On my last weekend in Yogya, there was a shadow puppet play (wayang kulit) to mark the opening of a new government office downtown. As I understand it, performances like these aren't just celebrations; they're also spiritual events that help bring the new building harmony and good fortune.
The puppet-master uses the attached sticks to manipulate the figures. But where are the shadows? you may be asking. The answer is, we were in the cheap seats. To see the shadow side of the performance, you have to sit on the other side of the screen, where all the high muckety-mucks of local and regional government were sitting. Hence the bright light hanging in front of the puppets on our side, which you can see in the photo below. You can also see the dalang, or puppet-master, moving one of the puppets.
Being a dalang has to be one of the world's most demanding creative jobs. The dalang manipulates all the puppets and does all the voices, while giving frequent cues to the orchestra (which he cannot see) by striking a set of bronze plates with his right foot. He is a storyteller, comedian, singer, actor and political and spiritual commentator. He may dip into high Javanese, low Javanese, Indonesian, and even English during one play. Since wayang traditionally lasts all night, he performs for eight hours at a time while sitting cross-legged and constantly moving the puppets.
The screen was on a raised stage, and an entire gamelan orchestra sat between us and the puppets. Behind these singers you can see all of the dalang's puppets lined up. All the characters have to be present, even though most of them won't be used (there are hundreds of wayang stories and characters).
(Pardon the blurry photos; I didn't want to use my flash.)
Like all traditional arts, wayang is being challenged by TV, movies, etc. It's becoming more of a formal artistic and touristic event, rather than an ordinary expression of the culture. But it's clearly still lively and relevant. It was cool to see cigarette vendors, cold-drink sellers and other regular people gathered around laughing. To them this was clearly not a museum piece; it was just a good story.
As Inside Indonesia magazine points out, one of wayang's strengths is its ability to adapt to stay relevent: "When President Sukarno used to arrive everywhere by helicopter there was a period in the 1960s where the god Visnu would descend in the same manner. TV and video created a demand for faster action and more realism if wayang performers were to attract younger audiences. ... Sometimes the puppets even move through film projections of exploding volcanoes. These changes are popular with audiences. There are rock songs in the middle, comedians (pelawak), singers, and people get up and dance. In one wayang performance the dalang smashed his puppets in a manner reminiscent of Who concerts."