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3.3 ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS: The Urgency of Didacticism
This entertaining segment is over now. We should save the environment.
Wayang Kancil
B. and her friends just could not stop crying. They had spent six months of their lives organizing an event called “Cleaning Yogyakarta in a day.” In several European countries, similar campaigns had been successfully executed, where the citizens of a country (or sometimes a city) flocked to the streets in unison and collected the garbage that cluttered the streets and waterways of that place. B. had participated in several of those in her native country and, optimistic and relentless, she sought to achieve a similar epic transformation in Yogyakarta, together with a group of Indonesian activists. After realizing the scant enthusiasm with which many people reacted to her initial proposal, she had to scale it down. Progressively. Cleaning the city became cleaning the city center. Then, just some neighborhoods. Finally, it was decided that they would concentrate on cleaning the Kali Code, one of the four rivers that run through the city. Followed by a small army of volunteers, she led a day's efforts to clean the river. But it was a disaster. The little enthusiasm she had received all the way through did not prepare her for what was coming.
Though many of the co-organizers shared her passion and the ideas of the steering committee, several of the volunteers did not understand the objectives of the activities. Instead of removing the trash from the rivers, they removed the plants and rocks that slowed down the flow of the water. Then, they threw the garbage that was on the riverbanks into the river. They thought the whole point of the exercise was to allow the garbage to be carried away by the river more easily.
Water pollution is a serious problem in Indonesia. Jakarta's Ciliwung is “officially the dirtiest river in the world” (Vitchek 2012: 155). Polluted waterways are to be found all over the archipelago, and they contain a mixture of industrial and household waste. The waste makes floods more common and less manageable, and also increases the risk of disease caused by microorganisms and by heavy metals found in the water. This is just one among a myriad of ecological problems that threaten Indonesia, which has the unhappy honor of topping the list of the worst practices that affect climate change and related environmental problems.
Indonesia has been referred to as the “ground zero of environmental change.” In 2006, it was also described by the United Nations as the most disaster-prone nation in the world (Vitchek 2012: 152). Between 1998 and 2004, 747 disasters were recorded, which claimed 1920 lives (Kartodihardjo 2009). These disasters included floods, landslides and forest fires, which can be closely linked to human activity. Illegal logging, which is a growing problem in Indonesia, is said to increase the risk of floods and landslides. But there are also "trash landslides." Andre Vitchek reports an occasion where “garbage buried entire communities of poor scavengers at an illegal dumping site outside Bandung” (Vitchek 2012: 154).
B.'s story illustrates the despair with which environmentalists often react to the lack of awareness and enthusiasm that seems common in Indonesia. However, environmental concerns have started to slowly crop up in public discourse in Indonesia. Awareness and a need for participation are on the rise and this is reflected in kontemporer performances in three ways. In some cases this is done through passing references. In others, the link between human actions and environmental effects are explored through parables. Lastly, one performance takes environmental concerns head on and has a direct pedagogic objective presented through the entire performance in a series of fables and direct addresses to the audience.
I will start by considering performances that address environmental concerns through tangential references, like Wayang Mitologi. In this performance, the Gods in heaven are suffering from an unusual heat wave. Batara Narada suggests this is the result of global warming, but Yamadipati simply admonishes:
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NARADA. The cause is none other than "globar walming". I mean Global Warming, which is affecting Marcapada [the world]. Is that too difficult to figure out? The word difficult does not exist for the gods. Just a chicken's ass [word play].
YAMADIPATI. You are wrong. That is not what Sang Hyang Guru meant. You over there, you like speaking loudly and clearly, but wrongly.
NARADA. Didn't I just say something truthful?
YAMADIPATI. Yes. But global warming is a human problem. They caused it, and hence they shall deal with it.
Then the story continues and the Gods eventually identify another reason for the particular heat problem in which they find themselves in. However, this reference lingers in the background. At the end of the performance, the two narrators (a female and a male chicken) return briefly to this problem. These are their final lines.
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MALE CHICKEN. In that case, we should also play our part in taking care of nature and our mountains, right?
This reference to environmental concerns is hardly substantial, but it is indicative of the fact that environmental issues are part of public discourse which garner increasing attention in a variety of settings.
Other performances dedicate slightly more attention to green issues, although they do not amount to constituting the central theme of that performance. Consider the opening fragment of Wayang Tanah:
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DALANG. I have seen a woman with a slender waist who can give birth without any help. And she can give birth to many children. Just like a rice field, from which transparent grains are born. She can give food to all of mankind. I have seen a woman with a slender waist who would receive any man. And she would not complain at all. But at the right time, she would talk about the events of life.
This is a reference to the earth as an abused woman. The dalang explores this theme for a moment, before connecting it to the rest of the narrative, which retells the story of Rahwana.
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DALANG. Tonight, I do not know whether it is fitting to talk about the soil because people don't need the soil anymore, except for the farmers who plow the land. It is only my mother who cries for the soil. The soil is broken. Broken soil, fractured land. I do not know why the land is cracked like this. It is said that there was a king in Alengka. A human named Rahwana liked to dig up the soil. Rahwana always dug up holes for everyone. [...] Togog always reminded Rahwana: "Hey, Rahwana, don't just stir up the soil! Don't just force the land."
Rahwana, an ogre, is often characterized as a personification of the drive for destruction. Here that destruction is seen as directed against the soil. The rest of the performance follows the story of Rahwana, and this aspect fades out of view but does not disappear completely, as the story of Rahwana-Sita becomes an allegory of environmental capture and abuse. The second part of the performance becomes a ritual with which people call for the rain. Wayang Tanah was originally performed during a time of drought. The altered pattern of the rainy season, with a higher instance of droughts and floods (see Introduction on wayang banjir), is linked, at least in people's minds, to a man-made ecological catastrophe.
Sungsang Bawono Balik takes a detour from its main storyline to address environmental concerns. The story deals with Raden Seroja Kusuma in his quest for knowledge and beauty (he is disfigured at the beginning). Toward the end of the performance, Karna takes him to the future, which coincides with our time. Karna parades a series of miraculous inventions in front of Seroja Kusuma, and dedicates special attention to the cell phone. But this marvelous display comes with a warning.
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KRESNA. This is the extraordinary character of technology. But if it is used excessively, technology can also generate pollution. And pollution is poison. Not to mention what it does for the development of weapons. Some people predict that this will bring the world to an end before the predetermined end of the World.
After this fragment is over, Seroja Kusuma and Kresna return to their own narrative time. In the same way as Wayang Mitologi and Wayang Tanah, this performance addresses environmental concerns squarely but momentarily and eventually the plot moves away from such concerns.
A very different perspective can be seen in Wayang Onthel, a parable that explores the link between human actions and environmental problems. Here, however, the action is situated in the contemporary world and not in the mythical realm of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata story cycles. In this performance, Pak Genjot dies and passes along his land and his possessions to his students; these are the land of the Bicycle Lovers' Association and many of its treasures, which include a collection of rules of how to make environmentally friendly bicycles. One of the students, Paijo, inherits the land and sells it. With the new flow of money, he starts acting like a millionaire. He changes his old ways and gets rid of his bicycle. He also becomes abusive toward his former friends.
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DALANG. Paijo's actions became increasingly ruthless. And he managed to chase off the friends who had accompanied him since childhood in their quest for knowledge at the Bike Lovers' Association. Kuncung had inherited the special treasures, such as the bicycle keys and tools, like the hammers, pliers and so on, that had earned them fame as the Bicycle Grooming Association. Gondes had inherited the "holy scriptures" of the association which described the rules for making economical and environmentally-friendly bikes. They had earned them fame as the Bicycle Thinking Association. [...] Paijo was greedy and only wanted to show off.
Wisdom and ecologically friendly traditional ways are seen to be destroyed by greed. At the end of the story, Paijo loses everything to a creditor and cries desperately. A broken man, he has neither his wealth nor his long-time friendships anymore.
Wayang Kancil is more explicitly pedagogic than any of the performances mentioned before. It refers to its own educational goals in several instances and advocates actions that can be taken to better care for the environment. Unlike the performances discussed above, the whole raison d'etre of this performance is to communicate environmental messages. This performance's history illustrates how its objectives relate to the context of Indonesia. Wayang Kancil performances started in the 1970's, when its creator, Ledjar Soebroto, decided to devise a series of performances based on kancil, the mouse deer. This figure is known throughout Indonesia and Malaysia as a trickster. He is the protagonist of numerous stories in which he tricks his enemies to get out of whatever problem he finds himself in. In Java, several stories about Kancil are collected in the Serat Kancil, a 19th century rhymed Javanese literary work. This work was the original inspiration for Ledjar, a trained puppet maker who had worked as the assistant of the famous Ki Nartosabdho. Ledjar Soebroto decided to create his own version of the Kancil puppets, first as a puppet maker, then also as a dalang. Ledjar is also an advocate of environmental causes and he sees with anxiety how his hometown has become increasingly overwhelmed by waste in the seven decades he has spent in the city of Yogyakarta. Thus, in his version, Kancil's collection of tricks has an agenda. He tries to trick the polluters out of their environmentally detrimental ways, and concludes his adventures with pieces of advice, which are often very concrete in their form.
Ledjar has been recognized within and without the country. He has been awarded numerous prizes for his ecological and artistic achievements. In 2008 he visited The Netherlands for the first time, and he has been to Europe almost every subsequent year, visiting Germany and France as well. He firmly believes that local wisdom can help deal with global problems. With this idea in mind, his performances have moved away from the characters of the original Serat Kancil and now include a range of animals from diverse geographical origins, such as koalas, bears, tigers, elephants and whales. For the past few years, he has been performing together with his grandson (in fact, the grandson of his sister), Ananto Wicaksono, commonly known as Nanang ‘Kancil.' They have tried numerous modes of working together. For the performance I recorded for this dissertation, they used two contiguous performance spaces (for a fuller description, see Space). They took turns telling stories about Kancil, some of them new creations, and the show finished with a scene in which all the characters discuss issues that were brought up during the performance.
The story and characters might strike some observers as childish, or at least as aimed at children. But Wayang Kancil is directed at a broad audience. Jokes, such as sexual references, ensure that an adult audience remains interested in the performance. Even though the stories have a markedly pedagogic and ‘child-friendly' character, this does not prevent people of different age groups from enjoying them. This should be taken into account when viewing the examples that follow.
The first story narrated by Ledjar corresponds broadly to a well-known Kancil story. A crocodile finds himself trapped by tree trunks that fall on top of him as the result of strong winds. He asks a buffalo to help him out of this trap. The buffalo agrees to help, and after he does so the crocodile asks the buffalo to accompany him to his house. Innocently, the buffalo agrees to this, only to find himself on the back of a hungry crocodile, halfway across a river. The buffalo cries for help and Kancil comes to the rescue. Kancil hears both sides but feigns stupidity. Claiming he does not understand what happened, he says he wants to see exactly how the crocodile was trapped at the beginning of the story and demands this part of the story to be reenacted. The crocodile, agreeing to this, finds himself trapped as he was at the beginning of the story. In Ledjar's version, there are some additions to this broad story line. When the buffalo is asking for help in the midst of the river, he talks to several objects that were discarded by their owners and thrown into the river, among them a dress and a mat. The dress, after telling its own story, speaks directly to the spectators.
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DRESS. Friends, you shouldn't throw trash away randomly. I can't solve any seems I only create more trouble. This river, for example, needs to be cleaned. I could be better buried or sold in a second-hand market. If I'm thrown away I will create problems for the people.
Other objects, such as disused mat, will speak in similar ways. But these anthropomorphic objects are not the only vessels of cautionary environmental tales. Kancil is, out of all the characters, the most adamant about pressing the environmental agenda upon the audience. As an example of this, consider the following dialogue. After Kancil rescues the buffalo, but before setting the crocodile free, he insists the latter should ask for forgiveness. He uses this opportunity to make sure that the lessons learned have an environmental edge to them.
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KANCIL. He has already asked for forgiveness, so that's it. Now we should take care of this forest together. You take care of the water. Make sure you only eat inside the water. [...] You and me crocodile, we have to share responsibility. You will look after the river and I will take care of the land. So that we can all live harmoniously and with enough food.
All the excerpts from Wayang Kancil quoted thus far correspond to the first story of the performance, which is an adaptation of the 19th century Serat Kancil. The environmental agenda has been appended to it and the didactic agenda is expressed through words rather than actions. The plot itself is not driven by the same goals. This is different for the third and second stories presented in the performances. These other stories were devised by Nanang Kancil with particular goals in mind. Unlike the Serat Kancil, these stories were made to be performed. They were also crafted especially to serve as metaphors for the environmental concerns of Ledjar and Nanang.
The plot of the stories might strike readers as simplistic parables. In one, for example, Kancil is informed that a whale is stranded in the forest. An incredulous Kancil rushes to the forest and interviews the whale, trying to make sense of its strange situation. The whale blames the excessive pollution in the sea for her unorthodox, desperate change of living quarters. But Kancil, always ready with a solution, convinces his fellow land animals to clean the sea. They accomplish this swiftly and painlessly in the beat of a song, allowing a relieved whale to return to more watery lodgings. But too simplistic a reading of this fable fails to account for the power of this performance in the cultural context in which it is presented.
Perhaps a more adequate interpretive lens for the analysis of this plots is that of zooësis, which Uma Chaudhuri defines as the intersection of animal studies, cultural critique and activism (Chaudhuri 2007: 8). In Wayang Kancil, the zooësis challenges anthropocentric narratives of ecological peril and preservation. It is in this poetic shift of emphasis that the performance becomes a powerful echo of the 19th century literary works by which it is inspired, appealing to a more holistic understanding of the environment. Ledjar firmly believes that this way of addressing environmental concerns through wayang is helpful and necessary. This idea is shared by the spectators I talked to. It can also be said that zooësis is an appropriate strategy to be included here since it can be linked productively to the cosmology of wayang, where there is not only a holistic but also a holy view of the universal landscape and the creatures in it.
Although a different kind of study would be required in order to assess the actual impact of these performances on people's behavior, the present investigation highlights the mechanisms through which moral imperatives are expressed through the kontemporer performances. The need to act in ecologically-mindful ways is one such imperative, which, despite its relative novelty in Indonesian history, is gaining urgency and attention. Even though some performances only refer to this indirectly, the examples above attest to the emerging importance of environmental issues in the public discourse in Indonesia.
Wayang has always incorporated topical challenges in the form of tangential references and ethical commentary. Big crises in Indonesian and Javanese history have continuously been addressed in such a way; the struggle for Independence and the financial crisis of the late 90s being only two examples in point. In a similar way, in a time where environmental catastrophes loom large in the public imagination, environmental concerns have become an important component of wayang kontemporer's discursive sphere. The performances discussed here tackle such concerns through fleeting references, parables and pedagogic fables.
The preeminence of environmental concerns is certainly unprecedented in wayang. In that sense, all of these performances constitute a departure from the thematic preoccupations of traditional wayang. However, environmentally-mindful attitudes are not incompatible with traditional Javanese teachings and cultural works, as can be confirmed by the usage of the Serat Kancil as the source material for one of the performances. Thematically, these performances are deeply grounded in traditional ideas which are mobilized to address distinctly topical concerns. The dual move in these performances, both to the past and to the present, is thus a single gesture.