Monday, August 3, 2009

Field Trip to Johor

Just returned to the flat in Petaling Jaya from a brief field trip to Johor, in anticipation of a 'study tour' I will be making with students and staff from Univeristy of Malaya on 8-9 August.

We travelled first by bus to Melaka and spent some time there (as tourists) before taking a bus to Batu Pahat, a small town near Johor's west coast. We were picked up there by car by our host in Johor, Hairul Hisyamudin bin Mokri. Hairul is a USM engineeing graduate who runs a small computer shop cum internet cafe. Since returning to Johor after a decade in Penang, he also has become involved in local politics and is the 'ketua pemuda' for Kampung Permatang Duku.

Hairul lives now with his young wife in his mother's house in Permatang Duku. Across the road is his brother's house (the former ketua kampung) and nearby is the balai raya - the village hall, with a net in front of it where teenage boys play footbag net. There are about 800 people living in the kampung, and perhaps 80 percent of are of Javanese descent ( Houses are all situated around a U shaped road off of Jalan Pontian.

Most of the people living in Permatang Duku are kelapa sawit (palm oil) farmers, farming land adjacent to their houses. (Hairul's late father owned 3 acres of land, or about 1000 trees, which is typical.) The work is light (two days a month for tapping - mostly employing imported labour from Indonesia) and a small number of households are participate in home industries such as cake or tempe making. A number of houses (including Hairul's) also open up to visitors as homestays on occasion. There are a couple of warung in the kampung (one which sells very nice roti canai) and there is a small market on the kampung's western fringe.

I took a brief motorcycle trip around the kampung with daughter Hannah and saw among other things a model of the KL Menara and KLCC constructed from recycled plastic bottles (the remnant of an illuminate-the-kampung programme from 2007), two schools (one Islamic, one Chinese), a pond for cat fishing (locals fish between 9 and 12 midnight, and collect a pool that goes to the person who catches the largest catfish), and a whole lot of palm trees. The kampung is electrified and roads are well paved - and it has won a number of contests for its 'kecantikan' (beautiful appearance).

What brought me to Permatang Duku was not a taste of rural life in general, however, but the existence of Tunas Warisan, a community gamelan association made up of people of Javanese descent and Javanese. This group plays on a set of instruments owned by Wak Isa (also known as Amar), a second or third generation Javanese man. The instruments - a small set, mostly iron, mostly made in Johor by a member of the Tunas Warisan group back in the 1980s - are housed in his living room. He also owns a set of wayang kulit puppets, again mostly made in Johor and collected from near and far. The group practiced twice a week for some years, though recently such practices have not been so regular, and is made up of men ranging in age from about 40 to 95 (!). Isa's 12-year-old daughter and a neighbouring young woman of about 20 also play with the group.

They play in central Javanese style; a number of members spoke to me in admiration of Anom Suroto, Manteb Soedharsono, Timbul Hadiprayitno. Instruments include kendang (no ciblon), a couple of saron, peking, demung, kenong, kempul (no gong gede or gong suwuk), ketuk. Their repertoire of pieces is small - no large gending - but their enthusiasm is high. One kelapa sawit tapper who is a day labourer (at 40 ringgit a day) says he happily will not work for a day to play with the group, even without pay.

Since 2004, the group has been performing with Sukarjo bin Supoyo, a dalang born in Kulonprogo (Central Java) who moved to Malaysia in 1973 and lives in a neighbouring kelapa sawit estate. I went with Isa on Saturday night by car to Sukarjo's house to speak with Sukarjo. I learned that Sukarjo owns his own gamelan (half of which is on loan to a jaran kepang group) which he imported from Indonesia in 1981, but doesn't own a set of puppets- with the exception of a poor quality Betawi/Cirebon style set (again made in Malaysia) that he is slowly restoring. Sukarjo doesn't have formal training aside from his years of accompanying his father (also a dalang) and mother (a pesinden) to performances, and doesn't own any books on wayang, with the exception of a hand-written book in which he records plots. Sukarjo is approaching 60 years old now. He tried unsuccessefully to train one dalang to replace him.

Sukarjo and Tunas Warisan perform wayang regularly for hajatan (weddings, circumcissions) as well as at village ritual ceremonies (known variously as sedekah bumi or bersih desa). Ruwatan performances, once common, are becoming rarer due to Islamic prohibitions, and as the village ceremonies now are done without offerings Sukarjo says that these are properly 'Sedekah Bumi' or 'Bersih Desa' with an associated wayang, rather than wayang for the sake of sedekah bumi or bersih desa.

Sukarjo recognises a decline in wayang quality, as well as quantity. He could name 3 pesinden in Johor, but 2 have died and one returned to Java some years ago. Almost all of Johor's well-known dalang have died - with the exception of Sogimin (Kelapa Sawit, Kulai), a dalang in his late 50s originally from Pacitan. Another dalang, Haji Misran (Kampung Parit Bingan), is now in his 70s and refuses to perform any more.

On the morning of 2 August we went with Hairul by car to Isa's house, where the Tunas Warisan members gathered before going off to peform together. When we arrived, Isa was just finishing loading his van with the gamelan and kotak wayang. The group members arrived one by one, mostly by motorcycle. They then got into cars and vans and went off to Parit Bachok, a nearby kampung, to perform at a wedding.

An elevated panggung (perhaps a meter off the ground) belonging to Isa had been sent up underneath a rented tenda. There was a buffet under another tenda and tables where guests could eat. A caterer (Mas Chicken Rice) was roasting chickens - the rest of the food was made in the kampung. The dalang was already there - he arrived on his own steam and was talking to the host. The gamelan group members quickly set up the puppet screen and the gamelan instruments, and then the wayang were unpacked under Sukarjo's supervision- a small simpingan on both sides of the screen and most of the wayang in a big pile on the dalang's right.

As this is a wayang awan (daytime performance) no light is used. There are two microphones - one for the dalang, and one for the gamelan (hanging over the kendang) - and a pair of low-quality speakers. One is perched on a chair, another positioned on panggung. Both die during the performance, with no visible effort being made to replace them.

The Tunas Warisan members have a quick meal and then mount the panggung to begin the performance. Most are dressed in a simple seragam (red embroidered shirts, black pants). The dalang opens with a speech in Indonesian about the importance of wayang as a warisan from Java. Then one of the group members (the 95-year-old gong maker) leads in a recitation of al-Fatehah. They then play a few srepegan - with different musicians, including the dalang, taking turns at the kendang.

Then Ladrang Wilujeng as the dalang dances two kayon and positioned the puppets for the first scene (Jejer Dwarawati) - with Kresna, Samba, Setyaki and Udawa. (No parekan apparently as the set of puppets doesn't have them.) The ladrang ends and the dalang then launches into an opening narration of perhaps 10 minutes in classical Javanese. It is apparent that few in the audience, or among the Tunas Warisan members, can understand him. Little attempt is made to accompany him in sirepan style. Some chat, a few even practice their instruments. He then sings a fragment of a pathetan (out of tune and without accompaniment), and launches into the scene.

The dalang performs a lakon sempelan, apparently of his own invention. He had been asked to perform the lakon in which the meaning of Kalimasada is revealed to Puntadewa, but refused as he said this was a lakon of the ruwatan genre and would require offerings. (He does perform ruwatan but requires at least a month's notice for preparing himself spiritually, as well as a full assortment of offerings.) Instead, at the host's consent, he performed a lakon in which the meaning of Kalimasada would be discussed.

In the first scene, Kresna reveals that Puntadewa is trying to find out the meaning of his jimat layang kalimasada - though this is not in fact the time. This will only take place during the time of Jayabaya. A guest arrives (represented by a Cirebonese dewa puppet- Dewa Basuki) and tries to force Kresna to come to Amarta to reveal the jimat's meaning. A fight breaks out, which ends in the retreat of the guest. There is a brief pause (perhaps 15 or 20 minutes) in the battle for the mid-day prayers.

Then a goro-goro scene with Gareng, Petruk and Bagong. The dalang interviews me in Javanese (as a sort of bintang tamu) and the punakawan joke around in a mix of Javanese and Indonesian and Malay. The group also plays the lagu dolanan Caping Gunung. Unfortunately it is at this moment that the second of the two speakers goes and the goro-goro ends abruptly. (A musician later tells me that they had been playing to do Prau Layar and other gending dolanan classics.) Then follows a perang kembang. Arjuna fights with Cakil but in the middle Gatotkaca intervenes and kills him along with a group of assorted buta.

The action continues into pathet manyura when Semar discovers that it is Bathara Guru and Bathara Narada who are behind the plot to prematurely reveal Kalimasada's meaning. There is no amplification, and few can hear the dialogue. In the middle of this pathet, a bridal procession arrives - the bride and groom dressed in white underneath umbrellas with a group of parents with babies in arms and a kompang (frame drum) ensemble. The dalang at first tries to continue the performance but then tancebs the kayon as martial arts are performed in front of the couple and babies presented before them (apparently trying to bring fertility to them).

The whole atmosphere, on stage and off, is very informal. Musicians come and go during the show, and switch around instruments. There are lots and lots of srepegan, an attempt is made a sampak, and also the beginning of an Amsarandana is played. I am encouraged to play along with the group and briefly play peking during pathet nem and then play saron for most of pathet sanga and manyuro. I am hardly a great gamelan player - but am complimented for my skills. Trays of snacks, coffee, tea etc arrive sporadically. A single vendor sells ice cream at the end of the driveway - I buy popsickles a couple of times.

The show wraps up at around 4.30pm (about 30 minutes over time), the puppets are put away and the van loaded and then more food for the group before departing in a convoy.

I do not see money changing hands and am not sure how much (if anything) the group is paid. The best information I have been able to find is that the group typically gets about 400 to 500 ringgit (under 100 pounds) for gigs. This is real community art - art of Malaysia's Javanese diaspora, done for love. The gamelan might not have much of a repertoire. The dalang's sabetan (puppet movement) might be simple. The gamelan group might not be able to start and end srepegan in an orderly fashion. The puppets and gamelan might be simple but they are functional. And everyone enjoys playing together.

It was a pleasure to participate in this scene for a day - and I think people in Kampung Permatang Duku and Parit Bachok also got some pleasure in speaking to a 'wong putih' in Javanese and seeing that their own traditions are present not only in the Java of memory, but also loved by people around the world today.

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