Javanese Shadow Puppets

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Oxford University Press, 1992 - Literary Criticism - 72 pages
Few art forms in the world appear as exotic as Javanese shadow plays, in which flat leather puppets cast shadows upon a screen. The figures are intricately cut and painted, and one puppeteer controls all their movements and enacts all their voices for the night-long performance. The puppeteer is believed to possess great amounts of mystical power, and the art form he transmits enjoys more prestige than many of Java's other performing arts. How can we make any sense of such a strange performing art? Textual evidence suggests that shadow plays have been performed for over 1,000 years in Java. The highly stylized figures, representing heroes, gods, princesses, demons, and servants, do indeed look like images from an altogether distant time and place. Yet, today, shadow plays are still enormously popular and Javanese flock in great numbers to see a famous puppeteer perform. To understand why shadow plays enjoy such great prestige and still provide so much pleasure, it is necessary to consider the stories they relate, their place in Javanese social life, and how Javanese talk about them. In the end, they remain a strikingly unusual art form, but not an inaccessibly exotic one.

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About the author (1992)

Keeler is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin.

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