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    Auction Finds

    A tale of shadow puppets

    I began reading the auction bid sheet, indifferently scanning the items at the Orientalia sale at one of my favorite auction houses. 

    There were Asian artwork, screens, furniture, garden seats, bronze figurines and more. The auction house seems to hold these regularly, and they produce some pretty sprightly bidding. I wasn’t buying, but I decided to hang out among the 35 or more people there to see what sold and for how much. 

    As I checked out the bid sheet, my eyes rested on something with an intriguing name: Six Burmese Shadow Puppets. I had not seen any puppets when I cursorily previewed the items on the tables. So, from my chair I turned to peruse the tables again for small hand-held puppets, the kind I was used to seeing. 

    Nothing. Then I checked the number of the items on the bid sheet. That’s when I found them – large flat colorful tin-like figures, painted and gilded, hanging on a wall. There were four attached to the wall, each with rods protruding from the bottom and hanging from each arm. Two were framed without rods. 

    As I looked at them closely, I saw that they were not made of tin, but appeared to be hand-painted paper. I would find out later that I was wrong. 

    The bid sheet described them this way: Six Burmese shadow puppets, polychromed w/quill supports. Two are framed without quill supports, mid 20th century, from 18″ to 36″. 

    The lot sold for $500. Now I was definitely curious about what they were and how they were used, and couldn’t wait to get home to Google them. 

    First, I learned that these were not Burmese shadow puppets. In fact, one website noted that the people of Burma – officially known as Myanmar – have never made shadow puppets, and others noted that puppets made in this country were marionettes. The wooden marionettes were carved by master sculptors under strict rules. On stage, the marionettes’ movements were manipulated with strings by puppeteers performing behind a curtain, telling stories about the country’s legends. 

    They have been around since the 11th century and were used as entertainment for royalty and ordinary citizens. The performances were held at night and brought the citizens both gossip and news. 

    The figures sold at the auction appeared to be Indonesian shadow puppets, similar to ones on the islands of Java and Bali. Java is considered the hub of shadow puppetry, its history dating back 1,000 years. Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, is located there. 

    The shadow puppets I found via Google were flat, colored and gilded. They, too, were made by skilled craftsman using methods steeped in culture and history – just like the puppets. They were part of what is called Wayang Kulit, a form of traditional theater in Indonesia. 


    Wayang, which means theater or shadow, is believed to have been brought into the country by Asian Indians after the first century. In Java, performances are held on holidays, at religious festivals, weddings and other events. 

    The puppets are made from buffalo hide, and are either mounted on bamboo sticks or buffalo horns with control rods on their arms, according to various websites. During the performance, they are used to tell the familiar story of the two great historical epics of India, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Some stories are also based on local events. The performances are largely held at night, and it takes about eight hours to weave the tale, the theme of which is good over evil. 

    The stories are chosen and narrated by a trained and respected dalang, who manipulates the rods and his voice to fashion the story. He is accompanied by a traditional orchestra called a gamelan. The performance is conducted behind a white curtain or cloth with a lamp that produces shadows on the screen. 

    Watch this YouTube video to see what the audience sees and this one to see the dalang at work.   

    On the web, I found shadow puppets selling individually for around $20 to about $90. Not sure, though, if they were the real thing.

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