Monday, July 14, 2014

Wayang in the British Museum


It's been a long time since my last blog post - almost exactly a year in fact - and I think it is high time for me to get back to blogging. This inactivity has been due largely to pressing other needs, but also on focus on non-Indonesia matters.

The last weeks though have seen me return to the world of wayang kulit through a series of visits to the stores of the British Museum, where I have been looking at shadow puppets from Java, Bali, Thailand, and Malaysia with visiting puppet experts, including Professor I Nyoman Sedana (pictured above looking at a nineteenth-century Balinese bark cloth-on-rattan figure used for cremation ceremonies) from ISI Denpasar.

Alexandra Green, the museum's Southeast Asia curator, and I have an exhibition proposal on Asian shadow puppets under consideration and we are hoping to develop an AHRC bid around this. The visiting experts (five of them so far) have been working with us in developing a research methodology in how to work with shadow puppets in museum contexts.

Alex has been thinking about the history of collecting in relation to this -- why are certain figures chosen over others - as well as the history of cultural interactions which take form in shadow puppets. (She has some fascinating insights into the use of Indian trade textiles on the Raffles figures from early nineteenth-century Java.) I have been thinking about how puppeteers imprint their dramatic imaginations on these static figures from another time, and what sorts of historical and practical information can be evoked in the encounter with museum objects.

There is still a long journey before us....

Monday, July 8, 2013

Gamelanathon


Last weekend (6-7 July) was the Gamelathon, described as 'a weekend of Indonesian music, dance and puppetry across the Southbank Centre site' in London. This was a pretty huge event, organised by Sophie Ransby, with free performances by performing groups from around the UK and Ireland, along with a ticketed dance piece by Indonesian-Australian choreographer Ade Suharto ('In Lieu') and a major programme by the Southbank Gamelan Players featuring srimpi, small dance pieces and a so-called sendratari titled Topeng Panji Kayungyun. Performances took place in the Clore Ballroom at the Royal Festival Hall, outdoors on a temporary stage erected on the Riverside Terrace, the Front Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall, and in Queen Elizabeth Hall itself.





I was busy with my own performance, Dewi Gegurit, a new wayang golek cepak play which built upon my studies in Cirebon and Indramayu in 2012, which I created in collaboration with Indonesian composer/pianist Marisa Sharon Hartanto. But I  managed to see in full or in part quite a bit of the rest of the festival-- the end of a concert by Gamelan na Gaillimhe from Galway, Ireland; a combined concert of Sekar Enggal and Royal Holloway's own degung ensemble Puloganti (plus some Cianjuran thrown in) under the direction of Simon Cook; a number of pieces by the UCC Gamelan of Cork University (Ireland); the big sendratari and dance concert by the Southbank Gamelan Players with guest artists from ISI Solo; Lila Cita and Lila Bhawa's exciting programme of Balinese gong kebyar and dance; new music and old classics by York University's Gamelan Sekar Pethak and friends; a walkabout show called Ramayna on Stilts; Southbank Centre Intermediate Gamelan Players plus a few dancers; Ade's show In Lieu; and a short wayang kulit play Sakuntala performed by Sri Suparsih (who is also a well known sindhen) with Siswa Sukra and friends.



I didn't get to the puppet making workshops, and sadly missed the gamelan & electronic music concerts (I was really hoping to attend particularly the set with compositions by Charles Matthews, who is off for another year in Java shortly) and also missed a performance given by the Labschool from Cibubur, Jakarta. (Though I did see the kids and their teachers walking around the Southbank dressed in Srikandi t-shirts.)



The whole event had a glorious community feel to it. Musicians floated in and out of each others' sets, with the guest artists from ISI Surakarta dancing, playing music, singing, performing wayang etc in many of the performances. It was delightful to see the same musician playing Sundanese rebab in one set and Javanese gender in another, or Balinese drum followed by Javanese bonang etc.  I was sitting in the audience watching one concert and the musicians faltered on a classical Javanese piece and  a friendly musician commented to me 'I really should have been on stage with them for that' and in the next number she was up there helping out. Casual passerbys and children wet from the Southbank's fountain installation were drawn in, and I drank a Pim's from an outdoor bar while waiting for one of the shows to begin.


The highlights for me were really too numerous to mention. But they definitely included an extraordinarily beautiful Srimpi Ludiramadu which opened the Saturday night Sendratari big concert (with Ni Made Pujawati taking one of the 4 dance parts and remarkably holding her own against 3 very seasoned Javanese dancers), a raucous and fun piece for saxophone and gamelan by the UCC Gamelan (who played so loudly that they reportedly broke a slenthem key!), a fantastically precise and involving one-person barong performance (barong buntut) accompanied by Lila Cita, a very amusing arrangement of The Rite of Spring to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ballet by Sekar Pethak and the beautiful dancing of Wasi Bantolo (the choreographer who led the dancers from ISI Surakarta, pictured above). 



I also of enjoyed Sri Suparsih's wayang performance (above), which retold the classic story of Sakuntala, abandoned pregnant in the forest by a king she has nursed back to health, who travels to see the king after 16 years to make him come through on his promise to admit their child as his own. I was surprised though that she did not inject a more feminist interpretation into the story, and that no programme notes were offered to assist audience members in following the Javanese dialogue.  



My own contribution to the Gamelanathon was a short wayang golek cepak play titled Dewi Gegurit which I created together with the Indonesian composer Marisa Sharon Hartanto, who is studying for an MA in music composition at Royal Holloway. The play tells the story of a newly-divorced Raden Gambuh  (Sir Puppeter) who is in search of a new wife, a woman of culture. At the advice of his grandfather, he travels to the kingdom of Nyugoni to seek the hand of the beautiful princess Dewi Gegurit (Lady Song) who also desires a man of culture. She requests that he find a wayang and after some trials he decides with the help of the clown Lamsijan to become a dalang himself. Unable to locate a gamelan, Lamsijan and friends play the accompanying music on Western instruments. 

The play is of course allegorical, and in some ways follows up my earlier solo performance A Dalang in Search of Wayang (in which I quest in the mythical world of wayang for an answer to the dilemma of how I can be a dalang without a gamelan or a Javanese audience or sponsoring communities) and Lokananta, which concerns the origin and development of gamelan and was performed in York University with more than 200 accompanying musicians in 2012. 


The play used figures from Indramayu left in the UK by Ki Akmadi after his AMC-sponsored tour of 2005, and featured an ensemble of piano, voice, flute, drums and doublebass all performed by RHUL music students.

Dewi Gegurit generally seemed to be well received. One friend commented on Facebook about its 'Fantastic score [played] by some very gifted RHUL musicians that made western instruments sound pretty Sundanese', another friend said how pleased he was that both the contemporary and the traditional found their balance in the piece, both in terms of drama and music. An older woman, the mother of another gamelan composer involved in the event apparently, seemed less pleased however- she said she was not convinced by the pop songs we included (particularly in the clown scene) though, rather strangely, she said she was sure that this was not my worst performance. Another friend, a puppeteer who happened to be passing through the Southbank, said he would have preferred more movement during the dialogue.Probably the nicest written comment I received was from a former student who said it was 'a lively performance [with an] amazing singer and full of joy.' Another friend, commenting on one of the Facebook pictures I posted, also said the image 'captured the joy of the moment'.

If I did indeed succeed in maintaining the Gamelanathon's overall mood of joy, I think I probably did a pretty good job for my first wayang golek cepak performance in the UK. Hopefully there will be more to come.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Wayang at the Museu da Marioneta, Lisbon


I was at the Museu da Marioneta, Lisbon's puppet museum, today to see their permanent exhibit. While there was nobody on hand to give a personal tour, the galleries were well laid out and there was a good English-language audio tour on offer. The exhibit charts the course from the traditional puppet traditions of Asia and Africa to European popular puppets (pupi, Guignol, Dom Roberto, Punch etc) to the modern puppets of Portugal (fairground puppets, puppets for education, the revival of Da Silva's puppet operas in the 70s and 80s etc), ending with a room devoted to stop motion animation.

Wayang was represented by three sets of figures - a set of nice old wayang golek purwa puppets from Sunda; a set labelled wayang golek cepak but which looked to me more like wayang thengul figures; a smaller set of wayang kulit purwa from Surakarta displayed in silhouette. The wayang thengul were interesting for me in part because of the Menak Jinggo puppet, which has a head which is a bit gepeng (flat), suggesting the origins of the form in wayang krucil.  (See above.)

More effort could have been made to show that Asian puppet traditions continue to evolve, just as European ones do. But this is in part an artefact of the collecting process. The museum is based in a convent owned by the city but most of the collection is privately owned. The woman working at the desk was kind enough to invite me back for an opening of an exhibition on Thai theatre on Friday. I hope to attend.

Wayang at the Museu Nacional de Etnologia


I am in Lisbon, Portugal now for the EUROSEAS conference, delivering a paper on the beginnings of kethoprak and randai in late colonial Indonesia, and took time yesterday to visit the Museu Nacional de Etnologia, which has a collection of 700+ wayang puppets from Java and Bali.

The museum, which was established in 1965, includes both folk artefacts (mostly farming implements) from rural Portugal collected during the 20th century and objects from former colonies (Indonesia and Brazeil) plus Africa. A permanent display opened in 2012, and includes a large number of puppets from Bali, along with some beautifully displayed puppets and masks from Africa. It is planned that displays in the permanent exhibit will be rotated and that the Balinese puppets will be replaced by a display of Javanese puppets.

The museum is closed on Mondays but I got a personal tour of the museum by Ana Margarida Penedo, who  in 2012 finished an MA on the museum's collection of Javanese wayang in the department of anthropology of one of Lisbon's universities, and works also as a museum guide.

The bulk of the wayang collection was acquired by Victor Bandeira, a Portuguese art dealer who collected objects for the museum in Indonesia between 1970 and 1972, basing himself mostly in Bali. He purchased a number of sets of puppets during this time, and then worked with a Jakarta-based puppeteer to identify the characters. Unfortunately he did not include the names of the original owners nor did he work with local experts in Java and Bali to identify the puppets. So there are many errors in identification. (For example a kemangmang puppet from Cirebon is identified as Banaspati.)

One group of puppets (possibly a full set) is a wayang kulit purwa set in the Surakarta style. Most of the puppets are in excellent shape, and some have prada paint and Javanese inscriptions on them which indicate they date back to the 18th century. There are a large number of Balinese figures from two villages in southern Bali, some of which are now on permanent display.

I had a closer inspection of the figures from Cirebon. There are three sets of puppets from Cirebon in the museum. One is a large set of wayang kulit purwa figures purchased in Cirebon. This is missing a number of key figures (there is no kayon for example) but is in generally good shape. Some of the figures appear to be quite old, others much more recent. One of the most interesting puppets for me was a Kumbakarna puppet in which he is enveloped from head to feet by monkeys. This puppet can only be used in one scene of one lakon (Kumbakarna Gugur), something quite unusual in my experience. A number of the puppets bear the stamps of makers and owners, and might allow this set to be identified.

There is also a smaller set of purwa figures from Cirebon, about 25 in all, collected in Jakarta and of lesser quality.

Finally there is a set of about 70 wayang golek cepak puppets. The carving of many of these puppets is quite fine, but they have been very roughly painted and poorly costumed. There are a few figures which appear to be diseased -- with garments rent asunder showing spots underneath. I had a play with some of the figures and they are expressive and elegant in their movements, even if some have mismatched arms and are broken internally as well.

I hope to return to the museum at some point for more careful study, and Ana Margarida is planning now a (self-funded) trip to Java and Bali to follow up on her MA research. She has been trying to study Indonesian before she leaves.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Act of Killing



I went last night to the ICA in London to see The Act of Killing, the much-celebrated documentary film that centres on a group of Pemuda Pancasila thugs who were responsible for killing communists in 1965-1966 in Medan and the surrounding plantation belt. This was the director's cut, which clocks in at 2 hours 40 minutes, and the film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer was present after for a q&a. Tapol and other human rights organisations were also around to solicit signatures, specifically for a minta maaf campaign which calls upon SBY to apologise officially for the 1965-1966 killings in Indonesia, which left between 500,000 and 1.5 million PKI and suspected communists dead, and many more imprisoned without trial.

Oppenheimer said before the film that he was not going to say 'enjoy the film.' Indeed, he said this twice. He did add though that it was okay to laugh, and that audiences in Indonesia laugh at moments too. I didn't enjoy the film, though I did laugh out loud a few times, and smiled many more times, as Anwar Congo and his friends Herman and Ari made their film which re-presents their roles in the 65-66 killings. The experience was chilling, brutal, deeply moving.

The director has a bio not too dissimilar from my own - he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, got a PhD from Central St Martins with a thesis which comprises an earlier documentary about trade union activists in North Sumatra called The Globalization Tapes (available on youtube), some early material collected towards The Act of Killing and a long written thesis (Show of Force, available to download free of charge at http://ethos.bl.uk). The film itself was funded in part by an AHRC grant -- the largest grant the AHRC has given to an Indonesian research project- and Oppenheimer continued to be based in London after his PhD until very recently as a senior research fellow at the University of Westminster. We share a common set of theoretical and areal references -- and in his after-show q&a he cited Indonesian cultural theorists Ariel Heryanto. He was highly loquacious and articulate in his comments, and showed deep respect for his Indonesian collaborators. (Most of whom who could not be credited for safety reasons and are listed as anonymous.) Oppenheimer said it was not safe for him now to go to Indonesia - and when Anwar saw the film for the first time he could only watch it with him via Skype. I felt for Oppenheimer as clearly he remains drawn to the country, and wishes to contribute to Indonesia (indeed, he considers the film to be an Indonesian film due to the huge amount of participation of Indonesians in it).

So it was hard for me not empathize with the film-maker and imagine what it would have been like for me to be in the company of these brutal and largely unrepentant killers for the long time it took to make the film (nearly 10 years, with over 1200 hours of footage collected). I shared also a set of cultural references with the killers themselves, as well. These were thugs who worked as preman bioskop in Medan in the early 1960s, scalping tickets-- and the major reason they cited for their dislike of the PKI was that the PKI lobbied successfully in getting the flow of Hollywood films reduced, which cut into their income as ticket scalpers. They sung popular songs of their youth like Halo, Halo Bandung and Malam Minggu Nonton Bioskop; talked about their admiration for American film stars; and did an absolutely chilling re-enactment of the murder of a victim in film noire style in a Medan office that had indeed been used for killing. (Oppenheimer said that for him the murder by stabbing of a teddy bear, representing the child of a Chinese man, was the most disturbing moment in the whole film.) One of the main characters, a cross-dresser named Herman, was a leading actor in an all-male Pemuda Pancasila theatre group that had disbanded some time before Oppenheimer began filming. (The director said that if it was still around he certainly would have wanted to film it.)

I could go on about this film at some length as it touches on so many things I am interested in -- Indonesia, performance, re-enactment, fantasy, cross-cultural communication, transnationalism. It is something I will need to see again, I think, and would like to teach as well. The DVD is due to come out in November 2013.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sang Penari (The Dancer)


Last night I attended the opening night of an Indonesian film series Spotlight on: Indonesia, part of the 5th Terracotta Far East Film Festival , at the ICA in London.

The film was Sang Penari (The Dancer), released in Indonesia in 2011 and Indonesia's official Academy Award entry for 2012. The film is set in Banyumas (and actually shot on location in Purwokerto and Tegal) and is a romance set against the backdrop of the traditional art of ronggeng and the political upheaval and mass killings of 1963-1966, inspired by Ahmad Tohari's celebrated trilogy Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, which has been translated into English by Rene Lysloff and published by the Lontar Foundation.


The director Ifa Ifansyah, who I met at the Rotterdam Film Festival, was present and answered questions during a Q&A after the film led by my colleague Ben Murtagh of SOAS.


He explained that what we saw what was the director's cut, which included scenes cut in Indonesia, one where the dancer's stomach is massaged to prevent pregnancy and her breasts are briefly visible, the cutting of throats by Indonesian army officers, her vagina being 'smoked' before her ritual deflowering. The censors also stood in the way of including PKI emblems - though there is a brief flash of sickles in a market place. When the film was shown on Indonesian TV and as in flight enter

Ifa spoke about how it was hard to finance the film - the novels are very well known but the Indonesian film market is dominated by horror and teen romance - and it took him 3 years in all to produce the film. It garnered critical acclaim in Indonesia but attracted only 100,000 viewers. (His previous film Garuda di Dadaku or 'Garuda on My Chest' about teenage soccer players had 1.3 viewers.)

I found the film to be somewhat predictable and overly melodramatic. While other dance films such as Garin Nugroho's Opera Jawa and Riantiarno's Cemeng 2005 (The Last Primadona) cast actual dancers in lead roles, Ifa cast a Jakarta actress in the ronggeng part, which meant that dance scenes were rather brief and not very exciting on the whole. The best ronggeng from Banyumas are truly amazing to behold. He did, however, work with the Banyumas-based multi-arts group Banyu Biru for the music (all the on-screen musicians with the exception of the drummer were part of this group), and many of the villagers were played by people from Banyumas.

Admirably, the film script was translated from Indonesian into the Banyumas dialect of Javanese, which I enjoyed hearing very much, due in part to its similarity to the Cirebon dialect which I speak. Although the Jakarta lead actors struggled a bit with this (they had only 1 month of vocal training), the extras and minor actors added much authenticity in their dialogue.

Ifa spoke also about who the Tohari novels focused mostly on cultural background and politics, and that he wished to make a romance film about the love affair between the ronggeng and a soldier. I wish there had been a more systematic exposition of the way that the Communist party utilized the folk arts for propaganda purposes. There is a token Communist agitator in the film who gives villagers a radio to keep them abreast of news, has them paint slogans on their roofs, sponsors the ronggeng troupe, and occasionally talks about the bourgeoisie and 'tanah oentoek rakjat' (land for the people). But the ronggeng and other troupe members appear totally ignorant of the politics (and are enticed to perform under the PKI banner only because the agitator promises they will 'panen' or harvest gigs from this), there is not a single mention made of LEKRA, and there are no songs or jokes in the performances referencing Communist ideas or ideals. The Tohari novels have much more in them about the politicisation of the arts that could have been fruitfully mined, and there are people out there who remember this period well and are willing to talk. Something perhaps for another film to explore. Or a monograph.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Gamelan Composers' Forum


Yesterday (14 April 2013) I a attended the Gamelan Composers' Forum at the spacious G2 lecture room of SOAS in London. The event was organised by Aris Daryono, a London-based musician and composer from Indonesia who plays with the Southbank Gamelan Players, with sponsorship from both SOAS and the Indonesian Embassy. The ambassador and his staff were present during the first half of the day and provided food for participants.

Five composers were represented in the event by five compositions, and after each piece. Composers introduced their works and after each piece was played there was ample time for moderated discussion.

The event opened with Robert Campion's Studies for Solo Gender Barung (2007), a very fine etude which explored the possibilities of the instrument. The composer explained that he wanted to write a piece that was comfortable for the hands, idiomatic for the instrument and developing techniques for both players and also composers wishing to write for the instrument. He has written half a dozen etudes for gender, which he says is the instrument in the gamelan most suited for solo playing. One is so hard that he has not mastered it himself and has never performed it in public.

Japanese composer Makoto Nomura from Japan was present via a Skype link and his piece No Notes VI, written on 14 March 2013 on board a train from Kyoto to Tokyo and dedicated to Aris, was played live by four gamelan players in London. (See picture above.) This piece for gamelan instruments and voice had only time signatures, no notes or words. The musicians talked about how it challenged them to think metrically while improvising.

Rasa 2 was a new composition by Aris Daryono which developed ideas that Aris had deployed in an earlier collaboration with Charles Matthews for live gamelan and computer. The peice was scored for flute, oboe, clarinet and cello and 2 gender players (who played in both slendro and pelog). The Western instrumentalists were asked to tune their instruments to the gamelan, so B flat was shaped to become a 6 on the gamelan scale (fairly close), while there was some distance between C and 1. The oboe and clarinet players played into kenong pots to create resonance and an off stage effect. (The clarinet ended up sounding something like an oboe on some notes.) The clarinetist reported that the piece changed his conception of being at home. Home was for him in this piece the moments when his notes accorded to gamelan pitches. The cellist added that it felt satisfying to come together after dissonance. She said furthermore that she didn't feel a clash between Western vs. non-Western instruments. Instead there was a feeling of commonality and shared interest in new music and composition.

After the lunch break, the event resumed with two further pieces.  Jonas Bisquert, a composer originally from Spain but now living in Holland, directed a performance of his piece Su Ilanto (His Weeping, in Spanish), which was inspired by the crying of his newborn baby and was originally written for a Spanish percussion ensemble. The piece used thimbles on fingers striking kenong to replace cymbals, included Spanish style clapping, pair of dueling bonang players who invade each others space substituted for the alternating cellos of Basque music, and had an evolving texture like Javanese gamelan and many theatrical gestures.

The event wound up with a performance of Philip Corner's Dua Uni (2=1) a conceptual piece in his gamelan series. Corner is an American retired professor, a co-founder of the New York ensemble Gamelan Son of Lion who has been living in Italy since 1992. The piece consisted of one high and very loud and sharply played note followed by a low and long and very soft note played ad infinitum. The piece could be played by any single instrument or arrangement of instruments, and was scored on this occasion by Corner in what he called a baroque arrangement for two ensembles of players - 4 gamelan musicians (each of whom played a gong/kempul and an instrument of the saron family) and cello, English horn, flute and clarinet. The gamelan player played first, then the Western instruments building into a tutti and then rejoined by the gamelan instruments. Though very simple in design, it was very effective and challenging in performance.

Corner reported that the piece was a distillation of an idea that had long fascinated him in gamelan - the colotomic structure where low instruments play slowly and high instruments play quick elaborating parts over this. He said that this is found in many music cultures in the world. He hadn't realised that his piece was gamelan inspired until after it had been performed. Only then did he include it in his gamelan series. (His more overt inspiration was the work of Olivier Messiaen and Messiaen's ideas about disjuncture.)

Nick Gray, a SOAS lecturer and composer who hosted the event, reported that there were plans for the event to be an annual gathering. All the gamelan pieces included in this year's event were Javanese, but Balinese Gamelan musicians and composers present said they hoped that the event would be opened up to Balinese, Sundanese etc gamelan composers as well.