Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mapag Sri/Pandwa Nyawah

Just finished doing back-to-back performances of Mapag Sri/Pandwa Nyawah, an annual ritual wayang kulit drama performed in rice-farming villages around Cirebon and Indramayu. It felt really good to be performing to village audiences again-- and some of the accompanying musicians were absolutely first-rate musicians. The second performance got some qualified praise - 'once you straighten out your suluk, you'll be thumbs up'. There were also occasional comments of 'magas' (spot on) from the musicians in response to my puppet voices during the performance itself.

I used mapag sri as an opportunity to discuss organic farming - inspired largely by my friend Bramantyo (who is now an organic farmer in Ngawi) and an UGM documentary on organic farming in Indramayu titled Bisa Dewek (really worth seeing!).

There have been many influences from 'wayang wetan' (Solo style wayang) in Cirebon over the last 5 years, and I felt a bit more free as a result to include sine Solonese element - including an ada-ada girisa in my first show, and a Limbukan in both shows.

My wayang awan (day-time shows) often attract attention, but one thing that was new to me was the use of cell phone cameras, video etc. Everyone was taking pictures of my performance - even the pesinden - and the evening dalang (Nono) suggested that I hire a videographer to record my next wayang awan show. He does this for his own shows regularly. When I made my first videos of wayang back in 1994, practically none of the puppeteers had ever seen recorded images of themselves. Times change.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Two Wayang Performances by Purjadi

I am now in Cirebon, busy doing ground work for a grant proposal on wayang golek cepak, an endangered form of puppet theatre, and also meeting with old friends. It has been 5 years since I have last been here, and it is a great pleasure to see everyone here.

I went to visit my old friend and research assistant Purjadi at his house in the village of Kerandon on Friday and was invited along to two consecutive wayang kulit performances. I have seen Purjadi many times in the past - but it has been a while, and there are many signs of real progress. His musical skills have improved, his puppet movement is more refined and most importantly perhaps he is less dogmatic in his ideology.

The first performance was in a village shrine in Cengkoak -- on a hilltop surrounded by wild vegetation, without electricity (except that provided by a generator) and isolated from the houses of inhabitants, a world removed from the world. Yet of course people camke - not only villagers, but also fans of the pesinden Iwi S - who went on the hajj last year and is now Haji Iwi. One of the fans, who arrived on a motor cycle ojeg and danced enthusiastically throughout the night at the side of the panggung, claimed he was 80 years old (from the jaman Jepang).

Purjadi performed a recently created lakon carangan Cungkring Nyaleg (Cungkring Runs for Office) in which the clown servant Cungkring is one of a number of characters vying to get a wahyu. Through this Purjadi (who is himself heavily involved in the attempt to get create a Propinsi Cirebon) commented on various strategies used by candidates, and the necessary qualities of leadership.

The second performance was in Bodesari, a village adjacent to the rattan furniture centre of Tegalwangi. This was a much more densely inhabitted area, in the middle of a kampung. Again the sinden Iwi S guaranteed spectators would show from near and far. The lakon (based on a lakon carangan by Abyor - and performed at the request of the tuan hajat) was Kitab Sucieng Manusa. This concerned a ponggawa returned from the dead in search of an answer to the question that hounded him in life - what is the kitab sucieng manusa (the holy book of humanity). Notably Bathara Guru (Shiva to South Asians) answered that there is no singular holy book valid for everyone. It depends on one's religion. The Qur'an in Guru's interpretation was placed as just one holy book valid for Muslims. (Just as the Hindus have the Vedas, the Jews Taurat, Christians Injil etc).

Wayang remains a space and time for dialogue and exchange of viewpoints - the discussion with Purjadi goes on....

Friday, March 6, 2009

Local TV

Els Bogaerts, a colleague of mine from my years as a postdoc at Leiden, is currently visiting Yogya, and together we attended the shooting of a TVRI Yogyakarta show dealing with current city issues at the invitation of the famed cross-dressing dancer Didik Nini Thowok.

The format was essentially a talk show with local government officials, interspersed with a small number of dance and vocal numbers accompanied by a 'kombinasi' band of Western rock and gamelan (saron and bonang). The show is shot live on the first Friday of the month in front of a live studio audience seated mostly around tables with red and white checked tablecloths. The studio was decked in much vegetation, giving the atmosphere of a beer garden.

This week the talk concerned the upcoming election - and among other things the voting form was explained in intricate detail. Most of the audience was made up of middle aged men - mainly TNI and Polisi types.

I found the excursion tedious on the whole, but it was interesting to see a world-class dancer like Mas Didik essentially volunteering his services (his 'honor' was only Rp 150.000) on a regular basis to local TV. He explained that tv made him famous and this was a way of repaying this debt. It also no doubt was useful for maintaining good relations with the local government. Mas Didik quickly put together a semi-improvised popular dance hybridizing jaipongan style moves with Western ballroom. The whole rehearsal for his number lasted about 10 minutes.

The other dancers - 3 young women and a man - received Rp 50.000 each. One explained that this barely covered transport and makeup costs, but that she enjoyed it as a way to cari pengalaman and socialise with her friends. The same dancer also performs at the Ramayana ballet at Prambanan and for weddings (where the 'honor' if not the 'honour' is much higher.) Their dance had them portray farmers on bicycles- rather trite, but well-executed.

The band was pretty good - but not that much better than many garage bands.

There are now so many tv stations available in Yogya (as well as cheap dvds, the internet etc) that it is hard to imagine who watches such a programme. One way to draw viewers is to include a star like Mas Didik - but they also had a call-in contest for Rp500,000 to gain a few hundred more viewers. (The winner had to say correctly when the pemilu would fall.)

Local tv indeed.

Press coverage

Yogyakarta's cultural centrality means that events here - large and small alike - are often heavily covered by the mass media. Events that would go unmentioned in more peripheral areas - such as Cirebon - are fetted, critiqued and discussed in national newspapers and television.

I spoke to reporters from Metro TV and Koran Tempo covering the contemporary wayang show I did at Cemeti , and the multi-dalang PEPADI affair at the Rumas Dinas Walikota led to a number of newspaper articles about the performance - and one specifically about me, which I reprint here from the online version of the Yogyakarta newspaper Kedaulatan Rakyat. Not very flatteringto be referred to as a 'dalang bule' (bule is slang for albino, and is a joking way to refer to Caucasians) but this sort of casual racism goes unnoticed by most Indonesian readers. Most of the facts are correct - though of couse my daughter is named 'Hannah' not Anna.

Kedaulatan rakyat
Dalang Bule dari Inggris
23/02/2009 08:43:32 MENJADI dalang adalah profesi tidak asing di Indonesia, terutama masyarakat Jawa. Bahkan profesi ini biasanya diwariskan dari keluarga atau turun temurun. Walaupun sekarang sudah banyak sekolah dan kursus dalang tapi tidak menyangka jika ada dalang bule. Dialah Dr Matthew Isaac Cohen dari Inggris. Senior Lecturer Drama & Theatre Royal Holloway University of London ini mengenal wayang sejak tahun 1988. Ia mendapat beasiswa di ASKI Solo yang sekarang menjadi ISI Solo untuk belajar dunia pewayangan. “Saya tertarik dengan wayang karena mengajarkan berbagai hal. Dalam sebuah pementasan wayang seorang dalang bisa menjadi narator, aktor, musisi dan pembawa cerita,” katanya ditemui sebelum pentas wayang Babad Wanamarta dalam rangka pelantikan pengurus Pepadi Komda Kota Yogyakarta, di Pendapa Rumah Dinas Walikota, belum lama ini. Ia juga tertarik cerita wayang yang diambilkan dari mitos-mitos yang beredar di masyarakat. Meskipun di negaranya juga berkembang mitos namun tidak seperti di Jawa yang sampai sekarang masih lekat di hati masyarakat. Di Inggris mitos mudah punah. Ayah satu anak yang kini menetap di London juga sering pentas di negaranya. Tapi pentas wayang di Inggris tak sesering di Jawa karena di sana tidak ada hajatan. Ia biasa pentas di festival dan lembaga yang mengundang. Sedangkan durasinya tak selalu semalam suntuk tapi kadang diperpendek tergantung permintaan yang nanggap. “Cerita yang dibawakan semua lakon sesuai kemauan yang mengadakan, seperti Mahabarata juga Pandawa. Bahasanya tetap menggunakan Bahasa Inggris,” ungkap Matthew. Ilmu pewayangan yang diperolehnya tak hanya dari ISI Solo tetapi juga daerah Jawa Barat. Lama tinggal di Cirebon tak membuatnya kesulitan melakukan kolaborasi dengan 3 wayang, antara lain wayang kulit, wayang golek dan wayang kancil. Meskipun awalnya cukup sulit karena mencakup 3 keprakan namun dengan inovasi mudah dibawakan. Selama belajar mendalang di Solo tak hanya ilmu yang ia dapat tetapi juga keluarga. Istrinya orang Solo bernama Avivah kini mereka sudah dikarunia satu putri bernama Anna. Meski tinggal di London namun demi wayang ia siap bolak-balik ke Indonesia. (Nik)-c

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Berlian Ajaib

Just came home from the one-and-only performance of Berlian Ajaib, a new wayang kontemporer play created by Ki Catur Kuncoro (puppeteer and director and script writer), Toro (puppeteer and puppet maker), Pak Clink (aka Ign Sugiaro) (lighting designer), Yenu Ariendra (composer) and Andy Seno Aji (scenic designer) - based on the underground comic art of Eko Nugroho. I played a small role as a puppeteer, and also contributed in small ways to the production's dramaturgy.

The audience at Cemeti was young, warm, enthusiastic and absolutely packed the art gallery. Some of the dramatic things we worked on in rehearsal (all of 4 days!) worked less well than anticipated, but the audience roared with laughter at even the smallest of jokes - and was particularly appreciative of Toro's broad humour as mime and puppeteer. The composer Yenu commented that aesthetically it was 'jelek' (ugly) - many aspects were very rough indeed, which was related to a lot of costumes and scenic elements being added at the last minute. However Yenu pointed out that this roughness was redeemed by the humour and warm atmosphere (including free snacks at the end, a dj for an after-show party that included many in the audience etc).

The show was previewed in The Jakarta Post and will be reviewed in Koran Tempo (next Thursday) and covered by Metro TV in both their English and Indonesian language news shows.

The show's producer s Alia Swastika is looking into ways to develop this into a community project - focusing on panti asuhan (orphanages) - with workshop participants creating their own puppets and/or stories.

Wayang Golek at the Kraton

I attended a wayang golek show yesterday (4 March 2009) at the Yogyakarta kraton. Wayang golek is performed there weekly on Wednesday mornings from around 9.30 am until a little before noon. There are about four puppeteers who take turns - one performing the first Wednesday of the month, another the second etc. The stock of musicians appears to be the same each week.
I have started studying wayang golek here in Yogya with Dewanto, who is a lecturer at the conservatoire ISI Yogyakarta. Dewanto is currently pursuing a PhD on wayang golek at UGM and also created a modern 'teater bonkea' piece for his practical MA at ISI Surakarta. My aim is to acquire the basic manipulation techniques of Yogyakarta-style wayang golek (also known as wayang golek menak) in order to pursue practice-based research on wayang golek cepak in Cirebon starting next year. The forms are closely related - it seems almost certain that wayang golek was imported to Kebumen and Yogyakarta and other parts of south-central Java from the north coast (Tegal, Cirebon etc).
The dalang at yesterday's performance was Dewanto's own father, a Sentolo puppeteer who is one of the better known wayang golek performers here in Yogyakarta. Dewanto's grandfather, named Widi, was also a wayang golek puppeteer, as well as a wayang kulit performer and a juragan sapi who was one of the main informants for the Dutch folklorist JL Moens.
The performance began at roughly 9.40 with a brief talu by the gamelan and lasted until about quarter to twelve. The audience was made up entirely of tourists - both domenstic and foreign - as it required the purchase of a ticket to tour the kraton (Rp 12.500 plus Rp 1.000 to use a camera). Most people - including a whole crew of Indonesian photographers and videographers - stayed only a few minutes, but a few saw the whole show. Before the show an abdi dalem of the kraton said in a very loud voice (in refined Javanese, but audible to everyone present) that the dalang had to make sure to be done before 12 noon - to respect the mid-day prayers - and not to be ngeyel.
The golek animation was superb - with lots of nuanced detail (including a wonderful flying sequence) . But the puppets were sub-standard and because the performance took place in a pendopo called the Bangsal Srimanganti, visitors who were not dressed in Javanese costume and had explicit permission of the kraton were not permitted to mount the pendopo - meaning that the puppets were far away from the spectators. Sound also was not clear - and as a result I had trouble following the story - Sema'un Krama (Sema'un's Wedding), based on an episode of the Serat Purwa Kandha. The dalang has been following the story of Ambiya (aka Amir Hamzah) in sequence for the last 3 years or so, with a new episode every month.
It is fantastic that the kraton has provided the space in its schedule for wayang golek - as this is now the only public venue for performance of this art - and private sponsorship is very rare. But more work perhaps could be done - issuing synopses, announcing the schedule of performers in advance, improving puppet and sound and lighting quality and bringing the puppets closer.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Rehearsing a wayang kontemporer

I have been rehearsing the last week or so with a small group of puppeteers (led by Catur 'Benyek' Kuncoro), music and scenic designers and the producer/curator Alia Swastika a wayang kontemporer based on the cartoons of Eko Nugroho, and using puppets of his design.
The performance of this new shadow puppet play - with the puppeteers doubling as actors - will take place at Rumah Seni Cemeti on 5 March.
The same group (more-or-less) produced another play with the same puppets in Jakarta some months ago. Catur was unhappy with the result - primarily as he felt that the script did not allow him much scope for creativity - and decided to abandon this play and create a new work with his own script.
Rehearsals began slowly with two days of formless discussion, but have taken off. Time however is short - and Alia has pushed for the performance to be an 'event' rather than a finished aesthetic product. In a discussion yesterday with a cultural anthropology from UGM yesterday (3 March), I learned that Yogya has a 'workshop culture' - lots of events, often under-prepared, celebratory rather than critical. This anthropologist pointed out that projects such as Teater Garasi's 'stone age' series of performances - in which one theme is systematically explored and developed over a long period of time - are rare. He suggested that Yogya artists in order to succeed need to leave Yogya, and that the workshop culture is more of benefit to outsiders than to Yogya residents themselves - as they do not lead to further developments.
Lots to think about.

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.

Asian Youth Imagination 2

Jogja Gallery, nestled into the northeast courtyard of Yogyakarta palace's alun-alun lor alongside a jointly owned restaurant purportedly serving 'royal food' and a crafts store, is currently hosting the second of a series of performance art exhibitions showcasing works by emerging Asian performance artists (ages 19-33). The first of these events was held in Japan in December 2008.

I attended the opening of this exhibition on the rainy afternoon of 28 February, which featured videos by artists from India, Korea etc along with performances by emerging Indonesian performance artists from Yogya, Bandung and elsewhere. It was a slightly chaotic event, thronged by amateur and professional photographers and videographers (including, I admit, yours truly- how could I resist taking a video of this?). The audience, mostly made up of Indonesian students and young artists and budayawan in their 20s and 30s, entered more-or-less readily into the spirit of play, and showed a ready familiarity with performance art as a genre. (For a good review of a recent performance art festival in Yogya see

It was hard to grasp the point of some of the pieces. In one room, there was an installation with children's clothes arranged into a pattern, an Arabic text carved on a transluscent heart-shaped piece of crystal, a mega-mendung like hanging cloud. A half-naked male performer garbed in paper bills from around the world roamed the gallery blindly until he collapsed in a chair. A shaman-like drummer persuaded some young men to climb a scaffold, handed them glasses of water, and then madly pushed the scaffolding around the gallery- to their terror and (later) amusement. The trappings of a room were arranged on a wall and a video camera set so that a black-dressed performer appeared to be climbing this wall.

The two most interesting pieces both thematised Islamic issues and questions. Both were by performers originally from Bandung (though one has been living in Yogya for the last years.) Sorry I didn't get the names.

In one, a woman dressed in bright sneakers, leggings and an Arabic scarf executed senam exercises with a video backdrop of a group of men doing the same exercises, with bright 1980s pop music. Cahya, a young woman who works for the American Corner library at UGM and coordinates American cultural activities for the US Embassy, told me that the woman was doing the mandatory senam exercises required at all schools and government offices on Fridays during the 1980s and 1990s under the Soeharto regime. As the video rolled however, it turned out that this was laskar jihad (an Islamic fringe group which is seen as a terrorist organisation by a number of countries, including the US) doing exercises to prepare for jihad action. The artists/performer said that she had been intending to show a video of 1980s/90s official senam but accidentally ran across this video while searching for material on youtube and decided to use it instead. She executed the motions over and over, and invited audience members to join her, standing in back of her, imitating her imitating jihadis. The loud musical track played over and over again (ironic? defiant? naive?), and became a kind of soundtrack for the entire event.

The other performance of interest was by a young man dressed in a skeleton t-shirt, with a chef's apron and a heavy-metal motif bandana wrapped around his head and a short beard (of the sort sported often by Islamists here). This took place on the gallery's upper gallery - the only performance there - against a backdrop that read (ironically) 'please don't touch the artwork.'

He stood behind a counter with a gas stove, rice cooker, cooking pots, knives and the raw materials for a meal. First he put together out of raw vegetables and (I think) toothpicks the simulacra of a machine gun - without seeming to express much emotion. He then walked calmly to the edge of the stairs with the 'gun' in hand and shouted out 'Allahu Akbar!' Everyone in the gallery froze.

The performer then returned to his counter and prepared a traditional meal - fragrant rice (nasi gurih), fried salted fish, stewed vegetables, sliced raw cucumbers - and invited an audience member to make sambal (hot sauce) with him. He joked and talked affably with the audience. He asked people to try his cooking, asking if the food was salty enough, for example, and commenting about how people have different tastes. As each dish was done, he put the food onto two large platters covered by banana leaves. When he had finished cooking, he calmly brought the platters down the stairs and put them on the gallery floor.

He then roamed the gallery, and the reception room outside, and invited people who 'had yet to eat' (belum makan) to eat his food. He told audience members to introduce themselves to each other, and spoke in an affable manner about the philosophy of food, and the significance of eating together. Senior Indonesian performance/video artists Arahmaiani (Mbak Yani), who was one of the diners, answered back and they had a brief dialogue on the matter. The diners enthusiastically finished both platters within a few minutes - eating with their fingers. The performer then scraped the remnants into a single plate and forced himself to eat everything that was left over - mostly sambal hot sauce - taking small sipsfrom a glass of water. He then washed his fingers with the rest of the water, and with a nod indicated that the performance was over - to the applause of the audience and diners.