than one hundred wayang performances, reflecting a wide variety of materials, styles, stories and themes.
Today, not all wayang theatre forms are flourishing. Wayang Kulit Purwa of Java, Wayang Parwa of Bali, Wayang Golek Sunda of West Java are examples of wayang varieties that continue to be performed on a regular basis and are popular within their regions.
Indonesian wayang have been made from a variety of materials. The most popular and enduring wayang varieties are made from buffalo or cowhide. These include Wayang Kulit Purwa, Jawa Wood, another enduring material and form, is used for he bodies of Wayang Golek Sunda. Live actors perform the characters from the epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata, for Wayang Orang.
Today there are several currents of change affecting wayang. Television and popular music are luring away the younger generations of audiences from the traditional performing arts, even in Java and Bali where continues to play an important role in the life of the community.
International organizations, such as UNESCO, have contributed to the future of Indonesian wayang in various ways. With UNESCO's recognition of Indonesian wayang as an oral, intangible heritage of humanity in 2003, financial assistance for wayang's development and future, especially those varieties that are under threat, has lead to the establishment of the UNESCO Pilot Project.
An exhibition of work by leading Japanese photographer, Yoshi Shimizu, captures
Indonesian Wayang puppet theatre.
Geneva 2008 – A special display of Yoshi Shimizu’s photographs of Wayang puppet theatre made an appearance at Geneva’s Cité du Temps for a period of one month. The pioneering photography project initiated and realised by Yoshi Shimizu that was featured in this exhibition has been sanctioned by UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation) and is part of an initiative to raise awareness of the value of intangible heritage and the need to safeguard its future. The exhibits document this multi-faceted art form, from the learning of the skills for performance, right through to the puppets themselves. Through the pictures, visitors gained a unique ‘behind the scenes’ tour of this rich and colourful cultural world.