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.