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.