Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Gamelan Ibu-Ibu in a Nineteenth-Century Javanese Manuscript

It has been some time since my last blog post - but this one is too good not to post on Indonesian Performance. Thumbing through Yale University Art Gallery's small collection of Indonesian manuscripts today, I ran across this illustration in a nineteenth-century wayang manuscript: an illustration of a gamelan ibu-ibu. In this double-page spread, a group of 5 women are playing kendang, rebab, peking, gender, and gong/ketuk. There are also two more saron-type instruments that have no players at them. All of the musicians are dressed in the same uniform - with blue skirts, the same armlets and hair decorations etc. And a couple of pages later two of the female musicians appear again in an illustration, carrying what appears to be the rancak (frame) for a bonang.

Illustrations of gamelan playing in manuscripts of this period are not common, let alone an all-female group. More research is clearly needed!

Further information on the manuscript (ILE2014.8.26), which entered Yale's collection in 2014, is at

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Collaborating Balinese Gender Wayang and Shadow Puppetry at SOAS, 27 November 2016

After a hiatus of more than 2 years, I am finally prompted to return to blogging. It's not that I haven't seen or been involved in Indonesian performances worth blogging about - far form it - but I have been overwhelmed with other things. (Not least our baby Leah.)

On Sunday night 27 November we attended an evening of new compositions for Balinese gender wayang with accompanying shadow puppetry performed by the Berlin-based puppet maker and puppeteer Herlambang Bayu Aji.

This event, organised by the London-based musician and composer Aris Daryono, was the latest in a series of annual concerts of new work for gamlean. While in past years concerts have involved only Javanese instruments, this year it took the form of work for gender wayang, played by Nick Gray and friends. Unusually also, this year there was a wayang element, with Mas Bayu flying in from Berlin to rehearse with the ensemble and some of the composers.

I spent a day hanging out with Mas Bayu, visiting museums in London and talking wayang. He had worked with Mas Aris in Berlin in the past and was brought in to put together a contemporary play using puppets and ideas developed for past performances in Germany on the themes of ecology and refugees. One of the conditions was that the play could contain no dialogue or narration or text of any sort - the focus had to be kep on the music - which he said was quite a challenge.

The performance, as in other recent performances of Mas Bayu in Germany, involved a combination of live shadow puppetry (using Wayang Rajakaya puppets made in Solo from buffalo hide around 2010 and black cardboard puppets made more recently in Germany) and projected images and simple animations.

The highlight for me was the final scene set in London - indicated by the projected image of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. To a score by my old friend Simon van der Walt of monotonous clock-like ticking (one gender beater against the other) and big unison chords (reminiscent of the chiming of a clock) the refugee animals arrive one by one before the desk of a bureaucrat who is scribbling away, They entreat him but one after the other they are shooed off, and wait in a line for him to respond.

At a post-performance discussion (which we had to leave early as it was way past our daughter's bedtime, Mas Bayu was asked about the narrative, He was initially resistant to supplying his understanding of the story, giving the standard answer that every person could make a story as they please. But he eventually broke down and related how this was the story of animals displaced from their natural environment who take refuge in a city already over-crowded with refugees. One of the more unusual puppets was a tiny airplane. I, for one, could not possibly have guessed this was a vehicle engineered by the animals so they could travel to the metropole to plead their case! Mas Bayu was asked how the story ended. He said that he would leave that up to the imagination of each spectator.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Rastika, RIP

I have just been informed by a friend from the town of Gegesik that the great pelukis kaca (painter on glass) Rastika from Desa Gegesik Kidul (Cirebon, West Java, Indonesia; pictured above in a photo taken in front of his sanggar in 1993) passed away this weekend.

Rastika is considered to be one of the key figures in the revival of the craft of lukisan kaca (reverse painting on glass) in Indonesia in the 1970s and 1980s. His colourful and lively work was grounded in a deep knowledge of the wayang kulit tradition, the product of a long apprenticeship with the Gegesik puppeteer Ki Maruna.

One of the breakthroughs he is associated with is the transformation of lukisan kaca from an art form for mystical symbolism and the depiction of individual wayang figures (wayang ijen) to the representation of scenes from wayang kulit, above all the Bharatayudha (or Prang Jaya as it is known in the Gegesik wayang tradition). For this he drew upon the bramakawi illustrated manuscript tradition, of which Ki Maruna was probably the last living master. Rastika also applied his technical mastery of the medium to the depiction of everyday life, including a series of paintings commissioned by Kompas.

Rastika was a regular participant in national festivals and exhibitions and his work was highly sought after by collectors. With the rise of lukisan kaca prices in the late 1980s he was able to support other artists around him in Gegesik,particularly in the field of wayang, gamelan and topeng.

He will be missed by many.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Wayang in the British Museum

It's been a long time since my last blog post - almost exactly a year in fact - and I think it is high time for me to get back to blogging. This inactivity has been due largely to pressing other needs, but also on focus on non-Indonesia matters.

The last weeks though have seen me return to the world of wayang kulit through a series of visits to the stores of the British Museum, where I have been looking at shadow puppets from Java, Bali, Thailand, and Malaysia with visiting puppet experts, including Professor I Nyoman Sedana (pictured above looking at a nineteenth-century Balinese bark cloth-on-rattan figure used for cremation ceremonies) from ISI Denpasar.

Alexandra Green, the museum's Southeast Asia curator, and I have an exhibition proposal on Asian shadow puppets under consideration and we are hoping to develop an AHRC bid around this. The visiting experts (five of them so far) have been working with us in developing a research methodology in how to work with shadow puppets in museum contexts.

Alex has been thinking about the history of collecting in relation to this -- why are certain figures chosen over others - as well as the history of cultural interactions which take form in shadow puppets. (She has some fascinating insights into the use of Indian trade textiles on the Raffles figures from early nineteenth-century Java.) I have been thinking about how puppeteers imprint their dramatic imaginations on these static figures from another time, and what sorts of historical and practical information can be evoked in the encounter with museum objects.

There is still a long journey before us....

Monday, July 8, 2013


Last weekend (6-7 July) was the Gamelathon, described as 'a weekend of Indonesian music, dance and puppetry across the Southbank Centre site' in London. This was a pretty huge event, organised by Sophie Ransby, with free performances by performing groups from around the UK and Ireland, along with a ticketed dance piece by Indonesian-Australian choreographer Ade Suharto ('In Lieu') and a major programme by the Southbank Gamelan Players featuring srimpi, small dance pieces and a so-called sendratari titled Topeng Panji Kayungyun. Performances took place in the Clore Ballroom at the Royal Festival Hall, outdoors on a temporary stage erected on the Riverside Terrace, the Front Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall, and in Queen Elizabeth Hall itself.

I was busy with my own performance, Dewi Gegurit, a new wayang golek cepak play which built upon my studies in Cirebon and Indramayu in 2012, which I created in collaboration with Indonesian composer/pianist Marisa Sharon Hartanto. But I  managed to see in full or in part quite a bit of the rest of the festival-- the end of a concert by Gamelan na Gaillimhe from Galway, Ireland; a combined concert of Sekar Enggal and Royal Holloway's own degung ensemble Puloganti (plus some Cianjuran thrown in) under the direction of Simon Cook; a number of pieces by the UCC Gamelan of Cork University (Ireland); the big sendratari and dance concert by the Southbank Gamelan Players with guest artists from ISI Solo; Lila Cita and Lila Bhawa's exciting programme of Balinese gong kebyar and dance; new music and old classics by York University's Gamelan Sekar Pethak and friends; a walkabout show called Ramayna on Stilts; Southbank Centre Intermediate Gamelan Players plus a few dancers; Ade's show In Lieu; and a short wayang kulit play Sakuntala performed by Sri Suparsih (who is also a well known sindhen) with Siswa Sukra and friends.

I didn't get to the puppet making workshops, and sadly missed the gamelan & electronic music concerts (I was really hoping to attend particularly the set with compositions by Charles Matthews, who is off for another year in Java shortly) and also missed a performance given by the Labschool from Cibubur, Jakarta. (Though I did see the kids and their teachers walking around the Southbank dressed in Srikandi t-shirts.)

The whole event had a glorious community feel to it. Musicians floated in and out of each others' sets, with the guest artists from ISI Surakarta dancing, playing music, singing, performing wayang etc in many of the performances. It was delightful to see the same musician playing Sundanese rebab in one set and Javanese gender in another, or Balinese drum followed by Javanese bonang etc.  I was sitting in the audience watching one concert and the musicians faltered on a classical Javanese piece and  a friendly musician commented to me 'I really should have been on stage with them for that' and in the next number she was up there helping out. Casual passerbys and children wet from the Southbank's fountain installation were drawn in, and I drank a Pim's from an outdoor bar while waiting for one of the shows to begin.

The highlights for me were really too numerous to mention. But they definitely included an extraordinarily beautiful Srimpi Ludiramadu which opened the Saturday night Sendratari big concert (with Ni Made Pujawati taking one of the 4 dance parts and remarkably holding her own against 3 very seasoned Javanese dancers), a raucous and fun piece for saxophone and gamelan by the UCC Gamelan (who played so loudly that they reportedly broke a slenthem key!), a fantastically precise and involving one-person barong performance (barong buntut) accompanied by Lila Cita, a very amusing arrangement of The Rite of Spring to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ballet by Sekar Pethak and the beautiful dancing of Wasi Bantolo (the choreographer who led the dancers from ISI Surakarta, pictured above). 

I also of enjoyed Sri Suparsih's wayang performance (above), which retold the classic story of Sakuntala, abandoned pregnant in the forest by a king she has nursed back to health, who travels to see the king after 16 years to make him come through on his promise to admit their child as his own. I was surprised though that she did not inject a more feminist interpretation into the story, and that no programme notes were offered to assist audience members in following the Javanese dialogue.  

My own contribution to the Gamelanathon was a short wayang golek cepak play titled Dewi Gegurit which I created together with the Indonesian composer Marisa Sharon Hartanto, who is studying for an MA in music composition at Royal Holloway. The play tells the story of a newly-divorced Raden Gambuh  (Sir Puppeter) who is in search of a new wife, a woman of culture. At the advice of his grandfather, he travels to the kingdom of Nyugoni to seek the hand of the beautiful princess Dewi Gegurit (Lady Song) who also desires a man of culture. She requests that he find a wayang and after some trials he decides with the help of the clown Lamsijan to become a dalang himself. Unable to locate a gamelan, Lamsijan and friends play the accompanying music on Western instruments. 

The play is of course allegorical, and in some ways follows up my earlier solo performance A Dalang in Search of Wayang (in which I quest in the mythical world of wayang for an answer to the dilemma of how I can be a dalang without a gamelan or a Javanese audience or sponsoring communities) and Lokananta, which concerns the origin and development of gamelan and was performed in York University with more than 200 accompanying musicians in 2012. 

The play used figures from Indramayu left in the UK by Ki Akmadi after his AMC-sponsored tour of 2005, and featured an ensemble of piano, voice, flute, drums and doublebass all performed by RHUL music students.

Dewi Gegurit generally seemed to be well received. One friend commented on Facebook about its 'Fantastic score [played] by some very gifted RHUL musicians that made western instruments sound pretty Sundanese', another friend said how pleased he was that both the contemporary and the traditional found their balance in the piece, both in terms of drama and music. An older woman, the mother of another gamelan composer involved in the event apparently, seemed less pleased however- she said she was not convinced by the pop songs we included (particularly in the clown scene) though, rather strangely, she said she was sure that this was not my worst performance. Another friend, a puppeteer who happened to be passing through the Southbank, said he would have preferred more movement during the dialogue.Probably the nicest written comment I received was from a former student who said it was 'a lively performance [with an] amazing singer and full of joy.' Another friend, commenting on one of the Facebook pictures I posted, also said the image 'captured the joy of the moment'.

If I did indeed succeed in maintaining the Gamelanathon's overall mood of joy, I think I probably did a pretty good job for my first wayang golek cepak performance in the UK. Hopefully there will be more to come.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Wayang at the Museu da Marioneta, Lisbon

I was at the Museu da Marioneta, Lisbon's puppet museum, today to see their permanent exhibit. While there was nobody on hand to give a personal tour, the galleries were well laid out and there was a good English-language audio tour on offer. The exhibit charts the course from the traditional puppet traditions of Asia and Africa to European popular puppets (pupi, Guignol, Dom Roberto, Punch etc) to the modern puppets of Portugal (fairground puppets, puppets for education, the revival of Da Silva's puppet operas in the 70s and 80s etc), ending with a room devoted to stop motion animation.

Wayang was represented by three sets of figures - a set of nice old wayang golek purwa puppets from Sunda; a set labelled wayang golek cepak but which looked to me more like wayang thengul figures; a smaller set of wayang kulit purwa from Surakarta displayed in silhouette. The wayang thengul were interesting for me in part because of the Menak Jinggo puppet, which has a head which is a bit gepeng (flat), suggesting the origins of the form in wayang krucil.  (See above.)

More effort could have been made to show that Asian puppet traditions continue to evolve, just as European ones do. But this is in part an artefact of the collecting process. The museum is based in a convent owned by the city but most of the collection is privately owned. The woman working at the desk was kind enough to invite me back for an opening of an exhibition on Thai theatre on Friday. I hope to attend.

Wayang at the Museu Nacional de Etnologia

I am in Lisbon, Portugal now for the EUROSEAS conference, delivering a paper on the beginnings of kethoprak and randai in late colonial Indonesia, and took time yesterday to visit the Museu Nacional de Etnologia, which has a collection of 700+ wayang puppets from Java and Bali.

The museum, which was established in 1965, includes both folk artefacts (mostly farming implements) from rural Portugal collected during the 20th century and objects from former colonies (Indonesia and Brazeil) plus Africa. A permanent display opened in 2012, and includes a large number of puppets from Bali, along with some beautifully displayed puppets and masks from Africa. It is planned that displays in the permanent exhibit will be rotated and that the Balinese puppets will be replaced by a display of Javanese puppets.

The museum is closed on Mondays but I got a personal tour of the museum by Ana Margarida Penedo, who  in 2012 finished an MA on the museum's collection of Javanese wayang in the department of anthropology of one of Lisbon's universities, and works also as a museum guide.

The bulk of the wayang collection was acquired by Victor Bandeira, a Portuguese art dealer who collected objects for the museum in Indonesia between 1970 and 1972, basing himself mostly in Bali. He purchased a number of sets of puppets during this time, and then worked with a Jakarta-based puppeteer to identify the characters. Unfortunately he did not include the names of the original owners nor did he work with local experts in Java and Bali to identify the puppets. So there are many errors in identification. (For example a kemangmang puppet from Cirebon is identified as Banaspati.)

One group of puppets (possibly a full set) is a wayang kulit purwa set in the Surakarta style. Most of the puppets are in excellent shape, and some have prada paint and Javanese inscriptions on them which indicate they date back to the 18th century. There are a large number of Balinese figures from two villages in southern Bali, some of which are now on permanent display.

I had a closer inspection of the figures from Cirebon. There are three sets of puppets from Cirebon in the museum. One is a large set of wayang kulit purwa figures purchased in Cirebon. This is missing a number of key figures (there is no kayon for example) but is in generally good shape. Some of the figures appear to be quite old, others much more recent. One of the most interesting puppets for me was a Kumbakarna puppet in which he is enveloped from head to feet by monkeys. This puppet can only be used in one scene of one lakon (Kumbakarna Gugur), something quite unusual in my experience. A number of the puppets bear the stamps of makers and owners, and might allow this set to be identified.

There is also a smaller set of purwa figures from Cirebon, about 25 in all, collected in Jakarta and of lesser quality.

Finally there is a set of about 70 wayang golek cepak puppets. The carving of many of these puppets is quite fine, but they have been very roughly painted and poorly costumed. There are a few figures which appear to be diseased -- with garments rent asunder showing spots underneath. I had a play with some of the figures and they are expressive and elegant in their movements, even if some have mismatched arms and are broken internally as well.

I hope to return to the museum at some point for more careful study, and Ana Margarida is planning now a (self-funded) trip to Java and Bali to follow up on her MA research. She has been trying to study Indonesian before she leaves.