Sunday, March 1, 2009

Semar Mbangun Kahyangan by Ki Seno Nugroho

To celebrate the rennovation of Yogyakarta's high court (kejaksaan tinggi) building on Sukonandi, the city sponsored a wayang performance by Ki Seno Nugroho (b. 1971). Generally considered one of Yogya's most talented younger puppeteers, Seno has travelled internationally (including a recent one month residency with Canadian gamelan group Madu Sari and a short tour of Germany) and has often worked with foreign visitors over the years.

I arrived at the panggung, located only about 5 minutes from our house, at 9pm, the advertised starting time, and walked around to the 'back' of the stage - the shadow side - where most of the non-invited audience were. (Invitees sat in chairs under a tarub canopy.) The gamelan was still playing talu and other musical pieces however, as an upacara in the building next door was running over.

While sitting at a warung munching some peanuts, Seno Nugroho spotted me in the crowd and called me over by name - 'Matthew!' I walked over to him, a bit surprised that he had recognised me as we had yet to meet. It turned out he knew me from Facebook (we became 'friends' about a week ago). Initially he had thought I was a real friend/acquaintance of his from Cologne Germany (a German puppeteer who does experimental wayang with a contemporary gamelan group), but when he googled me he found out I was someone else - but confirmed me as a friend nonetheless. He spoke warmly and informally with me, introducing me to his wife and 2 kids, encouraging me to visit his house to look at his book collection, chat on facebook, and attend future performances. He then encouraged me to sit on the stage with the musicians (an offer I accepted) and warned me that he would call upon me later to sing a suluk. (I reluctantly agreed to this.)

A bit before 10 pm the vip audience arrived - including Yogya's ever-popular and omnipresent mayor - and took their places and after a series of short speeches and the ceremonial presentation of a wayang to the puppeteer, the performance began.

Seno Nugroho used the Yogya style keprak, a Yogya simpingan, and some Yogya musical gamelan pieces, but the basic style (including most of the wayang actually animated) was Solo - one of the audience members sitting at the warung commented on this before the show began, saying that his 'Soloan' was 'lumayan' - pretty good, enjoyable, well done. There was a full gamelan and 10 pesinden (all dressed in yellow tops and brown batik skirts with white floral headpieces) but no campursari and no bintang tamu (other than me). (Seno expected that the host would offer bintang tamu but these were not forthcoming.)

The play Seno performed Semar Mbangun Kahyangan (Semar Builds the Heavens), popularized by Ki Hadi Sugito, was the dalang's own interpretation of a well-known lakon carangan.

Kresna arrives at Amarta (along with his hot-tempered brother Baladewa) and requests the loan of Jimat Layang Kalimusada, the Pendhawa's sacred/magical heirloom, from Puntadewa as a tumbal (ritual offering) to cure a plague besetting Astina. Puntadewa agrees to the request.

Immediately Petruk and Bagong arrive. Petruk also requests the loan of Kalimusada, saying that he has been sent by his father as Semar needs it to build the heavens. Petruk explains that this is not the heavens of the gods, but the heavens of humanity - the kings and government officials have neglected the poor people, and Semar needs Kalimusada to make the world prosperous and insure equal rights for all.

When it is explained to him that Kresna has made a prior claim on the jimat, Petruk objects, saying that Astina is an immoral nation and that the plague is well deserved. He further suggests (sotto voce) that 'Kresna' might be an imposter and speaks to his masters in very low, even insulting language. This informality infuriates Baladewa, who calls Semar 'Ming Semar' and speaks about him as a poor and miserable creature. Petruk objects and says that Semar deserves more respect as he is the elder brother of Bathara Guru, the chief god, but Baladewa's anger has no limits, and the punakawan step outside to fight Baladewa and his allies.

Before the battle actually is staged however, there is a long limbukan interlude. A note is passed to the dalang telling him he should do a limbukan until 12.30 and finish the whole lakon by 3.30 am 'to respect those doing sholat'. The dalang jokes that 'next year' (assuming he will be hired again by the same sponsors) he should end at 1.30 am 'to respect those who sleep.'

I find the limbukan and its songs and in-jokes and prattle to be quite boring, and while Seno Nugroho is an able mc, interviewing me and the sinden, starting and stopping and commenting on songs etc, I am saddened that the sponsors feel that this comic interlude is more interesting than the story-in-progress, which is dramatic, urgent, funny.

The plot then resumes. Petruk is able to convince Antareja of the justness of his cause, and Antareja 'enters' Petruk's body to keep him safe from harm - also giving him Antareja's magical powers of a poisonous spit and the ability to travel through the ground. Petruk fights Gatotkaca and others. But Antareja regrets giving Petruk powers as he does not want to fight against his older brothers and exits from Petruk. Petruk knows that his chances now of defeating Baladewa's allies are close to null and gives his wallet to Bagong (which doesn't have any money in it, only a KTP, to Bagong's disappointment). Petruk tells Bagong to take care of his house, wife and kids if he dies in combat. Petruk is hit and flies off. Bagong presumes he has been killed and returns home. Seno Nugroho does not display flashy puppet movement - movements are precise though, and economical and generally cleanly executed - supporting the story telling, not drawing attention to itself.

Then follows another boring comic interlude - a goro-goro featuring only Bagong and Gareng. I find myself getting sleepy.

The plot concludes very quickly. Petruk lands in an asem tree, and is helped by his biological father, an ancient jin he hasn't seen in years, and transforms into a valiant warrior. He exposes the false Kresna as a crooked begawan (sage) and helps defeat him and his master the king of an overseas kingdom intent on conquering Java by using the Kalimusada for aggressive ill purposes. The king and sage then transform into their real forms -Durga and her chrony - and the lakon concludes (as always) with a dance by Bima.

Seno Nugroho is an extremely able storyteller - and his treatment of the punakawan is absolutely wonderful, as good (at least in my mind) as the Cirebon dalang Akhirna Hadiwekasan. I find it a shame that he is hostage to the demand for long limbukan and goro-goro scenes, but applaud him for rejecting the campursari and embracing a hybrid performance style (he tells me that one cannot be fanatic about regional styles today). I look forward to further performances.

Next Saturday night, he tells me, he is performing Gatotkaca Gugur in Gamping, Sleman for a political party.

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