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The Construction of Rod Puppets (Wayang Golek)

Subhadra (Subadra), a wife of Arjuna and an incarnation of Lakshmi

Subhadra (Subadra), a wife of Arjuna and an incarnation of Lakshmi, 1995, by M. Ahim Indonesia; Ciampea, West Java. Wood. From the Mimi and John Herbert Collection, F2000.86.118.

M. Ahim on his carving platform

M. Ahim on his carving platform, from Voices of the Puppet Masters: The Wayang Golek Theater of Indonesia, by Mimi Herbert (2002). Photograph by Tara Sosrowardoyo. Reproduced by permission.

Subhadra (Subadra), a wife of Arjuna and an incarnation of Lakshmi
M. Ahim on his carving platform
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Wayang golek puppets are made from light softwood, which is first roughly modeled with a knife. The head is the most important part. The carver uses his hand to make the measurements—for example, the curve of the carver’s thumb must fit smoothly into the slope of the chin and neck. The finer features of the headdress, which help identify the puppet as a particular character, is carved once the general shape of the head has been achieved. On the back of many headdresses is carved a bird face (garuda mungkur); the association of the mighty king of the birds, Garuda, with the Hindu preserver god, Vishnu, may be the source of this pattern.

The trunk of the body is carved from waist to shoulders or neck. A hole is drilled through the center of the body and the neck; then a central rod is put through the hole and the head mounted on this rod. The arm pieces are carved in two sections—hand to elbow and elbow to shoulder. After the carving is complete the figure is coated with primer; then the head is painted in bright colors according to traditional patterns. The features of the face require the steadiest hand, for the life of the puppet is in the eyes and mouth.

The body and the jointed arms are usually painted gold. Sequined bodices or cloth pieces wrapped around the neck sometimes cover the chest, and a batik cloth skirt hides the puppeteer’s hand. The arm pieces are strung together and attached to the body with string. Finally, control rods are attached to the hands, and the figure is ready to dance. In the past, dalang made their own puppets, but now many order puppets from dalang who specialize in carving.

This finished carving of a rod puppet (wayang golek) representing Subhadra (Subadra), sister of Krishna and a wife of Arjuna, was carved by the puppet master (dalang) and expert carver M. Ahim (see photo above). Intricate swirling decorative motifs are carved into the headdress along with the construction of the puppet body.

This photograph of the puppet master (dalang) and expert carver M. Ahim was taken in his home on the outskirts of Bogor, Indonesia. Traditionally, dalang are carvers. They must be versed in the iconography of each of the 60 to 120 puppets that perform in a story cycle. A dalang carves each rod puppet (wayang golek) character from memory, never referring to drawings as a guide. He begins by carefully choosing a block of light softwood. He hacks a rough model of the puppet’s face and headdress then uses his hand to gauge the proportions of the face. For example, the back of the dalang’s thumb should fit snugly in the slope between the puppet’s chin and neck. After this, the finer features are carved with smaller tools, a hole is drilled in the headdress (if the hair is worn in a raised, curling bun), and the entire surface of the puppet is smoothed with sandpaper. With a pencil, the dalang then draws on the wood an outline of the intricate details of the face and headdress. These are then carved and sanded. Lastly, the head is treated and painted according to the nature of the character the puppet will represent. Carvers and their families frequently construct, paint, and sew cloths for the wayang golek puppets during the fasting month of Ramadan, when no ritual feasts are held.

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