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1.1 Literature Review: What Other People Have Said About Wayang Kontemporer
All interpretation places the interpreter  in medias res and never at the beginning or the end. We suddenly arrive, as it were, in the middle of a conversation which has already begun and in which we try to orientate ourselves in order to be able to contribute to it.
Paul Ricoeur
Many of the works on wayang repeat cliches removed from reality, but at times, often in the midst of the cliches, there may be ‘fresh' words that open up an aspect of the wayang performance, and some people are able to utter truthfully even the cliches, to rediscover how they connect to reality, how they can open it up. My own work is part of this diverse discourse.
Jan Mrázek
The study of the dalang has barely begun.
Clara van Groenendael
Finding a way to orient oneself within the vast literature on wayang kulit, within its ongoing conversation, might prove a daunting task. All the more so when one's aim is to contribute to it, to say something – however short and partial – that might add something to what has been said before. And yet, this possibility is sanctioned by some of the most renowned participants of the conversation, who readily acknowledge, it has "barely begun." These words, with which Groenendael concludes her sociological study on the figure of the dalang, are still able, 26 years later, to encourage further research by more recent observers like myself. In my attempt to contribute to this conversation, my goal is to compare the features of several kontemporer performances of the 21st century and to interpret what they say about life in contemporary Java. In order to link my research to previous scholarship, I present a literature review in this section.
There are very few scholarly works that deal with the kind of kontemporer performances I am researching, so I will presently consider a slightly larger scope, looking at that which has been said about wayang in recent times and about innovations within wayang. Since I am interested in developing a formal vocabulary to compare kontemporer performances, in this overview I identify the classification structures other researchers have used for describing wayang. Another important objective of my research is to develop a framework to interpret what these performances say about contemporary Java; therefore, in this review I also identify how other researchers have addressed the connections between wayang and the contemporary world.
According to Clara van Groenendael, contemporary wayang has existed for at least 90 years; that is, since the creation of the first formal schools for the education of dalang in the 1920s (Groenendael 1985: 6-12). In these schools, the transmission of secret knowledge that defined nyantrek training, was replaced by a systematic, progressive, and formalistic approach that was influenced by western notions of art and of university level training.
These schools eventually paved the way for the modern day Institute Seni Indonesia (Indonesian School of the Arts, ISI) where students can obtain a University degree as a sarjana muda pedalangan (bachelor of dalang arts). As Clara van Groenendael notes, these schools played a key role in the development of the dalang as an artist (in a Western, contemporary sense). We can identify, as many observers have indeed done, artistry in the work of older dalang. However, probably neither he nor his cultural environment considered him primarily an artist; he was more closely aligned to a scholar and a religious officer. Groenendael links the emergence of dalang schools and the decline of the popularity of wayang kulit as a ritual form in the beginning of the 20th century.
Her analysis seems to suggest that his main competitors were not other artists, but other experts in secret knowledge (agricultural experts, for instance, whose products and advice would constitute a safer bet for successful crops than the dalang's incantations). For traditional dalang, the main challenge posed by modernization were the modern medicines and agricultural products and not mass media as one could readily infer.
Paradoxically, this situation gave great momentum to contemporary dalang to be considered artists. Groenendael's contemporary dalang was trained in institutions where he learned about the history of the form and about other types of puppet theatre. And he was encouraged to experiment, to display his art in competitions, galleries and theaters; as well as to travel and collaborate with other artists. In this way, the conceptualization of the performance changed. It was no longer (only) a ritual and the dalang was no longer (only) a mediator. The relationship between the dalang and the tradition had also changed. He was no longer the gatekeeper of the forms and traditions, a part of the long genealogy of performers who kept the old wisdom alive, but rather someone who used the tradition in non-ritual settings.
Other accounts of contemporary dalang focus more specifically on the aesthetic intentions of particular dalang or wayang forms. Laurie Jo Sears, writing in 1989, identified three types of contemporary “aesthetic displacements” in wayang. Unlike Groenendael, for Sears, contemporary wayang does not need to exist outside of ritual settings. In fact, her first example of contemporary practice is wayang ruwatan, where ruwatan exorcism practices were integrated into wayang performances in Solo. Although both ruwatan and wayang were conventionally regarded as traditional, Sears interpreted their combination as an important and unprecedented innovation. The second type of performance she dealt with was wayang rebo legi, private performances organized by the famous Solonese performer Ki Anom Surata that included “changes in the oral tradition, changes in what is appropriate for certain scenes, changes in the characters who are allowed to fight together, or changes in the puppeteer's behavior during the performance” (Sears 1989: 123).
Nevertheless, these performances still required the conventional nine hours, as opposed to the third displacement she identified: wayang padat. This type of condensed performances never took more than two hours. According to her, this was developed by the Academy of Fine Arts in Solo (ASKI, the antecedent of the present-day Indonesian School of the Arts, ISI), for pedagogic and touring reasons; students were required to make their own padat version of a famous lakon (story) in their final year of study, and these versions were often used for productions touring Europe in the 1980s (Sears 1989: 133-4). However, according to Hardja Susilo, padat performances were not necessarily triggered for such reasons. He traced their development back to the 1940's and explained their origin primarily in relation to “cost-saving strategies” (Susilo 2002: 180), although he acknowledged that puppeteers have been using them for other reasons ever since, such as to let wayang keep up with modern conceptions of the value of time, to intensify the dramatic content or to accommodate the short attention span of tourists.
Tim Byard-Jones, writing little over a decade after Sears had a different perspective. He felt confident dividing the wayang universe into “innovators” and “upholders of the great tradition” (Byard-Jones 2001: 43). Interestingly, although he was also retelling the story of the last fifty years of wayang, he classified Anom Suroto as an upholder of tradition (who was, as we have seen, Sears' prime example of a displacement). In any case, Byard-Jones had his own triadic classification for innovations or “new genres”: wahyu, kancil and perjuangan. The first one is a Christian wayang that uses gamelan music, and puppets inspired by the visual tradition of wayang to tell stories from the Bible. Polish ethnomusicologist Marzana Poplawska (2004) believes this is “an example of the vitality of traditional arts in Java, which unceasingly find new forms to manifest themselves” (Poplawska 2004: 200). The second type, kancil, narrates the stories of the Javanese mouse deer kancil. Byard-Jones says that this form was invented by Chinese-Indonesian Bah Bo Liem in the 1920s and developed by Ki Ledjar Subroto in the 1980s, who intended to “perform for audiences of young children in order to try to get them interested in wayang as an art form and to promote environmental awareness” (Byard-Jones 2001: 49). However, Ledjar himself claims to be the inventor of this form and says that Bah Bo Liem is a made-up character.
Ledjar is still active in Yogyakarta and, in Chapter 3, I will dedicate substantial attention to his performances (see Environment and Art). The third of Byard-Jones' genres is perjuangan (struggle), which tells about historical Indonesian figures in the fight for independence against the Dutch. Conversely, this wayang genre can also be used to retell Dutch history. An article in The Jakarta Post in March 2011 offered a chronicle of a perjuangan performance, which was commissioned by the Dutch Museum Nusantara to tell the story of William, the Prince of Oranje. The person in charge of making the puppets was none other than Ledjar Subroto, who lamented in the interview that the Dutch seem more keen on supporting wayang innovations than the Indonesians: “You know, there is no interest here in Indonesia. I am concerned about how to encourage our children and young generation to love wayang (Indah Setiawati 2011).”
Writing in the same year as Byard-Jones, Robert Petersen celebrated the innovations of Ki Natosabdho, a dalang from Banyumas (Central Java), who is credited with the invention of particular Lakon Karangan (composed stories). In most of the other perspectives I will reference here, Nartosabdho is presented as an example of an old-fashioned dalang, and most of the young dalang I know would speak of him in the same way. However, as I mentioned in the Introduction, Petersen convincingly demonstrates that Nartosabdho's inclusion of unconventional, devised narratives into the traditional stories was considered highly innovative by many people (Petersen 2001: 106).
The following year Jan Mrázek edited a collection of essays about puppetry in contemporary Indonesia. Although the performances are not necessarily contemporary in nature, they take place in recent times. Some of them deal with performers that consider themselves (or are considered by others) traditional, but the essays pay significant attention to puppeteers that clearly refer to their own work as kontemporer. Rather than trying to identify clear-cut genres, in the fashion of the previous approaches, most of the essays in the book focus on the work and ideas of specific dalang, such as Slamet Gundono (who readers might remember from my Introduction), or visual artist Heri Dono, whose Wayang Legenda (1988) and PhARTy Semar (1994) are polemical “deconstructions” of wayang. Another dalang analyzed is Enthus Susmono, the “dalang superstar,” famous for combining Islamic proselytism and images from popular culture (such as Batman, Superman and Japanese Manga characters).
Susmono is a very controversial figure in Java and, since he is still very active, he will be a prominent character in this dissertation. Mrázek relates how Susmono enthusiastically spoke to him in an interview "about attracting high and powerful sponsors, speaking for the little people, and making his wayang explicitly Islamic." Enthus is, according to him, “more than most dalang, interested in politics and in making both politics and Islam part of his performances. More than most dalang, he openly talks about wayang as a commercial enterprise” (Mrázek 2002: 20). Another dalang whose work is described is Sukasman, the creator of Wayang Ukur, which literally means "measured wayang," and consists of “a fine art presentation by an individual artist” (Susilo 2002: 179).
Sukasman, who passed away in 2009, was an expert puppet maker who traveled to the US and Europe and was inspired to incorporate modern art ideas into wayang. In a Wayang Ukur show, the audience was expected to sit quietly, as they would do in a Western-style theatre. Three dalang simultaneously manipulated the puppets, and their combined efforts allowed for a wide variety of visual effects. Sukasman didn't control the puppets directly, but rather instructed the three dalang – in this sense he was the "dalang behind the dalang" – and his role was probably comparable to that of a contemporary theatre director (Susilo 2002: 179-188). I will argue in Aesthetics that contemporary wayang has a huge artistic debt to him that has not been fully recognized.
Jan Mrázek's Phenomenology of a Puppet Theatre focuses on many aspects that had not been contemplated in previous scholarship. These include an extensive study of the performance itself, the music, the words used, the puppets' movements and the night atmosphere of a performance. He is concerned with performance in the present: “The focus of this study is the present. In most cases, when I refer to the past, I mean the immediate past (which is chronologically as vague as ‘the present') to which the present directly relates and reacts. (Mrázek 2005: 362). However, it is still concerned with notions of ‘traditional' performances in the contemporary world. In order to explain what he means by this he refers to a performance where the electricity went out and yet, no one even considered using a traditional oil lamp:
Thus, when I speak of a traditional performance [...] I mean something that is thoroughly in the present, is dependent on various developments in the present world (such as electricity) and indeed is built up in such a way that it would not hold together without (for instance) electricity. What I mean by traditional, and that the traditional is embedded in the present, must be kept in mind to understand this discussion correctly (Mrázek 2005: 504).
The last chapter in his book deals specifically with the clown scenes and he pays sufficient attention to the specific performances of innovative puppeteers such as Ki Joko Edan, Ki Enthus Susmono and other, less innovative ones, such as Manteb Soedarsono and Anom Suroto, looking at polemic innovations but remaining neutral to them:
But I, unlike most Javanese observers, do not say and do not question whether the developments are good or bad. I am saying that the coherent structure of a wayang performance is of a somewhat different nature than a potpurri of attractions, and it is in the world differently (Mrázek 2005: 505).
Mathew Isaac Cohen has written about contemporary wayang in global contexts, providing an excellent overview of 20th century experiments carried out by foreigners and Indonesians using wayang kulit from Java and Bali. Since my present dissertation only deals with Javanese wayang, many of his examples fall outside the scope of my research. For him, the Javanese innovators worth mentioning include of Suprapto Suryodarmo, whose Wayang Buddha integrated Buddhist stories at the Indonesian School of the Arts (Surakarta) in the 1970s, and Nanag HaPe, who collaborated with the Netherlands-based jazz ensemble Nunuck Purwanto and the Helsdingen Trio and Indonesian gamelan musicians to create Mahabharata Jazz and Wayang, which was presented in the 2004 Athens Olympics (Cohen 2007: 358-359).
Cohen also refers to Suwijo Tejo, who combines traditional wayang with “guitar-driven folk fusion music and contemporary theatrical dramaturgy,” as he “integrates metaphysical speculation and political commentary with the surreal” (Cohen 2007: 360). Students and educated elite love him although people don't always appreciate his interpretations of the tradition, such as “casting Rahwana as the hero of the Ramayana” (Cohen 2007: 360). Cohen's study also refers to Slamet Gundono, Sukasman, and Enthus Susmono. His concluding remark is that:
radical innovators have probably always existed within Javanese and Balinese wayang traditions [...] The difference is that today's innovators operate in a globalized marketplace of ideas, techniques and technologies [...] Contemporary wayang artists such as Sujiwo Tejo, Heri Dono, and Slamet Gundono create new work with national and international audiences in mind, cultivate networks of international patronage, benefit from professional development outside Indonesia, and readily collaborate with artists from around the world (Cohen 2007: 362).
Indeed, innovation has probably always been part of the tradition; it is the context for such innovations that has changed.
In a more recent piece of writing (2014, forthcoming), Cohen distinguishes between traditional and post-traditional puppetry in Indonesia, describing the work of Seno Nugroho (an example of the former category) and his own collaborations with Catur “Benyek” Kuncoro and Eko Nugroho (an example of the latter).
In this overview I have highlighted how different categorizations are used within wayang scholarship and the way researchers interpret these performances in relation to cultural developments in Java. What other people have contributed to the study of wayang will continue to inform my investigation of wayang kontemporer. However since my objective is to talk about the new ethical and aesthetic values of specific wayang performances, my approach differs from most of the scholarship I have reviewed in three ways. First, I am interested in an in-depth analysis of specific wayang kontemporer performances. In previous scholarship, wayang kontemporer performances are often described in general terms (i.e., in relation to their entire ouvre or their general philosophy of wayang), but longer, more detailed performance analyses are lacking. Second, I am interested in finding a structured vocabulary to identify formal and thematic patterns across a wide range of performances, not just classifying new genres. Third, I am especially interested in the role of new media in wayang kontemporer performances and in what digital research methods can bring to the study of wayang. In Positionality:Researching Wayang as a Digital Archivist, I describe my vantage point in more detail and in Approach: An Essayistic Ontology I translate this into the methodological approach that guided this dissertation.