Thursday, December 27, 2012

Cirebonese History and Culture Seminar at IAIN Syekh Nurjati Cirebon


Today, at the invitation of  Didin Nurul Rosyidin, I offered a seminar on Cirebonese history and culture to the history department of IAIN Syekh Nurjati Cirebon, the state institute for Islamic studies, before a meeting with Didin and his colleagues to discuss possible future research collaborations. The seminar was well attended, mostly by students, but there were as well a few members of the outside research community present, including Dr Bambang, a veterinarian and amateur historian, and Mustaqim, an independent heritage expert. I sweated profusely through the long introduction (with numerous communal prayers), my talk and the intense q&a session that followed, not because I felt under any pressure but because the room was not air conditioned. (We were all generously supplied though with a bottle of Aqua as well as a snack box and at the speaker's table there were imported oranges wrapped individually in plastic.)

My talk, which I titled Seni dan Budaya Cirebon dari Zaman ke Zaman, argued that Cirebon's history involved the invention of tradition through cultural production that became particularly intense starting in the 1960s. Cultural actors had long before inflated the importance of Cirebon under Sunan Gunung Jati, and a minor node in the Indian Ocean trading routes was reconfigured as the puser bumi, or centre of the world. During the last 45 years or so, Cirebon culture has become figured as a discreet object to be taught in schools, invoked at official occasions and monumentalized. 

The questions after probed details of my talk, and also expressed a curiosity about where I came from and what drew me and continues to draw me to Cirebon. Some present were interested in what the government should do for Cirebonese culture. How to reconcile the mysticism of Cirebonese chronicle literature with Western historiography? Where does wayang come from and is it possible to return to an ideal of wayang propagating moral messages that is not contaminated by humour? Lots of other areas are characterised by cultural mixture, so why would Cirebon alone use the trope of mixture for its ancient name (Caruban)? 

The most intense discussion came up around Sunyaragi, a ruin of a water palace on the outskirts of town. I quoted an English historical source that stated this was built as a place of recreation in the early nineteenth century. This was heavily contested by a number of participants, who were convinced that this was a more ancient site for pious meditation and the training of soldiers etc. I was prepared of course for such reactions, and spoke about how the meaning of Sunyaragi had been continually revised and its appearance changed over the decades, quoting the work of Sharon Siddique, a report from the Dinas Purbakala about how the archaeological service transformed the ruins into a Taman Arkeologi theme park, the building of the institution of the panggung terbuka and the change in its atmosphere from a place of quiet to a busy site next to the Jalan Bypass. Not everyone was satisfied though with my answers, and one participant made it clear that I should leave archaeology to the archaeologists....

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Tall Man from Sumedang in Cirebon

Today (25 December) I had my first real 'free' afternoon of my trip here. I had originally planned to go out to  East Cirebon with some friends to meet a dalang pantun and a dalang wayang golek cepak and taste some of the local delicacies (a typical combination of scholarship and culinary tourism for me and my friends here in Cirebon) but my wayang golek cepak teacher was insistent that we hold our practice during the day time rather than at night and I had to cancel the outing, leaving me with time on my hands.

So after my practice wrapped up and the afternoon downpour had dwindled to a drizzle  I wandered over to Pasar Pagi in search of some DVDs. The DVD store, it turned out, had moved to Pasar Balong, but to compensate for this I came across a carnival side show that was playing on the top floor of the Pasar Pagi market. Unfortunately I had no camera with me, so am unable to provide a photo.

But briefly the show was performed by three men (a fourth man, a juggler and acrobat, reportedly was sick and had to return to Bandung). The MC, described in promotions (http://aboutcirebon.com/component/gcalendar/event/6/v863g657erfah6813pgcspefs0) as a humorous MC with a thousand voices, gave an Islamic framing for the 'spectakuler' show, saying how the first man Adam was 35 meters in height in order to stand a chance against the gigantic wild beasts of his time. People have gradually shrunk over time, and now the typical height for Indonesian men is 160cm or so, while Westerners are 10cm taller on average. Sometimes though, a freak of nature is born.

Cue the entrance of 'Jaguar', a Tall Man from the foothills of Gunung Tampomas, billed as being 220cm in height, 'plus or minus'. The MC interviewed Mr Jaguar about his family life, diet, clothes and the like. His father and grandfather were both unusually tall, apparently, as is one of Jaguar's two children. (The MC joked that it was hard for Jaguar to have found a wife, as women must have feared their first night with him.) His black robe with red fringe needed 5 meters of black cloth and 1 meter of red cloth; steel-toed shoes have to be specially ordered; he eats two plates of rice 4 or 5 times a  day as he is now on a diet.

This was followed by some standard magic tricks by a young magician, some of them done in 'kolaborasi' with Jaguar, and some juggling by Jaguar. Jaguar's last trick was to juggle fire and put the fire out in his mouth. The magician also requested audience participation - a young boy blindfolded him and then balloons were placed under the boy's arms and between his legs which were popped with a knife wielded by the blindfolded magician. There were the normal jokes about the chance of losing the family jewels and the like. The child's mother and family laughed hilariously at this prank.

The show took about 30 minutes in all, and the audience who had all been sitting on the floor (we were assured that it has been mopped clean) filed off, many to the adjacent food court for dinner.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Visit to Swara Insani and Al-Mutawally




I am here in Cirebon with the primary intention of scoping out possible new collaborations with two higher education institutions, Institut Studi Islam Fahmina (ISIF or the Fahmina Institute for Islamic Studies) and the state college for Islamic studies, IAIN Syekh Nurjati. In addition to on-campus discussions and meetings, lecturers associated with both institutions have taken the opportunity to bring me out to institutions outside of the city to participate in a number of events of cultural interest.

Yesterday (23 December) I went by motorbike to the village of Mayung, where I met up with ISIF lecturer Opan Safari (one of my closest friends in Cirebon) and my former typist Santoso and visited the private FM radio station Swara Insani, where I was interviewed in Cirebon Javanese about my academic interests in Cirebon. I also used the opportunity to plug my upcoming wayang golek cepak performance in Pekandangan, Indramayu on New Year's Eve. The focus of Radio Insani, as the name suggests, is on Islamic education, and I also spoke about the close connection of Islam and traditional culture in Cirebon, and the importance of supporting local arts and culture.

After, we stopped by a multi-purpose educational centre run by the same foundation that owns the radio station. On Sundays, this is being used for a lukisan kaca course under the tutelage of my friend Opan. Opan said that a number of the students showed real talent. He was planning on doing the course in three phases. During the first two phases the students would receive sketches and execute these on glass, while in the third they would make their own sketches.

Today (24 December) I got picked up by my old friend Didin Nurul Rosidin at my hotel and taken out to the pesantren he runs, al-Mutawally, located in Kabupaten Kuningan, in the hills over Cirebon, not far from Pasar Cilimus. I first got to know Didin when he was doing an MA in Islamic studies at Leiden. I helped him unofficially with his MA research on Madrais, and he hosted the sandiwara actor-manager Wartaka when he was doing a residency at Leiden, working with me on sandiwara history and the play Pusaka Setan Kober. 

The pesantren in Kuningan has about 300 students, boy and girls, and was founded about 100 years ago by Didin's great grandfather or possibly great-great grandfather. It went under in the 1950s after the founder's death and then was revived by Didin's father in the early 1990s. Didin is a lecturer in Islamic history at IAIN, and heads up the Centre for Culture and History there, but also devotes much of his time to running the pesantren and making sure the students have both an excellent religious as well as secular education. I was asked to do a short talk in English to the students and spoke with them about santri lelana, a talk I gave to the IAIN student society in 1994 about the internet and the importance of networking and contributing to society. 


I was entertained in turn by drum playing by the boys (which greeted my arrival and escorted me out when I left the main reception hall), short dramatic skits in English by the girls, poetry readings by the boys accompanied by guitar and the singing of salawatan accompanied by hand drums and tambourines (see above). The lead singer in the salawatan group had a very pleasing voice. I learned that she also could sing with degung. Her father, who was wearing a biker leather jacket when he came to pick her up after the event (it was the last day of term and many students were going home), was obviously quite proud of her.

While the younger students might not have understood much of what I had to say, they were well behaved, and responded well to a summary that Didin offered at the end. Some of the questions asked by students were very intelligent. These included:
  • How to deal with stage nerves when performing
  • What it means to perform theatre in a style that was originally foreign
  • How can one do theatre when men and women can't perform together
  • Is it necessary to get a BA in Indonesia before studying abroad
  • What can theatre and drama do for the conflict in Palestine
  • What drew me to studying drama
  • What is more important in education, skills or opportunities
  • How did I get promoted to professor
In my talk and answers to their questions, I encouraged students to do voluntary work, apply themselves in what they do, maintain blogs (a number of them already do, and Didin has an excellent blog himself) and learn how to use email. 

On the drive back, Didin spoke about how he hoped to acquire a gamelan degung for the pesantren. He said that there are many stereotypes about pesantren and that performing arts not normally associated with Islam such as guitar and degung could help to create bridges and mutual understanding with the surrounding community. I encouraged him to continue in his efforts. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Gatotgaca Nyungging by Purjadi


Last night (22 December) at the invitation of Purjadi, my friend and former assistant, I went out to Desa Leuwilaja (Kecamatan Sindangwangi,  Kabupaten Majalengka), a small village just outside of the town of Jatitujuh, which was celebrating its annual Sedekah Bumi ceremony. This is an agrarian area which produces some tasty fruit, including durian. People coming from Bandung sometimes make a detour through this area to taste the local delicacies, and the main road from Cirebon to Jatitujuh is lined with fruit stands.

Sedekah Bumi in Majalengka are celebrated in style, and this was no exception. Not only was there an impressive range of gantungan hanging from the stage roof, including locally-crafted numerous containers that would be distributed among the musicians at the end of the show, the performance also featured the two most popular sinden in the Cirebon region, Itih and Iwi, who dressed in matching green outfits and sat on several layers of pillows through the show, like queens on their thrones.


The song requests started nearly as soon as Iti and Iwi arrived on stage and were constant until I left, fulfilled in medleys of four or five songs. The play, Purjadi warned me in advance, would take second place to the musical attraction on this occasion. The Bupati, who hailed from the nearby kecamatan of Ligung, where Javanese is also spoken and wayang kulit enjoyed, was scheduled to attend, but cancelled at the last minute as he had to appear before the governor. The audience was extremely attentive throughout - Purjadi commented to one of the musicians that if it wasn't for the fact it was so dark we would see a sea of faces around the stage. There were also a good range of vendors selling noodle soup, batagor, tahu goreng, bapao and the like.


As Purjadi predicted, there was not much drama on the screen last night. The play was Gatotgaca Nyungging (Gatotgaca Illustrated), an old branch story. In Purjadi's telling an ogre king's daughter is desired by many suitors and a sayembara or contest is established - whoever can defeat the king's minister will gain her hand. Before the contest has concluded, however, the princess tells her father to call it off as there is already someone special in her life. Her father the king asks what his name is and she says she doesn't know for she only had glimpsed him a dream. She draws the man of her dream (see photo above) and the king says he will now have to institute a new contest - whoever can bring this man to the court will receive a certain award. The dream man, as the title suggests, is Gatotgaca, who is also the object of other desires - specifically a descendent of Naga Percona who seeks revenge for his killing. At the time I left at 1.15am, the battle between the descendent of Naga Percona and Gatotgaca and the punakawan clown servants seemed about to start.

Purjadi, as always, did a fine job in singing sulukan and the puppet voices, and his puppet dancing has improved considerably in recent years, with tight coordination with the kendang player. Battle scenes were formulaic, however, and there was far less topical commentary than usual. He seemed less than inspired. Perhaps he felt that people weren't looking at him but at the sinden. I was tired and restless, and though I enjoyed playing with my iPad and displaying pictures I was taking to the musicians, sinden and spectators, in the end I left at roughly 1.15 am, more than 2 hours before the end of the show.

There were still lights on in the durian stands on the main road nearby, and I was tempted to stop by and try some. But I went back to my hotel instead.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Taman Budaya Yogyakarta: Malam Penganten and Wayang Orang Panca Budaya


Yesterday (20 December 2012) was my final night in Yogyakarta. I spent much of the day at Gadjah Mada University, meeting with colleagues and students and discussing possible future collaborations. At night, I had the opportunity of seeing not one but two shows at Taman Budaya Yogyakarta, the cultural centre in the middle of town.


The first show was a production of Minang writer Motinggo Busye's classic play Malam Penganten di Bukit Kera (1963; 'Honeymoon at Monkey Mountain') by a group of senior Yogyakarta actors, all of whom had been active in theatre in the 60s, 70s and 80s. The play briefly concerns a honeymoon of a couple in the house of the husband’s grandmother in a remote village. The wife is nervous about being in the countryside and agitated by the grandmother, an old crone obsessed with taking revenge on the murderers of her ex-husband. The husband is indifferent to her needs. Shots ring out and the husband says that his grandmother must have shot monkeys raiding her garden. The grandmother tells him to bring in the corpse, and it turns out to be a man, the same man she had promised to kill. The acting in this production was in the overwrought sandiwara style that ultimately goes back to komedi stambul, with huge gestures, declamations, illustrations of words with hands and so on. Everything, including the set and music and lighting, was polished and professionally delivered, but even though this sort of theatre is of interest to me as a researcher, I found this extended one act play hard to enjoy. The audience was small, and at the curtain call at the end there were nearly more people on stage than in the auditorium. Applause was lukewarm.



I then hopped over to TBY’s main hall, where a wayang wong production by WO Panca Budaya was under way. The goro-goro clown scene was playing when I entered, and the large audience chuckling merrily at the jokes of the clown servants. The play was Babad Alas Wisamarta (The Clearing of the Wisamarta Forest) starring the famous comedienne Yati Pesek in the role of Arimbi. The play was free of charge with invitations (which were easily available to fans from the TBY office and other distribution channels). TBY has been sponsoring a significant number of wayang wong and kethoprak shows at the end of this year- apparently there is money left over in the budget and these forms are easy to organise and always attract a crowd, especially when a well-known personage like Mbak Yati is involved.


Panca Budaya did a fine job in this play and was clearly in the audience’s favour. When Arjuna entered with a dead mike, Gareng made this into a comic bit, first circling around Arjuna so that bits of Arjuna’s dialogue were picked up by his own mike, then instructing Semar to sit next to his lord so that Arjuna could borrow his mike and so on. The fight between Arjuna and not one but two Cakil actor-dancers was masterfully executed. There was much hilarity after Kresna transformed the ugly Arimbi into a beautiful woman so that she might marry the powerful warrior Bima. Her younger brother and comic side kick, who earlier had mocked her for her ugliness and pretended to be Bima to spite her, fell for her and said that if Bima would not have her, he would.  The closing battle between the five Pendhawa and their doppelgangers was impressively choreographed, and the scene in which they merge, and the jungle transforms into the beautiful palace of Ngamarta and Yudhistira mounts the throne was wonderfully theatrical. A nice ending for my brief stay in the gudeg city. 

Pesta Boneka #3 (Day 3)

Wednesday 19 December was the third and final day of the third edition of the Pesta Boneka, a festival of puppet theatre being held this year at Padepokan Seni Bagong Kussudiardjo in Bantul, just south of the city of Yogyakarta.


It was a busy day for me. I started the day with a workshop with Drs. Suyadi (see photo above), best known to Indonesian viewers as Pak Raden, the creator of the famous si Unyil franchise. The 80-year-old puppeteer and illustrator Drs Suyadi had given a performance the night before, and while the workshop was scheduled to start at 9am he arrived only at 10am with his entourage. The nominal theme for the workshop was (in English) The Making of si Unyil, which involved participants sculpting a puppet head from papier mache.

Suyadi, who studied fine arts at ITB in the 1950s and then went to Paris in the early 1960s to study film animation, opened the workshop by explaining some of the principles of his glove puppets. Puppets, unlike dolls, are intended to convey character and used in stories, they cannot just look cute. All are intended to portray distinct and contrasting characters - with their own visual design, style of movement, voice and mannerisms. He compared his work to wayang kulit and did an impression of an exchange between Arjuna and Cakil, saying that wayang puppeteers would instantly know how to voice characters from their appearance. (I mentioned potehi later, and Suyadi enthused that this Chinese glove puppet form was the origin of all glove puppetry.)

The puppet heads are made from papier mache which is sculpted over a clay mould which is covered with vaseline. About 10 layers of paper are used. Then after the papier mache has dried (which takes at least a day) the head is cut in half (back and front), the clay taken out, ear made. A tube is inserted into the head. Then the head is laminated and coloured. Real human hair shouldn't be used - It would be frightening (mengerikan) to juxtapose the puppet as a dead thing (barang mati) with hair, which is a living thing (barang hidup). The hands, made from flannel and stuffed with cotton, are sewn to the costume. No padding is used so there are no fat puppets or thin puppets, but they appear to have different sizes based on movement and posture. You should have 4 fingers per hand not 5. Five would be too 'busy' (ribut). The middle finger is inserted into the head, the pinky into one arm, the thumb into the other.

Suyadi and his assistant spoke amicably with workshop puppeteers as we turned to make puppet heads using a simplified version of the method above. (No clay.)

At the end, participants received a book on puppetry (teater boneka) that Suyadi had illustrated which was published in 1970. One of the scripts mentions his character si Unyil, and has a drawing which resembles this beloved tv character. He also handed out a guide to copyright and a collection of stories about legal issues. Suyadi explained that the rights to si Unyil were no longer his. They belonged to Persusahaan Filem Negara, the national film outfit, and that these had been sold to private tv station Trans7 without consulting Suyadi, or any fee. Suyadi had mounted a legal case against PFN so that si Unyil might 'return to his father.' He said that he was not bitter about the case, nor did he want people's pity, but he wanted to issue a warning to creators of art (perupa) that they should be careful about copyright and make plans for rights well in advance. Suyadi appeared in full costume throughout the workshop, and was even wearing his false mustache and eyebrows when I ran into him and his party eating lunch later at Kedai Kopi.



Shortly after this workshop, I saw a 20 minute performance by the String Theatre, a young English marionette company, of their variety show The Marionette Insect Circus (see photo above). This was a charming little show with trick figures and old-time jazz. It preceded a string puppet making workshop for children, which was mostly attended by local kids of elementary school age. The kids were well behaved and attentive throughout.



In the evening, there were two more shows to attend. These were preceded by a spectacular dance accompanied by recorded gamelan. A group of boys did a well-executed monkey dance, dressed in a variant of wayang wong costume. Then dozens of children ranging in age from roughly 3 to 12 emerged in animal costumes of all sorts and did little turns. Clearly the parents were charmed.



This masquerade was followed by a short tabletop puppet show by a young Venezuelan stop motion artist and film maker named Angela  Stempel, who has been living in New York for the last 6 years. Stempel's work was based on a folk tale from Uruguay and followed the journey a man who is bitten by a poisonous snake and travels down a river to seek help. In the background film was projected that provided a setting and sometimes a commentary on the action. She was assisted in the building and performing of the show by a member of Papermoon. The show took about 2 weeks to make, and might be considered work in progress. In a post-show q&a, Stempel said that she considered this piece as a natural development of her stop motion work. Stop motion animation is very time consuming to make, and after 5 years of working in this medium she has been unable to break the 5-minute barrier. The figures she constructed for her piece were animated on a tabletop, like her stop motion figures, and thus were in a sense live stop motion, and would allow her, she felt, to create work of longer duration. The audience was restless for much of the performance, for although the English voiceover narration was translated in the projected film into Indonesian, the slow pace and lack of humour made the work difficult to appreciate.



The definite highlight of the evening for the popular audience was Wayang Hiphop, an extended goro-goro clown scene starring the punakawan (Gareng, Petruk and Bagong plus their father Semar) with Javanese language pop songs instead of gamelan. The creator of this new wayang kontemporer genre, which featured as an episode of the Sunday morning tv show World of Wayang this past autumn, is Catur 'Benyek' Kuncoro, a dalang I worked with in 2009 in a wayang bocor production based on the underground cartoons of Yogya-based artist Eko Nugroho. I had shown an excerpt of the WoW episode to my Royal Holloway students this autumn and they were generally nonplussed by this experiment. Some of the students said that the hiphop lacked in street cred, others found the blend of a classical Javanese art and pop culture to be contrived.

From what I saw at Padepokan Seni, Wayang hiphop remains at the experimental phase but growing in confidence. At the start, two groups of female dancers, one young and beautiful and one old and comic, danced to Javanese pop music. The dancers it seems were all associated with Padepokan Seni - when Wayang Hiphop had performed elsewhere local artists had also been incorporated. There was a story at the core of the show in which Petruk had been conned into paying 50 million rupiah to get his son Petrik a job, and then extracted money from Bagong who borrowed money from Gareng. During the course of the story, Petruk pays a visit to the police office to report the con. This was portrayed ingeniously through a projected background and the shadow of a policeman (played by an actor) and the sound of a clicking typewriter. (Other projections included images of central Jakarta -- the National Monument and the like -- and moneybags. Ambient sound was also used to convey the atmosphere of the city.) In the end, Semar is called in to settle the matter. Comic skits like this are common in wayang kulit, and other folk forms like ludrug and kethoprak, and Benyek is a good comic and the audience had no problem with the innovations he introduced, and clearly enjoyed the moments when the two male rappers and female singer emerged from behind the screen to sing, rap and participate in the comedy. Benyek moved easily between roles as MC, vocalist and puppeteer. His outfit - a combination of standard kejawen with dark shades and trainers -- got a laugh upon its initial appearance but seemed quite apt after a while. The audience responded enthusiastically to a quiz at the end in which questions were asked by Benyek (e.g. 'What are the name of Bagong's and Petruk's sons in Wayang Hiphop?') and received Papermoon and Wayang Hiphop merchandise when they answered correctly.

After the show, I had a chance to talk briefly with Benyek. He says that the story that night was new, though many of the devices had been tried before. He spoke also about how much of a pleasure it has been to collaborate with Mexican puppeteer Miguel Escobar, who has been doing participatory research on wayang hiphop towards his PhD at NUS. Miguel shows no compunctions about playing the role of the tourist in these shows, speaking crude Javanese on stage and generally being the butt of Benyek's jokes. Benyek says that people like Miguel and myself are critical for supporting his work - as he is a freelance dalang he doesn't have an institutional base and has had little help from institutions like Pepadi in creating his new work. The Ramadhan tour of Wayang Hiphop last August was a huge success - with 15 performances including devoutly religious places like Demak where wayang is very rarely to be seen. Many of these performances also were accompanied by proselytizing. In these plays, a preacher typically would show up and enlighten the nakal (naughty) hiphop artists and clown servants. Benyek said that he played the role of being nakal to the hilt as there was no point in him acting pious on stage as that dramatic role would be carried by a real preacher. When we parted we both admitted a desire to work together again. We'll see what form that collaboration takes.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Pesta Boneka #3 (Day 2)


Yesterday (18 December) was day two of Pesta Boneka #3, a puppetry festival in Yogyakarta organised by the Papermoon Puppet Theatre, which this year is happening at Padepokan Seni Bagong Kussudiardjo in Bantul.

There were a variety of workshops and performances on offer during the day for children and adults, as well as a running exhibition.

The day began for me with a workshop on object theatre and the visualisation of poetry by Agus Nur Amal, an Acehnese performer who had given a solo show the night before. Agus had offered a version of this workshop in the UK for the Object Theatre Network, and as I had seen a video of this workshop and discussed it with a number of participants, I was familiar with some of what he had to offer already. The workshop began with a concise description of some of the principles he uses to animate objects.

For example, height of objects relative to his body determines meaning and attitude. A woven rattan cone held up high symbolises a mountain one is climbing, while down below it might be a mountain seen from an airplane or something else entirely. Pace also determines meaning. Dropping or raising a red disc slowly symbolises the setting or rising the sun - but this will not be clear if it is done too quickly. A simultaneous action taking place in two locations can be connected via song or sound effects. All along he pointed out to us how important it is to dramatise actions, and how he is able to switch back and forth between roles through costume and relation to objects.

Much of his work is based on an Acehnese storytelling tradition, and also informed by the language of film (for example soundtracks, interior and exterior shots etc). Agus said that as a youth he worked as a travelling announcer of films, promoting the latests release through a megaphone on the back of a pickup truck.

We began the participatory bit of the workshop by constructed a kind of 'happy world' map from objects that Agus brought with him. I made for example the River Thames with a blue strip of cloth and the nearby Richmond Park. Agus asked me if there was a bridge over the river. I said of course, and added one using a strip of plastic.

Agus then had a number of us do some simple actions to get from one location to the next. The most elaborate perhaps was a scene a workshop participant acted out in which he was magically transported from a grave by a spirit (a plastic bag) to the mysterious Mount Bromo.

A number of the workshop participants, who included both Indonesians and foreigners attending the workshop, brought in bits of poetry which Agus worked on with us. Two of them dealt with themes of dying and Agus ingeniously constructed hospital equipment such as an oxygen mask, an observation window etc.

That evening I returned to Padepokan Seni to see two performances. The first was by the much-loved children's tv puppeteer and illustrator Suyadi, who performs in the garb of a Javanese priyayi under the name Pak Raden, and is best known as the creator of the si Unyil television series. (See picture above.)

Suyadi offered two short plays. The first was a tabletop Unyil puppet play in which a girl named Melani runs away from home as she doesn't want to do the dishes, gets lost in the forest and is given a magical song by a fairy godmother that allows her to avoid being hurt by her enemies. She returns home in the end and helps her grandmother do the dishes after she learns that the magical song only works in the forest.

The audience was familiar with nearly all the characters in the play already, and shouted out in recognition of them. The ogre Raksasa, for example, who eats naughty children, had parents and children screaming in delight. Are there any naughty children here, Raksasa asked? A father held his two children's hands aloft, making the older of the two squirm.

During the second part of his show, Suyadi, who is now eighty years old and arrived at the stage in a wheelchair, told a story and illustrated it on a white board, adding bits and rubbing out bits as the story changed. He was shaky on his feet, but helped out by several assistants. He promised at the end that the next time he would give a longer show. Clearly people in the audience loved what he did, and were touched by the octogenarian's efforts.

The second show of the night was an adaptation of the French film The Red Balloon by the young English company String Theatre. Ria, the festival's director, had met the company when they performed in the same festival in India in 2010, and invited them to the Pesta Boneka. The company of two had both worked previously at London's Puppet Barge and worked with long string marionettes. This was familiar stuff for me (the Puppet Barge moors every September in Richmond, where I live, and I have been seeing performances almost annually since 2005) but the audience in Bantul was clearly enchanted by this novel form.

So, all in all, another very fine second day.




Monday, December 17, 2012

Pesta Boneka #3 (Day 1)

Today was the official opening of the third Pesta Boneka organised by Papermoon Puppet Theater, a Yogyakarta puppet theatre that toured the US in the autumn of 2012 with their show Mwathirika about the 1965-66 mass killings in Indonesia. I got to know the company's artistic director Ria and her husband the painter Iwan Effendi fairly well during my 2009 stay in Yogyakarta, and it is a pleasure to see the company growing and thriving, with even more ambitious projects in the work.

The festival is taking place over three days at Padepokan Seni Bagong Kussudiardjo, an arts centre in the southern outskirts, and includes 6 performances, an exhibition and a number of workshops for both children and adults.



The exhibition included an interactive boat by an Australian company, string puppets made by String Theatre Marionettes, a young English company (ex Moving Stage marionette performers) that is doing a small tour of Java; wayang puppets by Ledjar Subroto; a display of Sukasman's wayang ukur stage and several puppets (see picture below); contemporary wayang beber sketches by Dani Iswardana; and a number of impressive works of art based on wayang iconography. A video of one of Eko Nugroho's wayang pieces was also playing when I visited.



The two performances tonight were both by familiar faces to me. The festival opened with a 50-minute wayang kancil performance by Ki Ledjar Subroto of the all-time classic Kancil Nyolong Timun (Kancil Steals Cucumbers). The trickster mouse deer, finding that ecological degradation had resulted in a short supply of food in his home forest, left the jungle to forage in the human fields. There he discovered cucumbers, which he found to his liking, even if they did make him urinate a lot. The irate farmers, who all appeared to be portrait puppets of Yogya personages (a portrait puppet of Ledjar himself also opened and closed the show), capture Kancil and bind him to a tree. But Kancil tricks a gullible orangutan into freeing him, saying that he is being held there as he has been promised to marry the daughter of one of the farmers.

Kancil subsequently tricks crocodiles into forming a bridge to get him across a body of water; tricks Tiger into eating buffalo poo, claiming that it is the magical jenang of the Prophet Solomon and will make him full for the week; and tricks Elephant into saving him from a well. He claims that he is no longer a trickster like in the Soeharto regime. The line that in Reformasi times nobody deceives anyone any more got a good laugh from the audience.

Throughout, Ki Ledjar promoted his skills, saying he would gladly perform at weddings, return to perform at Padepokan Seni if requested etc. He made numerous errors along the way with the puppets (which is only to be expected from a man of his years) but had a good comeback line for each mistake and was well liked by the audience of adults and children. He remains, as ever, Java's preeminent 'puppet uncle'.



The second performance was by Agus Nur Amal, who performs under the stage name PM Toh. Busy as usual, Mas Agus had only just flown in from Jakarta and was picked up at the airport by Ria. This occurrence, and the Newtown school mass shooting (and perhaps my own brief discussion with him before the show), sparked an improvised object theatre performance about a love triangle.

A character named Ria (symbolized by a cute hair band with mouse-like ears, sometimes worn, sometimes animated) is waiting at the Yogyakarta airport for the arrival of her American husband - who the audience decides to name Iwan and is symbolized by a black peci cap. On the plane, Iwan sits next to an attractive Yogya woman (a green plastic bag) who is returning to her home town after doing an MA in the States. They exchange BBM numbers. Iwan takes Ria for a romantic outing at Parangtritis beach (a blue wash tub). The audience laughs hilariously when Iwan's sperm (a strip of a white plastic bag) emerges from a plastic funnel and flows into a plastic water scooper. Ria becomes pregnant and her stomach swells. Iwan contacts his new female friend and they go off for a Bollywood-style dalliance in the forest-- the borrowed set of the wayang kancil show. She too becomes pregnant and there is a tremendous fight in which Ria kills Iwan and his lover.

Agus then stops to apologise to the real Ria, saying that he didn't mean to cast her as a murderer. He had earlier viewed a news programme about the Connecticut school killings on tv and this had prompted this grave turn of events. Agus says he will have to do something. Iwan is rescued by a submarine (a water sprinkling can puffing out a white plastic bag from behind), then medevaced by a helicopter (the same water scooper used to symbolize Ria's jewels).

Thirty years pass. Ria and Iwan's child has grown from a baby-size boot to an adult boot and presents himself in front of a plastic-framed photograph of Ria that Agus had requested in advance from the festival organisers. Mother, he asks in the melodramatic style familiar from the oral tradition, who is my father? I would go in quest of him.

This was a superb opening of what promises to be an excellent few days of puppetry. I am very glad to be able to be here in Yogya to attend.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Semar Gugat by Seno Nugroho


I am spending three weeks in Indonesia with a small grant from the Home Office to dialogue with potential collaborators for research and educational initiatives. I am also, of course, using the opportunity to see some performances, and also am planning to give another wayang golek cepak show in Pekandagan, Indramayu on New Years Eve.

I saw my first show last night (15-16 December), a performance by one of my favourite Javanese puppeteers, Seno Nugroho, who performed his version of the classic lakon carangan, Semar Gugat (Semar Accuses) for the anniversary of the founding of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. I found out about this show through Facebook and  mentioned that I'd be attending also on FB, so when I arrived Mas Seno was expecting me and encouraged me to sit on stage.

During the talu overture and a pre-show gamelan concert by students from the English Department, I had a chance to talk to Mas Seno.  Mas Seno said the lakon, Semar Gugat (Semar Accuses), was requested by a certain Romo Margono , who also paid for the wayang and loaned his gamelan and Solo-style wayang puppets and flew in from Jakarta for the occasion. I asked why Semar Gugat and Mas Seno said it reflected the current political situation with all the disasters and political conflicts going on. Later, in an introduction to the show the MC explained that the wayang reflected UGM's commitment to society and cultural preservation. Seno though complained that the road to the wayang was sealed off making it hard for spectators to attend. The hard core wayang spectators in Yogya are of course tukang becak who are not in sight here.


The play began with a battle scene prologue. Enter Semar and Kresna. Kresna asks why the world is in such turmoil. Semar says doesn't know but he does know that the little people are suffering. Fights, as ever, are over money, women, power. Each thinks he is in the right. Both of us, says Semar, are on earth to bring light to the dark. We need to finish this together. Exit both.

A mysterious sage named Begawan Sabda Dewa has appeared in the court of Astina and convinced the Pendhawa and Kurawa to bury the hatchet. He says that the Bratayuda war can be avoided and a permanent peace established but it will require first getting rid of Kresna-- who drives the Pendhawa to war. Bima vows that he will bring an enchained Kresna to Astina, where he will presumably be killed. After Bima exits, Sabda Dewa entices Arjuna to capture and bind Semar. For even if Kresna is gotten rid of, with Semar still alive peace would be impossible. Arjuna agrees to the task. 



During the Limbukan clown interlude, spectators, mostly male, throng the stage to witness a protracted standard bit where Seno interviews each of his 9 pesindhen in turn, who are mostly current or past ISI Yogya students. They are arranged at the stage in order of age, from a high school girl closest to the dalang (who says she wants to study language at Gadjah Mada) to 2 older sinden at the far right. 

Seno had warned me that he would interview me and expect me to sing a sulukan during the Limbukan. What he didn't warn me is that he would parody my Javanese accent (just as he parodied the singing style and mannerisms of each of his vocalists) and also accuse me of 'stealing' gigs from him as Canada. (I performed in 2011 with Madu Sari, a Canadian gamelan that Mas Seno had also performed with and was, it seems, keen to perform again with.) He said I must have undersold him. The clowns poked fun at our disparity of income -- he has three sets of puppets at home from Cirebon, Solo and Yogya (I in fact have only one!) while all I (Cangik) have is a set of playing cards. 

The clowns also made passing reference to UGM as a centre of technological innovation. Even with the development of technology, wayang will still exist as there is always innovation in it, always new developments. One of these 'developments' for Seno has been to get rid of the synthesizer that in the past played such a big role in the clown scene. He has returned to an all-gamelan accompaniment as he now feels that the synthesizer blocks people's appreciation of gamelan, and will ultimately lead to wayang fading in popularity. Most of the songs performed in the Limbukan and the Goro-Goro were classics like Caping Gunung, Slendang Biru and Uler Kambang, and Seno spends much time making musical jokes, with the pesinden normally as the butt of these. 

The musical arrangements, however, are hardly conservative. The budalan departure of the army scene that follows the clown scene, for example, has choral singing in harmony and exciting Banyumas style drumming and senggakan for the dancing Kurawa. Not only Dursasana but also Durmagati and Citraksi get to dance - both claim to be jealous of Dursasana's special kendang accompaniment. 

In the scenes that follow, we see Bima attempting to capture Kresna, who is defended by Wisanggeni and Ontoseno. Antareja, possessed by the soul of Dasamuka, fights against his brother Ontoseno. A strange king named Prabu Kaneka Jati steps in when Bima is unable to take Kresna, but Kresna avoids him as well. 

It is 2am when the Goro-Goro clown scene begins. Petruk explains that there are many reasons for people to watch wayang, not only plot but also humour. He cites the version of Semar Gugat by the comic puppeteer Ki Sugito almarhum as a particular inspiration, but notes that there are many other versions of the story, including ones by Ki Manteb and Ki Anom and an amateur dalang (whose name escapes me). Each dalang is not only distinctive but actively invites kontroversi, as such controversy gathers attention and leads to popularity. Seno is sometimes accused of being neither Yogya nor Solo in style. His 'mouth' (cangkem) or vocal style is Solo but not other aspects. The good folk from the national wayang association Senawangi (and here Seno names names) accuses him of being 'Prambanan style', somewhere between Solo and Yogya. The audience laughs heartily at this joke, as Prambanan is considered to be low class in comparison to the court traditions espoused by the two towns. But in fact before the Giyanti treaty and the division of Mataram by 'Matthew's people' (and here the dalang points to me explicitly) Solo and Yogya were one and the same. 

In the middle of a rendition of Slendang Biru, a note is slipped to Mas Seno asking him to allow time for the announcement of the door prize. There are lots of prizes, including a flat screen tv and refrigerator. But the door prize drawing had been announced for 1am and many of the people who had purchased tickets for this had already gone home. Numbers are drawn repeatedly and when nobody stands up to collect the prize, a new number has to be drawn. The audience next to the stage gets impatient. 'Selak subuh!' (it's near morning). 'Wis nggo dalange' (just give the puppeteer the prize). The final prize is in fact won by a bonang player in the group. The audience shouts out that the dalang should cut his salary, and the remainder of the goro-goro is spent poking fun at the musician and what he'll do with his prize.

Mas Seno, like me, spent the door prize drawing looking at his mobile phone. Petruk reports that during the door prize drawing he got a text message from Pekan Baru from a wayang fan listening to the wayang, which is being broadcast via live streaming. He says that Matthew could have done the same, listening to the wayang at home via the Internet. That would have saved him the cost of a ticket. Another clown asks if he (Matthew) understands the language. Yes, of course, he is a dalang and has been laughing happily all night.

Finally, at 3.20am, the story is continued and moves forward at a much faster pace towards completion. Abimanyu reports to Semar that the Pendhawa are all now in Astina and hope to have peace with the Kurawa. Semar offers sage advice about the meaning of life. Arjuna enters, and asks Semar if he loves the Pendhawa. Semar says certainly, lahir and bathin. Arjuna says that in that case Semar must accompany him to Amarta as he is to be sacrificed for the sake of peace. One life must perish so that many do not die in the Bratayuda war. Semar becomes furious and stands up at Arjuna's level. You say you want peace, Semar accuses, but at what cost? I am human and possesses feelings. Abimanyu defends Semar against his father, saying that he is not fighting Arjuna but rather Arjuna's wrong and embarrassing ways. In the middle of the fight, Semar disappears and Arjuna then returns to Astina. 'Perhaps it was ever fated.'

Sanghyang Tunggal tells Semar, Kresna and Wisanggeni at the start of pathet manyura (3.40am) that peace cannot be achieved when there is a lack of unity between rulers and their people. He merges Semar and Kresna into the figure of single priest named Begawan Padma Sabda and transforms Wisanggeni into a cantrik (disciple). At the end of the story, it is revealed that Sabda Dewa was in fact Bathara Guru and Kaenka Jati was Narada (who is also known as Kaneka Putra). Semar says he suspected all along that this was the doing of his brother Bathara Guru. 'Don't you have enough to do already? Your task is to bring light into this world. If you do something like this again, I will mount [to the heavens] and mess you up.' Kresna gets angry at Arjuna for being forgetful of his duties and upbringing and mindlessly heeding a sage without a place. Anoman fights against Antareja and Rahwana escapes from Antareja's body. Petruk and Bagong escape into the puppet chest, saying they will wait out the rest of the lakon there. (They do make one more appearance, but are then scooped up by the puppeteer and bodily transported back to the chest. The puppeteers grins wickedly at this subversion.) Bima fights the rest of the Kurawa and the lakon concludes with Bima's customary dance and a few words. 
   
It is now after 4.30am and as there are no tukang becak in attendance I struggle briefly to find a way back to my accommodation. But I get a ride in the end on the back of a tukang ojek's motorcycle.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Gathotkaca Gugur at the Southbank


I attended yesterday afternoon at the Southbank Centre an abbreviated wayang kulit peformance by Aris Daryono, a musician from Java who has been a member of the Southbank Gamelan Players (SBGP) for some years. This was Mas Aris' debut performance as a dhalang, and in many ways a fairly auspicious start. The wayang, accompanied by the SBGP, was a free event in the ballroom of the Royal Festival Hall (the same location where Purbo Asmoro did his all-night wayang with the Southbank Gamelan Players in 2007), part of an event billed as Gamelan Christmas Chimes that also featured a variety of dances and music, with Ni Made Pujawati and friends. (Unfortunately I didn't get to see the earlier acts.) The wayang lasted a bit over two hours in all. 

Though he has been living in London for quite some time, Mas Aris's English is thickly accented, and the poor amplification meant that it was often hard to understand what he was saying. There was very little dialogue, however, so this was not much of a problem. Gathtokaca Gugur is considered to be a very 'heavy' lakon, as it is part of the Bharatayudha cycle and features the death of one of wayang's most beloved characters. But Aris played up the comedy, with an emphasis on two of the punakawan, Petruk and Bagong, and good use made of his musical talents, particularly in timing the dancing of the puppets to music. His sabetan was a bit rough and unpolished, as might be expected, and though he has a nice singing voice he had some trouble with getting the right notes for the start of the sulukan he sung. Musical accompaniment by the Southbank Gamelan Players was polished and professional - I enjoyed particularly the rendition of Banyumas pieces, though was less convinced by an arrangement of a Sundanese tembang for pesinden, Sundanese rebab and Javanese siter.

There were a number of funny jokes along the way, many aimed at SBGP members. Cakil, in his battle against Arjuna, spoke first with John Pawson, asking if he was single and if so did he want to go on a date with him to see a movie. The punakawan joked about how the SBGP is the best gamelan group in the world, playing on the SBGP's sometimes overly-inflated self opinion. The clowns then apologised to Andy Channing, a SBGP who also directs London's Lila Cita Balinese group, and said that actually it is the second best group. There was also a very funny bit where Durmagati, loaded down with weapons, searches the field of battle to look for Gatotkaca, who is behind him- leading to inevitable panto-like exchanges with the audiences -- 'he's behind you!' 'I didn't say I would kill you...' 'Oh yes you did!' 'Oh no I didn't!'  

All in all, good fun, even if the philosophy and tragedy of the lakon were absent. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gala Cultural Evening, Indonesian Scholars International Convention 2012



Last night (10 November 2012) I attend the Gala Cultural Evening that concluded the Indonesian Scholars International Convention 2012 at the Institute of Education in London (http://www.isic-tiimi.co.uk). This was preceded by two days of papers presented by students from Indonesia studying in the UK, elsewhere in Europe, as well as a number of other countries.

The cultural evening was a chance for PPI societies in the UK, bands and singers etc to show off their talents and entertain the gathered students and various other Indonesian supporters (including Charles Humfrey, former ambassador to Indonesia).

Highlights included Gita Gutawa, an Indonesian pop star who is currently doing undergraduate studies in Birmingham, who did her hit song Sempurna (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EV19hpZcD5g&feature=related) backed by a fashion show, and a saman dance performed by members of PPI Nottingham and friends. (One of the dancers was a British student who was interviewed by the MCs after the dance and said she had started studying saman dance over the summer and had practiced with the Nottingham group for a month.)



There was also an amateur dalang, a lecturer in East Java who also presented a paper on how Javanese philosophy can be used to shape political ideology, who, accompanied by recorded gamelan  music,  danced on to stage in full Javanese costume carrying two wayang puppets and sat down in front of a microphone. The music stopped quickly (generating laughter from the audience) and he launched into a Limbukan in which Cangik told her daughter Limbuk about her responsibilities as an Indonesian studying overseas. He also sung a number of tembang with didactic content. I spoke to a local staff member of the Indonesian Embassy who was nonplussed by the man's paper, implying that Javanese traditional beliefs have no place in democratic Indonesia, and that this effort was a dangerous throwback to the Soeharto regime's Javanism.

Most surprising for me was the announcement of two prizes given out by the manager of the London branch of BNI -- an award of GBP 2500 for the best web design, and GBP 7150 for a 'survival guide' book on studying in the UK. The bank manager said in her speech that the latter prize was even more than her salary.

There also seems to have been a film competition - one of the entries (shown without sound as the MCs went on about other things) was a stop motion wayang film in which Arjuna was shown taking a ride on a subway. Searching around I see that the film is on youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCn-Cn1YJW4 and that it was created as an IB art project.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Indonesia Kontemporer 2012

Yesterday (13 October) was the second edition of Indonesia Kontemporer, a festival of contemporary Indonesian arts and culture held again at SOAS. At the first edition a year ago, I was an active participant, performing A Dalang in Search of Wayang. This time round I was a spectator, albeit an interested one. There was a fuller programme than last year, and it seems more people in attendance too, and I managed to attend a fair sampling of the events, though I didn't get to see any of the films on offer (curated by SOAS lecturer Ben Murtagh).



I started out by dropping by a small display of UK-based Indonesian artists, mostly students or ex-students. A number of the artists referenced Indonesian traditional arts in various ways. One of them, Arati Sirman, who studied fine art at Central Saints Martins and art business at Sotheby's, showed a series of works based in part on the illustrations of Hardjowirogo's famous wayang dictionary, Sejarah Wayang Purwa. (See above.)

I attended an artist talk by an English community artist named Helen Marshall about an upcoming Arts Council funded project called Tobong, conducted in collaboration with a Javanese photographer named Risang Yuwono who she met while travelling in Sulawesi. Marshall, who described herself in the talk as a contemporary artist who works in socially engaging modes, went off on motor bike with Yuwono and spent a day visiting an itinerant kethoprak troupe performing on the outskirts of Yogyakarta. This offered a glimpse of their off-stage life, living in the Tobong that is both stage and temporary home. She has research and development money from the Arts Council England to return to Indonesia and stage with Yuwono a series of kethoprak-related events in Yogyakarta in November and December of this year. Among these is to produce 'tableau vivant' -- posing the actors in the same figurations as photographs of them.

Marshall doesn't speak Indonesian or Javanese (a video she showed to us had one of the kethoprak actors say on camera that she should be told to learn Indonesian) and has some rather romantic ideas about the life of these artists and the theatre they perform. And she unfortunately talks about this as a 'collaboration' with the kethoprak performers while saying at the same time that she could never explain her intentions to them. But at least the actors will be paid - she has budgeted in 'modelling fees' for their work. And she also hopes to bring Yuwono to the UK - which would be a good opportunity for him, I suppose.



I next went to a performance of a PPI student group playing songs from around Indonesia. The lead female vocalist was fairly talented, but the accompanying musicians were a mixed lot as one might imagine. The group showed slides taken off the web while they played. A strange moment for me was seeing one of my own performances (the York wayang I did last April) during a slide show of images from the cultural attache's website.

While I was at the talk and concert, my daughter Hannah attended an Indonesian language workshop  and I stopped by a couple of times to see how she was doing. A group of adults sat around a circle and were asked various questions by a young man from Jember about their experiences of going to Indonesia and the differences between life in Indonesia and the UK. He encouraged the workshop participants to go to the Indonesian language classes run on Saturday afternoons in the embassy - and there is free Indonesia food too, he said.



I rounded out the day with two Balinese shows on the stage of the Brunei Lecture Theatre. Segara Madu, a gender wayang group run by SOAS lecturer Nick Gray, performed a number of pieces out of the wayang repertoire and a new composition in Balinese style. I was pretty amazed by the huge number of people in attendance.



This was followed by the festival's highlight, a concert of the London-based Balinese gamelan group Lilia Cita and their sister group, the Balinese dance troupe Lila Bhawa, directed by Made Pujawati. Among the items on offer were Jocasta, a new dance drama based on the Oedipus story (pictured above). The audience, very full, applauded all the pieces enthusiastically.

Throughout the festival I was playing around with my new toys - an iPad provided by my department and my new smart phone - and uploading images to Facebook while the event was going on. I tried as well to upload a video of Jocasta, but the file was too large and only just this morning was able to get it into Dropbox. I did think it was rather cool though that I was able to be (in a sense) a live reporter on the spot, putting my status as 'At Indonesia Kontemporer 2012' and posting images and getting responses (including two 'likes' from family members of one of the artists) as I was watching performances. So while much of the cultural materials at the festival felt familiar, this mediation offered a new experience for me.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Suri Sumatra in Tarot Drome


Last night I was at the Old Vic Tunnels, an underground performance space beneath Waterloo Station, to see Tarot Drome, an immersive spectacle that draws together a number of old-fashioned popular cultural forms - tarot cards, bump and grind shows, freak shows, roller derbies, pro wrestling. The draw for me was Suri Sumatra (aka Heather Morris), a London-based neo-exotic dancer of mixed Scottish and Manadonese descent. I had never come into contact with her name before a trawl through the Southbank's website turned this show up. A Facebook connection put me on to the correct spelling of her stage name (she is credit on the Southbank site as "Sumi Sumatra") and I learned quickly that she studied anthropology at Durham University, lived in Scotland and Jakarta etc. etc.

Suri appeared in two parts of the show. In one part she was among a group of 11 or 12 characters portraying characters in the tarot deck in one of the tunnels. Suri was the Empress in Chinese-style head-dress and the multiple arms of Hindu deities and glanced seductively at visitors, and then touched them or had them touch put dirt on her legs, and fed them strawberries. She didn't speak, perhaps so as not to upset the illusion that she was an exotic visitor.

In the show's grand finale she re-emerges with the rest of the company as a roller derby skater-dancer, dancing around on a platform in a flowing gown and then in short shorts and a bra to the accompaniment of loud music.

Something interesting to talk about, maybe, but even after a couple of beers I left with a slightly uncomfortable feeling, not knowing whether this was a work of ethnic exploitation or a commentary about past practices.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sutajaya Kemit


Last night (20 August) I gave my debut performance as a wayang golek cepak puppeteer in the school yard of SD Negeri I in Pekandangan, Indramayu. The performance was billed as a collaboration with the Sanggar Topeng Mimi Rasinah and indeed featured 3 topeng dances by Aerli (Rasinah's granddaughter and the sanggar's artistic leader) and the sanggar's gamelan and musicians. I also brought along my teacher Ki Dalang Calim and 3 of his musicians (to play kendang, saron and gong) and a bunch of other hanger-oners (Calim's wife, his brother the puppeteer Sukarta, 3 peralatan). It was a simple and rather modest event in many ways - no panggung, 3 few lights, carpets for the audience, minimal amounts of food - but attracted a small but impressive audience including Pak Camat (representing the Bupati), Aas (one of the founders of the famed sandiwara group Candra Kirana), Ki Dalang Rusdi (the most popular puppeteer in the Cirebon-Indramayu area) and others. The funding came from a variety of sources. One of the backers was Pekandangan's young Kuwu (Village Headman) who spent 8 years working in Korea and is intent on transforming Pekandangan into a cultural village (pictured above- in front of a bale which occupies an entire room in his house where some of the village's principal sacred objects are stored- including a tombak and bende). Pak Kuwu has been working with artists in the village and also developing the historical sites, principally the village's shrines. Very enthusiastic volunteer teenage helpers and unpaid gamelan musicians and a sinden (Aerli's own mother) were mobilized by the sanggar. 

I had been working since my arrival in Cirebon on the lakon Arya Kemuning, but when I met with Pak Kuwu last week was asked to perform instead the story of Sutajaya, Pekandangan's iconic cultural hero. As fate would have it, I knew the lakon well as I had worked on a translation of the sandiwara version of it (titled Pusaka Setan Kober) back in 1998-1999 in my postdoc days, and was able to get a good grasp of it in 3 rehearsals with Calim. The performance coincided with Pekandangan's weekly pasar malam and Pak Kuwu requested that we end by 11pm- in the end we started later than anticipated due in part to the many pre-performance speeches and I ended at 11.45 pm, which seemed to be fine with everyone. The full lakon of Sutajaya ends with a long battle against the rebel Prabu Klana Juru Demung but due to the limitations of time I shortened the story to end with Sutajaya's marriage to Sekar Kedaton. This shortened version of the lakon is known generically as Sutajaya Kemit (Sutajaya the Night Watchman). 



Perhaps the most interesting finding for me in my practical studies of wayang golek cepak has been the sorts of negotiations made with audiences and the expressive limits of the genre. There is great concern for factuality-- curtailing artistic license in ways unfamiliar to me from my wayang kulit studies. Nobody knows who Sutajaya's mother is, so Calim said I could not reference her in the opening dialogue between Ki Jebug Angrum and his son Sutajaya. Sutajaya's pusaka is known generally as Keris Setan Kober (largely, I learned from Aas, due to the influence of the Candra Kirana sandiwara recording from 1977). But the elders who met last week prior to my performance made it clear that I had to refer to the keris as Sekober, which they said was short for Syef (i.e. Saif) Kober, a human who was transformed into a keris. I of course honoured this request in performance. The village elders also insisted that I visit (nyekar) the tapakan of Ki Jebug Angrum before my performance to ask the spirits for permission. I went in the company of a village elder (a middle-aged man who ran a tv and air conditioning repair shop out of his house) and Mas Ade, the sanggar's business manager and Aerli's husband. The kuncen there burned incense, recited a long prayer in a combination of Arabic and Javanese asking for 'success' (which he said is what everyone needs and asks for) and also had me make my request permission and forgiveness if I make any mistakes. 

The performance itself came off about as well as might be expected. It took me a while to get used to working with the debogan which felt slightly higher than the ones I had practiced on, and also adjust to the presence of the microphone (which was ditanceb into the debogan). There were also a number of new figures introduced that I had not worked with in rehearsal (minor setan puppets, a couple of pangeran to fill out the scenes set in Kraton Kasepuhan). Dalang Calim was sitting at my side for most of the show, and (somewhat to my annoyance) decided to wrap out signals to the gamelan with a cempala. We had only rehearsed with a saron and I suppose he feared I didn't know how to cue the gamelan. It was good to have him there, however, as he prepared puppets for me and also reminded me on a couple of occasions of minor details. He was also essential at one critical moment - I was unable to slot the wooden keris Sutajaya purchases into his belt and I had to take the wayang off stage and have Calim put it in for me. I had experienced trouble with this bit in rehearsal too - and had not cracked the technique by the time the performance rolled around. I covered the awkwardness of this by a joke about how Sutajaya had never owned a keris before. Most of the gamelan was not experienced in playing wayang golek and had some trouble at least initially with the lagu prang and sulukan; there was also a false start, and Aerli was about to come on stage to do Panji before my first scene rather than immediately after it. The dialogue was generally well crafted though and the sulukan (with one exception) all went off very well. Afterwards, the driver 
complemented me on my singing and voice work ("you could do the voices, both high and low" he said).



There were a good number of children at the show, particularly during the earlier hours, perhaps because we borrowed the SD schoolyard for it. None of them had seen wayang golek before, and watched with great attention as the puppets were taken out of the box and set up in the simpingan (which is invisible to most of the audience as it is behind cloth). Aerli said that the presence of children was most important for her - as these experiences are formative of character and taste. Elders in the audience such as Aas and others who knew the story nodded with approval at familiar details and expressions-- such as the motif that previous kemit who guarded the kraton's treasure room "manjing sore, esuk mati; manjing esuk, sore mati" (enter in the evening and are dead by morning x2). (Seeing the audience directly was also something that took getting used to- though I've had a taste of this from my post-traditional wayang play "A Dalang in Search of Wayang".) Pak Kuwu had learned about Sutajaya principally through internet research and was very pleased I think to see the play acted out as a wayang golek show. Others seemed pleased as well. While Haji Rusdi left early and I didn't get a chance to speak to him and the offer of a performance the next night at Sudimampir did not materialise in the end, due to Ade and Aerli's intervention I was offered the chance of doing another show at the Kabupaten next year in my next visit, and/or at Pekandangan's annual unjungan ceremony which falls 10 days after lebaran. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Dian Nada Big Band with Wulan Affandi


I spent the holiday of Idul Fitri in Kananga, a small and rather isolated village in Kuningan not far from Cirebon, at a siang-malam organ performance by Dian Nada Big Band from Kabupaten Cirebon. Organ, a scaled-down version of dangdut, has expanded in size in recent years. The organ (i.e. synthesizer) still dominates -- setting the tempo through a drum track, filling in musical parts, using exciting house techniques ("Everybody!") -- but Dian Nada's band included also two guitars, a sax, a bamboo flute player (who pulled out flutes of various sizes during the show), a kendang drummer and his assistant who played the cymbal, and occasionally a tambourine, played by the group's leader Sinarudiyan (aka Dian). The shows featured singing by Dian Nada's regular stock of 5 female singers (who appeared to be in their teens and 20s), a few songs by Dian himself, plus sets by Wulan Affandi, a "guest artist" invited by the tuan hajat especially for the show.

This was an intimate, rather low key family affair celebrating a wedding, with an audience of at most 150 people (and sometimes much less). In the afternoon, family members all danced on stage handing out stacks of 2000 rupiah bills to the singers. The newly married couple did a couples dance, holding hands, complete with spins etc. Videographers and photographers went up on the small stage and took pictures. The language  of the songs and much of the banter between the musicians and singers was in Cirebon Javanese, which the Sundanese audience could comprehend only partially. But this didn't seem to matter much. The food was unusually tasty for a hajatan, but wasn't offered in huge portions. (I was offered only one meal during the time I was there and got to snack on only one koci before they all disappeared.) People were very respectful of my presence, and didn't ask many questions even when I was on stage.

My host at this event was Wulan Affandi, a lecturer at ISIF-Cirebon who is just about to start an MA at Universitas Indonesia, and who heads her own group as well called Wulan Entertainment which offers both organ concerts and also full tarling shows with drama and lawakan acts. Wulan has been performing as a professional penyanyi organ from her early teens and is one of perhaps a few dozen singers in Cirebon and Indramayu who are known to audiences through their VCD and DVD albums (still referred to here as "kaset"). Wulan has her own record label MB Records and a small studio in her house that is run by her father. She releases normally one album a year, sometimes under MB Records but sometimes under larger labels. I had a chance to speak with Wulan at some length about the world of "tarling modern" (modernized tarling), a term she and other artists sometimes use to describe this fusion between tarling dangdut and organ.

Her "team," as she refers to her group, is managed by an intermediary, who contracts performers, rents equipment (sound, panggung etc). None of the performers are directly contracted by Wulan herself - though she does bring along a support team to all performances including a driver (who also is a radio presenter, works for MB Records, and runs a sanggar tari), a dresser, a woman who roams around the audience hawking Wulan's albums (priced at 5000  and 10,000 rupiah a piece) out of a plastic bag and a young man from Jakarta who has been with Wulan for the last year and a half.

In conversation, Wulan expressed her dissatisfaction with video piracy and overly formulaic video clips, and spoke about the difficulties in juggling her studies with running a tarling modern group. She is soft-spoken and very respectful with everyone off-stage, and confident and clearly enjoys herself when on stage.

I've been to organ shows in the past, of course, but always at a remove as a spectator. Wulan brought me on stage to engage in a short dialogue with her, and sit with the musicians and singers. What I enjoyed very much about the shows in Kananga was the chance to observe up close the world of the singer - stopping on the way to the show to buy from a kaki lima the latest albums of rival singers to learn recent hits on the car's small DVD player; the long process of putting on makeup and costumes; the enormous amount singers sweat on stage (Wulan apologised for smelling of sweat when her crew took her picture with me after her afternoon show); the intimate environment of the little on-stage green room/bullpen where the singers sit before and after they go on stage (drinking water, texting, consulting agendas, cooling down, re-applying makeup, gossiping).

Friday, August 17, 2012

Pentas Wayang Rumba


Last night (16-17 August) I performed in a combination of Javanese, Indonesian and English  "A Dalang in Search of Wayang", my post-traditional  solo wayang, for the first time at ISIF Cirebon in a student-organised event called Pentas Wayang Rumba. It was part of a triple-bill along with short wayang performances by my friends Doddie (Darmakusuma Nyalar, with a pop band, powerpoint projections and carboard wayang figures) and Purjadi (Agamaneng Manusa, with a scaled-down gamelan accompanying him). In between our performances there was time for commentary and discussion - much of it quite expert. The audience was fairly small (under 100) but elect - with representatives from many of Cirebon's major religious institutions.

Purjadi was initially reluctant to perform in this setting but left with all smiles - recognising that his performance was greatly appreciated and that he was introducing his version of wayang to a new audience. ISIF's rector, in a brief comment after Purjadi performed, said that he would like to offer Purjadi a lectureship at ISIF- only half joking. Purjadi argued that wayang is not endangered - it is only in urban contexts like the city of Cirebon where wayang lacks audiences- when he performed in the alun-alun of Kasepuhan once he could count spectators on the fingers of his hands. In the countryside, wayang is still in rude health. A text I received regarding my own performance said that I had succeeded in "menggugah presepsi teman2 muda tentang wayang."  Events like Pentas Wayang Rumba act as bridges between the rural and the urban, the local and the international. They are not frequent in Cirebon - but much more common elsewhere in Indonesia.

A short report can be read at http://www.nu.or.id/a,public-m,dinamic-s,detail-ids,44-id,39325-lang,id-c,nasional-t,Peringati+Kemerdekaan++Mahasiswa+Gelar+Wayangan-.phpx

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Golek Taboos


My studies of wayang golek cepak with Ki Dhalang Calim in Pegagan Kidul continue. I have been trying to set up a performance for the week of 19 August at the end of my stay here in Cirebon.... so far without much luck. The process has, however, been interesting.

I went today with my friend the wayang kulit puppeteer Purjadi today to the village of Pekantingan where he is performing on Friday at an annual graveside unjungan rite to see if I could perform wayang golek instead of wayang kulit in the siang show preceding Purjadi's night-time show. We met with the kuwu, a sympathetic village headman whose small sitting room was decorated with Islamic texts and a modern lukisan kaca of Gatotkaca. He said that wayang golek was absolutely taboo in Pekantingan- and had been since he was a small boy. The story was that the stage collapsed at a show in Pekantingan many years ago and a vow was made never to sponsor golek again in the village. The kuwu said that golek summons the spirits of the ancestors and that any variance from the 'correct' story would cause their wrath. Sandiwara has the same stories as golek, but is not a true representation like golek and so does not have magical repercussions. He pointed out that the taboo against golek was not the only taboo in Pekantingan - it also had taboos against certain crops, for similar historical reasons.

Purjadi mentioned to the kuwu that other villages - including Kerandon - had similar taboos against golek. The kuwu said that Kerandon, the location of the ancient Cirebon Girang kingdom, was united with Pekantingan by shared ancient customs and connections to the sultanate - Pekantingan's Muludan celebration  for example falls on the 12th day of the month, the same day that Muludan is celebrated in the royal courts. Purjadi then gave a list of other reasons why golek is taboo. In santri villages, golek figures are said to be statues of people - forbidden according to orthodox Muslims - in contrast to wayang kulit which is just a picture of people. In the village of Cengkoak people said that they simply disliked golek for aesthetic reasons - "Even if someone donated a performance of golek, we would not accept it, let alone if we had to pay for it." The kuwu said that this was probably just an excuse - and that in Cengkoak like in Pekantingan there were likely ritual reasons for why golek is not performed there.

Golek's heyday is long past in Cirebon. While puppeteers in the past were commonly engaged to perform at hajatan, almost all performances today are in graveyards, and these are decreasing annually. The repertoire is shrinking too it seems. Figures are still named after Menak and Panji characters, but only stories set in Cirebon since the arrival of Islam are today performed. "Too distant," say audiences about Menak stories, according to Calim. Purjadi says that golek simply has not kept up with the times - its lagu prang are monotone, the characters are not known to audiences (unlike wayang kulit or Sundanese wayang golek, with its iconic figures), puppeteers are old and not good storytellers.

Call me old-fashioned - I like wayang golek cepak and its stories and would like to see the form maintained in Cirebon. But I see that it faces formidable challenges.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sanggar Mimi Rasinah


I went today by car to Indramayu in the company of my friends Pak Katura and Mas Opan to visit the sanggar of the late Mimi Rasinah, a topeng "maestro" who was "discovered" by Endo Suanda and friends around 1995 and promoted nationally and internationally until her death in 2010 at at the age of 80. At the head of the sanggar is Rasinah's grand-daughter Aerli who Rasinah selected to be her heir and Aerli's husband who graduated from the dance department of STSI Bandung and is originally from Arjawinangun. The sanggar has been well supported by grants from both local and international sources and appears to be very active with daily topeng dance classes for children of various ages, a gamelan group that practices regularly and a number of carvers who are kept busy carving souvenir keychains with topeng and sobra (retailing at 5000/keychain- these were displayed near the entrance to the sanggar).

We attended the Sunday morning dance class under Aerli's direction which was accompanied today by live gamelan. Students (all girls) ranged in age from 3 to late teens and executed en masse two topeng dances without masks or costumes. There were about 25 or so students - almost of all whom were accompanied by their mothers who ringed the walls of the studio. The studio had a high bamboo roof, new floor tiles and a big mirror on one wall. Posters of performances by Aerli and Rasinah were prominently displayed. Also present were a group of 6 or 8 KKN students from UPI Bandung who were on their second to last day of the work experience scheme. They had been active in trying to establish Pekandangan as a desa budaya, working with both the sanggar and also berokan groups. Their major achievement was planting 100 mahogany trees in a nearby graveyard- which they told me was a symbol of natural beauty and also endurance. The students cam from different departments - none of them related to the arts. This was the first UPI group to do KKN in Pekandangan, and they are working on a blog to present their findings and accomplishments. A rep from the KKN group said a few words and both Opan and I were also asked to say something. The sanngar is looking to reproduce the costume that Rasinah wore in performances (now rare) and Pak Katura volunteered to assist in reproducing both the beautiful blue-and-white batik skirt and a slendang juwana.

The visit had a very reverent atmosphere - Opan and I both spoke with great respect for Rasinah, the children kissed our hands when they exited, the UPI students made slight bows to acknowledge us etc. Still, it is good to see that there is an interest in topeng - in contrast, when asked, none of the children or mothers admitted to have ever seen a wayang performance.