I spent a long weekend (18-20 April) visiting the fieldsite of Bp. Wisma Nugraha Christianto. Pak Christ, a lecturer in Sastra Nusantara at UGM, is working on his PhD on eastern Javanese ayang kulit with a focus on the arts management of Ki Surwedi (b. 1964), one of the province's most admired puppeteers. We saw Ki Surwedi perform on 18 April at a hajatan in Gresik, and spent most of 19 April and the morning of 20 April in his company.
Ki Surwedi, who owns three sets of puppets (2 in East Javanese and 1 in Solonese style) performs in a mixture of Solonese and Surabaya style. We arrived as the ngremo dance - performed by two rather solidly built women in male costume and pencilled mustaches - was going on. This, according to Surwedi, is a modernized (garapan) version of this dance, choreographed in Malang. The dancers alternated singing poetic verses (parikan) with movement. Normally, according to Pak Christ, they dance on a separate panggung (stage) but as the hajatan took place in a densely inhabitted perumahan (housing complex) there wasn't space for this, and they performed on a small stage extension in back of the gamelan.
Then followed the main performance of the classic lakon Makutharama. Surwedi began with a mantra or kidung, removed Semar and Bagong from behind three kayons, and then launched into an opening jejer.
The lakon was a very condensed version of the standard story - a wahyu was announced as falling in the mountains of Astina, various parties vie for it, Arjuna wins the divine favour, which turns out to be in the form of sage advice. There was a brief Limbukan (an innovation introduced from Solo in the 1990s) and a longer goro-goro (also a Solonese import), both with a campur sari band mixed with gamelan. (Suwendi explained that while the dancers, gamelan players and sinden are regular members of his crew, he hires in campursari as he is convinced this is a passing fad and doesn't want to take permanent responsibility for the musicians.) I found some of the Solonese material to be uninteresting - but really enjoyed the lively music accompanying battle scenes and the banter of the punakawan in the quickly moving scenes after the goro-goro. Movement was interesting too - with more emphasis on dance than in Yogya or Solo.
A highly intimate atmosphere prevailed throughout the performance. Rather than rows of seats, there were rows of tables where people sat (and came and went) throughout the night. Food was offered (a whole cow's worth of meat was purchased for the hajatan), the host offered many kind words while at the same time being respectful of our desire to watch the show.
Pak Christ has been investigating how Ki Surwedi maintains a network of followers and supporters and a reasonable price (about 5 million rupiah - exclusive of camursari and soundspeakers) for his shows. One of the ways he does this is maintaining excellent social relations among fans - encouraging arisan to hire him; meeting with fans in 'perkebunan' (gardens) before shows rather than arriving just in time to perform or hanging out in hosts' houses; drinking together with fans and friends; opening his house/sanggar to all to play gamelan etc.
Surwedi understands wayang to be under attack by Islamic modernism and is convinced that as long as kepercayaan (belief in supernatural forces) is strong, wayang will exist. I found him outspoken, intelligent (he started two S1 programmes but didn't complete either) and resourceful - very much in tune with his 'market' and able to react to new interests and demands.