Over the last 12 days since arriving in Yogyakarta, I have seen a fair bit of Ki Ledjar Subroto an his nephew Nanang.
Ledjar during this time has been working on a new variant of wayang kancil, the form of wayang he is most associated with. Ledjar started performing wayang kancil in 1980, with figures from the standard wayang set supplemented by a few of his own design. Over the years he has gradually modified these figures, adding movable limbs and body parts and shaping them into a cohesive ensemble. Sets of Ledjar's wayang kancil have been purchased by puppeteers, collectors and museums around the world.
Ledjar recognises that he is not the first dalang to turn to kancil for inspiration. An early performer cum writer Raden Mas Sayid also performed wayang kancil starting in 1943. In his encyclopaedic book on wayang on Bauwarna Wayang, RM Sayid credits a Chinese-Indonesian named Bo Liem as being the creator of this form in 1925.
But in an interview with Koran Tempo (Heru CN, 'Ki Ledjar Subroto Memperkenalkan Wayang Kancil', Koran Tempo 11 February 2009: B4), Ledjar insists that he is not simply a 'penerus' [continuation] of Raden Mas Sayid but 'benar-benar mulai dari nol saat membuat wayang kancil' [genuinely started from a clean slate when making wayang kancil]. There is precious little information about Bo Liem available - and while RM Sayid was a well known cultural figure, there is likewise little documentation of his wayang kancil work - aside from a small b&w picture in Bauwarna Wayang.
Privately he expressed disappointed that in a number of museums displaying his wayang kancil puppets he is not credited - and that Bo Liem is noted instead as the form's creator. He told me that some of the people responsible for attributing wayang kancil to Bo Liem are his friends from Senawangi - people he knows personally, and ought to know better.
This disappointment coming from lack of recognition and perhaps also a concern for legacy as an independent artist, is perhaps why he has been working so hard on making a very distinct and new form of wayang kancil. The figures have animal head and extremities but are dressed in human costume. As such they resemble Wayang Rajakaya, a new wayang form created by a young Solo puppeteer named Herlambang Bayu Aji and his German musician collaborator. (In a brief documentary about Wayang Rajakaya, Bayu Aji admits that he was influenced by Ledjar's wayang kancil - so the influence is not simply one way.)
Ledjar will be performing with these new figures for the first time in a scene in Babad Alas Wanamarta - a multi-dalang spectacular at the Rumah Dinas Walikota Yogyakarta on Thursday night (19 February). I have been enjoying being a participant in this scene - taking on the role of Bima (and also using Petruk - which allows me to get in a word or two against the ever-talkative kancil). The new clothed figures (model 2009) has been an opportunity for lots of humour, as well as statements about relations between humans and the natural world and the costs of so-called progress.
Ledjar has created at least some of these new figures by drawing directly on to hide. You can imagine my surprise when he hopped on to the back of a motorcycle last night with the whole set of figures (plus more wayang!) bundled into a doubled over piece of cardboard and bound by twine - in the midst of a light sprinkling of rain. Ledjar might stake a claim to be an independent artist but he also treats his wayang in a traditional fashion - as tools of the trade to be used, not displayed and fetishized.