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3.5 POLITICS: Parables, Mockery and Activism
Honggo Utomo, who works as the manager of several well-known dalang, told me that he wants to distance himself from Enthus Susmono. “I am interested in art, not in politics,” he said, matter-of-factly, by way of explanation. And Enthus, the most highly-paid dalang in Java, is interested in both art and politics. In fact, the distinction so craved by Honggo might require an impossible elision in the life and work of Enthus, a high-profile man whose interests have taken him to jail and made him the bupati (regent) of Tegal.
Enthus has long been part of the political world of Indonesia in a variety of ways. Richard Curtis (2002: 136-152) reconstructs a detailed history of his ascent to a privileged position as one of the most coveted dalang of the late New Order government. In the early 1990s, Enthus was still a relatively minor performer making jokes about the government, and winning the hearts of the wong cilik (little people). But, as his career skyrocketed through the 1990s, he metamorphosed himself into a full supporter of the ruling party, Golkar. By the time the New Order was reaching its demise, his musicians even sported yellow clothes (the color of Golkar) as their regular uniform. Recently, a decade and a half later, he ran for the position of bupati of Tegal and was sworn in on January 8, 2014. His long disagreement with the previous bupati was the direct cause of the scheme that resulted in a three-month imprisonment in 2009. This sojourn behind the bars ended just in time to allow him to fly to Amsterdam and perform Dewa Ruci for the opening of an exhibition of his puppets at the Troppen Museum, appropriately called Dalang Superstar.
To the dismay of his opponents, this short imprisonment only strengthened the image of Enthus as a man of strong convictions and garnered him even more popular support. When his political campaign was in full swing, in June-August 2013, he scaled down his shows of epic proportions to something that was barely more than a one-man show. Wayang Santri, the name of this creation, was a small performance that he paraded through every possible village in the kebupaten (district) that he now leads. For Honggo, this was too much. And he opted out.
The close link between art and politics should not surprise us if we consider the political climate in Indonesia. As Ariel Heryanto explains: “Given Indonesia's highly politicized environment, it barely needs explanation why it is not possible for arts and cultures to be exempted from political contestation in the society at large” (Heryanto 2008: 8). However, it should surprise us if we look at the history of cultural polices aimed at de-politicizing culture in Java/Indonesia. By some accounts, these de-politicizing efforts go back as far as the early 19th century, when the Dutch presence coerced the Javanese nobility into a withdrawal from worldly affairs such as politics into the world of culture. (For a fuller explanation of this argument, masterfully developed by John Pemberton, see Language).
After Independence, the Old and New Order governments were engaged in the definition of culture and of national identity. The almost clinical division between culture and politics was one of the main goals of these policies. As a result, many art practices in Indonesia are both political and apolitical. Or, to put it differently, their apparent apolitical character is the result of a complex political history. This might begin to explain why wayang has always had an ambivalent relation to politics. As Ward Keeler suggests, this has probably allowed it to remain relevant and appealing and to avoid criminalization:
A puppeteer may have occasionally made a passing reference to political issues but always allusively and ambiguously. Dalang have noted that it was essential to phrase comments in such a way as to make it possible to defend oneself from any accusations of subversion by insisting that such accusations stemmed from misreadings of remarks that really referred only to the moment at hand in the play (Keeler 2002: 98).
The relation between wayang and political power can be analyzed in two ways. First, in terms of the funding structures and power networks that support the performances; and second, in terms of the messages, metaphors and jokes that dalang use in order to address political issues; this section will concentrate on the latter. What does it mean for a wayang show to talk about politics?
In this analysis, I will try to avoid defining too narrowly that which is political about these performances. Instead, I will analyze a variety of attitudes towards the political. I will consider, for example, the performances which directly mention a political figure or event. This is usually made in the form of jokes that are not directly related to the central narrative. Political commentary can also take the form of a fleeting allegory, where the characters of a story are momentarily equated with real political figures. Another mode of political referencing is to be found in performances which have a direct political objective, which aim to effect a particular change in the world. In yet a different category, there are works that talk about the political in a broader way, which we could refer to as a more abstract or philosophical register. These performances interrogate what it is like to live together in a society and the role of everyday citizens in shaping the social destiny of a nation.
Based on the loosely drawn distinction above, I will analyze excerpts from different performances and explain how they deal with the political in instrumental, philosophical and direct terms.
I will start by considering a performance with a direct political objective. Perhaps the most politically explicit of all the shows considered for this dissertation is Wayang Republik, by Catur 'Benyek' Kuncoro. This performance explores the role of the city of Yogyakarta in the struggle for Independence from the Dutch in the mid-1940s. According to the story presented in this performance, the Sultan and the people of Yogyakarta played a heroic role in the fight for independence. In recognition of these efforts, Sukarno, the leader of the fight for independence and the first president of Indonesia, granted the province of Yogyakarta a special status, as a semi-independent province. In 2009, Jakarta started discussing plans to revoke this special designation, which would turn the Special Region of Yogyakarta (DIY) into a normal province. In the views of many people in Yogyakarta, the politicians in Jakarta were betraying the pact through which the Kraton of Yogyakarta had joined the Indonesian Republic. Many people organized political demonstrations in order to support the government of the Sultan.
In this context, Wayang Republik depicted the story of Yoygakarta's actions with passionate detail, suggesting that without its decisive participation, independence would have been impossible. Reminding the spectators of this historical episode had a distinct political agenda in 2010, a time when the political tension surrounding the status of Yogyakarta was at its highest point. Before one of the occasions on which I saw this performance live, religious leaders representing the major Indonesian religions led a public prayer, where they pleaded for the region's special status to remain unchanged. In order to appreciate how this political objective is articulated within the performance, consider the following passage, where the previous Sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengku Buwana IX, protects the rebels who are hiding inside the kraton against the Dutch army, represented by General Van Langen.
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VAN LANGEN. I came here to arrest the extremists who are inside the kraton.
Hamengku Buwana IX. Mr. Van Langen, there are no extremists in the kraton.
VAN LANGEN. That's impossible! I have seen them with my own eyes. I saw them entering your house, Sultan. You should allow me to come inside, Sultan.
Hamengku Buwana IX. Mr. Van Langen, this is my house. It is my right to grant or deny entrance to the guests that visit my house.
VAN LANGEN. God verdome! In that case, if you wish to protect the extremists, I will enter your house by force!
Hamengku Buwana IX. Go ahead. Please go ahead and enter my house, but you must do so over my dead body. And before I change my mind, get out of my house now!
The heroism of the sultan is taken as a synechdoche for the valor of Yogyakarta's citizens. This theme continues through the performance and culminates in the final dialogue of the performance, an exchange between Sukarno and the Sultan. This exchange stresses the historical force of the Yogkakarta's status, and helps further the political objective of this narrative.
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SUKARNO. Tuan Sultan.
Hamengku Buwana IX. Yes, Bung Karno. On behalf of the people of Yogyakarta, I apologize for any shortcomings or mistakes during the past four years.
SUKARNO. There is nothing that needs to be forgiven, Sultan. It is I who am extremely grateful for the sincere gifts of the people of Yogya to Indonesia. Yogya has spread the seeds of nationalism, assertive enthusiasm and culture. Yogyakarta is now famous for its people's embrace of independence. Long live those people!
Hamengku Buwana IX. Thank you, Bung Karno.
SUKARNO. Tuan Sultan, after everything is ready, please allow me and my collaborators to return to our ongoing struggle in Jakarta.
Hamengku Buwana IX. Yes. I can only wish you a good journey and all the best for the fight, Bung Karno. Bung Karno, please receive this. The Kraton is already empty of resources. Even if this is not much, please accept this. [He gives him some money.] Hopefully it will support the beginning of a new chapter in our nation's history, Bung Karno.
SUKARNO. Thank you, tuan Sultan.
Sukarno is a hero in the minds of many Indonesians. A thankful Sukarno hugging the Sultan adds an emotional undertone to the sense of political gravity and historical responsibility furthered by this performance. This might be the only performance considered in this dissertation that has such a direct objective.
Let us now consider a different set of articulations of the political and look at performances which include allusions, in the form of humor, to topical political situations. An example of such a performance is Sie Jin Kwie Kena Fitnah. Early on in this performance, the king Lisibin has ordered a new palace for Sie Jin Kwie to be built. But the builders "accidentally" build another place, which is shown on the puppet screen as the recognizable image of a fancy Jakarta building.
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DALANG. This is not the Sansi Palace!
BUILDER. Isn't it?
DALANG. This is the palace of the people's representatives. Right? This is the place where they nap after swimming!
BUILDER. Om, this is a new building! That was the previous one.
DALANG. Oh, yes. This is where the swimming pool will go.
BUILDER. Yes, over here. This is the spa.
DALANG. A spa, you say?
Then, the builders make a new attempt, but this is also wrong.
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BUILDER. This is the house of the unlucky corrupted officials.
DALANG. What about the lucky ones?
BUILDER. Those ones ran to Singapore. It is clearly written here. Here. Pondok Cipinang Indah.
DALANG. Yes, the economy class.
BUILDER. No, this is not the economny class! This is the VVIP! It's clear, isn't it? Look at the menu, here. Look at it. This is very complete. There is everything here. Fridge, AC, TV, DVD. Complete!
DALANG. But this is not what I meant! I wanted the Sansi Palace!
BUILDER. Oh, Sansi!
Corruption and the diversion of funds that should have been used for official projects also provide an opportunity for Catur Kuncoro to make a joke in Wayang Mitologi. In this story, two blacksmiths are creating a new keris imbued with supernatural power. Making this sword has shifted the Earth off balance and the Gods, preoccupied with this, decide to move a piece of the Himalayas into Java. This mass of rock will close down their workshop and it will also restore the lost balance of the planet. The Gods are discussing this project:
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YAMADIPATI. Yes, wa Narada.
NARADA. Please inform the secretary and the treasurer of heaven to immediately write up a financial plan for the Mountain Transfer Project. But, no corruption!
YAMADIPATI. At your command.
NARADA. [Aside] Stupid. Accepting a project without corruption, that is really stupid! [...]
NARADA. Everything related to the Wisma Atlet - Sorry, sorry! - Everything related to the Mountain Transfer... I entrust fully to you.
NARENDRA. At your command.
The Gods are depicted as despotic rulers. Not only does Narada support corruption in his aside, there is also a direct reference to a high-profile graft case in Indonesia. The Wisma Atlet, referenced above, was one of biggest corruption scandals in recent years (it was exposed in 2012). This building in Palembang, Sumatra, was meant to be the seat of the XXVI SEA Games. Billions of rupiah were misplaced in the construction of such a building and Muhammad Nazaruddin, who was in charge of the project, was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Another instance of an explicit reference to politics is found in Enthus Susmono's Dewa Ruci. In the comic interlude, Petruk and Gareng discuss the actions of Durna, Bima's teacher. Bima has been lied to by Durna, but he still fully believes in him and is willing to obey his orders, which send him on a journey to find himself (a more detailed description of the performance is offered in Spirituality). This is what the punokawan have to say:
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PETRUK. And I fiercely oppose Durna's actions. As a political figure, how could he later fall under Sengkuni's influence? That stupid general. Here, religion is ruined. However, if religion is ruined that means society is ruined, and those are signs that the country and the culture are broken, right? [Imitating the voice of Gus Dur] "Therefore, dear brothers, we must uphold the Qolbu management. Isn't that true?" My favorite is Gus Dur [speaking of the Indonesian presidents]. Gus Dur was truly amazing.
PETRUK. He survived four strokes while firing Muhaimin Iskandar.
PETRUK. Gus, Gus! What? Why did you fire your own nephew, Muhainin Iskandar? [imitating the voice of Gus Dur] “I am the only one who knows what he did. Muhaimin was only...hah...” [aside] While swallowing snot, “Muhainin Iskandar was only a puppet for SBY and JK.” That was enough trouble.
The stupid general referred to at the beginning of this excerpt is probably not only Sengkuni but Suharto as well. Gus Dur is the nickname of Dr. Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009), a religious scholar and the fourth president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001. During his government, he promoted inter-religious tolerance and he was the first president after Suharto to allow Chinese cultural performances to be carried out in public. Although his government was short lived, he is credited with brave ways of fighting corruption, which include an open conflict with Muhaimin Iskandar, as referred to in the excerpt above. Muhaimin Iskandar (Cak Imin) is the nephew of Gus Dur and the head of the executive council of the PKB (Partai Kebangkitan Indonesia – National Awakening Party). On 27 March 2008, Gus Dur (then no longer president) asked Muhaimin to step down. However, he refused and filed a lawsuit against Gus Dur, and his position was ratified by the trial.
Another allusion to politics is found in Pertaruhan Drupadi, which involves political figures beyond the borders of Indonesia. Drupadi, whose freedom has been wagered and lost by her husband Puntadewa, sets out on a trip around the world trying to find justice. Eventually she meets the then-president of the US George Bush (I quote this passage for a different purpose in Women). Hide dialogue excerpts
DALANG. So George Bush took a shower. He came out of the White House, looking arrogant and vain because he had just attacked Iraq and won the war against Sadam Hussein. Apparently his favorite music was not dance, disco or jazz, but Bendrong from Banyumas.
Bush, represented by a sieve, covered in a slendang, enters dancing Bendrong.
BUSH. Who was looking for me earlier? Who was making noise?
DRUPADI. I am the person looking for you.
BUSH. Who are you? I am busy.
DRUPADI. Are you truly George Bush?
BUSH. Yes. The President of America.
DRUPADI. I ask for your help, the Kurawa want to rape me.
BUSH. And you are asking for my help? Alright. What do I get in return?
DRUPADI. I ask for help and you immediately talk about payment. Is this really a president? I don't have anything.
BUSH. Then it's impossible. There must be something given in return, something that will benefit my country. We accept petrol, oil, we would really like some oil, even if it's cooking oil.
DRUPADI. This can't be true, I am asking for help! You are supposed to look after the safety of the world, so you should be able to help anyone. I was sacrificed by my husband.
BUSH. Oh, that's a trivial problem. I am only interested in big events, such as the presidential elections in Indonesia. Thinks like... the war between Korea and China. Your problem is insignificant.
This excerpt shows the disconnection between the concerns of politicians and the real demands of the citizens. This disconnection is not only represented here. In Kasmaran Tak Bertanda, Sujiwo Tejo also takes a detour from his narrative to criticize the lack of commitment of the politicians. Bhisma has won Amba and her sisters in a contest, but he cannot marry them because he has vowed to lead a life of celibacy. Bhisma travels with Amba, trying to find her an appropriate husband, yet she won't accept any of them. The dalang suggests that she could marry one of the musicians present on stage, and then this becomes an opportunity to embark on a diatribe against Indonesian politicians.
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DALANG. [...] She could just marry a musician. They are happy although they don't make as much as the KPK [Anti-Corruption Commission]. But they say they are happy. But I think that the KPK people are also happy - with their money they can go anywhere. They can go to Macau. But what's the use of happiness when it only depends on holiday leave? All the government officials and all the employees are only count the days, like Krisdayanti, waiting for their holidays to come. This means they don't love their jobs! That is a violation of the customary laws of the Bhagavad Gita. Your life journey is your life. If you become a teacher, dream of dying in front of the class. If you become a congressman you must dream of dying in the middle of a session. If you become a soldier, you must dream of dying in the battle field. How can a soldier dream of dying while playing with his grandchildren? This country faces huge problems because not everyone loves their jobs. If they loved their jobs, they would be stressed during weekends because they were not working. The musicians are better than them. The big stars are stressed on weekends. And even more during vacations because their work is their action. Please think about this, mas Taruna. You shouldn't aim to die with your wife. You must die while playing gendèr. Why would people who love their work wait for a holiday? If the members of Congress loved their work, they would take no pauses. They would be stressed during their breaks. That is our problem.
Although the criticism encompasses many people, the dalang does emphasize how it relates to the lack of commitment with which politicians carry out their jobs. Despite the fact that these comments are unrelated to the rest of the story he is presenting, the dalang aims to make them resonate with his audience: “That is our problem”, he says.
Another, albeit less direct reference to the betrayal of political ideals is found in one of the songs of Wayang Hip Hop called Salin Srengat, which literally means “a change of clothes” and, by extension, a change of attitude. The song imagines the Pandawa becoming corrupt after winning the Baratayuda war, equating them perhaps to New Order politicians who participated in the struggle for independence and then forgot the ideals of the fight. This is presented as a rapped conversation between two musicians, Tyno TNT and Inung Arhaen:
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DALANG. There was a country called Astina. After the Baratayuda war was over, the country was prosperous but not fair. Safe but not peaceful. [...]
TYNO. Astina lost the war, the Baratayuda was over. The Pandawa lived in luxury. Drinking wine and eating bread. [...] The Kurawa lost and Astina was colonized. Shattered dreams, difficult life. Every little joy was taken from them. They could barely eat once a day. And couldn't afford their children's tuition. And yet, Astina used to be rich. [...] But now every defector is an outcast.
INUNG. Weren't the Pandawa noble and wise?
TYNO. Yes, but only before hitting the jackpot.
INUNG. Don't talk nonsense, the Pandawa are true warriors.
TYNO. That was before they became corrupt. And now they do whatever they want and they have forgotten where they came from. Their dreams and struggles forgotten, they use democracy to gain wealth.
The prosecution of detractors, corruption and the betrayal of the political ideas upheld by people previously regarded as heroes alert us to the fact that Astina is probably Indonesia in this song. Like with the previous examples, this excerpt is a reference to political figures that is not directly connected to the main plot of the performances where they take place.
The last performance to be considered here addresses political concerns in a very different manner, by moving away from specific references and thinking about the political by way of parable. The role of common people in politics is thus explored in Wayang Onthel. In this performance, when the teacher and leader of the Bicycle Lovers' Association dies, he passes along his possessions to his students: Paijo is the one who inherits the land on which the Association's building stands. Upon hearing the news, Darso offers him money, and Paijo, unknowingly signs a document where he agrees to lease the money against the property he has inherited. Drunk with the pleasures of his newly acquired wealth, Paijo forgets his previous friends and starts acting recklessly. Eventually, Darso comes to collect on his debt. Paijo has spent everything and cannot pay him back. Only then does he realize that he did not read the small print in the money loan contract and that he has actually borrowed the money against the land. He loses everything and is left with nothing except for bitter reflections of his role in this catastrophe:
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PAIJO. I cannot accept this! This is what usually ruins the poor and stupid people like me.
DARSO. At least you accept you are stupid.
With his new economic power and assets, Darso violently imposes his will on the rest of the students, and finally uses the land to build a hotel. Darso symbolizes the powerful politicians and businessmen whose actions contribute to an increase in poverty. But his actions are only possible due to the complicity of the little people:
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DALANG. Paijo was consumed by temptation and anger. And his wealth disappeared. He was tricked by Darso's sweet words. And then he remembered his friends. But it was too late, they had already been chased away from the Bicycle Lovers' Association. He was consumed with regret. But now it was useless. Animosity breaks things apart; only working together brings peace.
Taking all of these performances together and reflecting on the nature of the political ethics expressed in them, we might conclude that the wayang kontemporer performances are less directly political than other forms of theatre in Indonesia. By way of comparison, we might consider the analysis suggested by Michael Bodden of the political resistance expressed in a handful of performances in the Late New Order government. According to his analysis, there are two ways in which theatre performers opened up avenues for political resistance:
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On the one hand, they brought together new constituencies in creating theatre and protesting censorship, building a more complex social movement around issues of socio-economic justice and freedom of artistic expression. On the other, they brought new themes and material to public attention (Bodden 2010: 5).
His nuanced analysis indicates that not all actors in these processes had shared ideas and that resistance is elaborated differently in each case. The political objectives and commentary offered by kontemporer performances might seem weak in comparison. Maybe the reason why these performances don't appear to be overtly political is that wayang has always been very adaptable. Ward Keeler is right in his observation that wayang has harnessed the power to conjure allusions in subtle ways that always grant the artists the privilege of deniability. This adaptability is part of the reason why the wayang tradition has remained alive through several waves of technological, political and religious influence.
In other words, tradition still weighs on how politics are referenced. The ideas might be contemporary but the mode of delivery – through humor, allusions and metaphors – is not always new. This section has explored the ethical questions that pertain to the realm of political actions. Through different modes of tackling the issues, all the performances focus on two central questions: How should politicians behave? What is the role of the common people in politics? These questions are mostly answered through passing comic references to real politicians and through fleeting allegories. Yet, in some notable cases, the political is articulated as the direct objective of a performance, either through critical historical narratives or by invoking the philosophical examination of the politics of everyday life.
The political referents for these performances are necessarily different from those of the performances from previous decades. However, wayang has always included references, albeit veiled and indirect, to topical political developments. The preferred mode of reference has been the coded language of subtle allusion, metaphor and off-the-cuff jokes. But some of the kontemporer performances analyzed here are somewhat more explicit in their interpellation of topical political events than earlier decades would have allowed for. This dissertation considers performances created after the fall of Suharto's New Order and we can identify differences with performances from earlier dedcades. Certain insinuations would have been censored (or at least self-censored) before 1998. For example, in Wayang Republik, Suharto is presented as merely following the suggestions of the Sultan Hamengku Buwana IX rather than as the cunning military strategist that official histories would present him as. But even now, more than a decade after the end of the regime, no wayang performance criticizes Suharto by name. This is certainly different, as I have pointed out, in the case of teater productions. In my analysis, Wayang Republik also happens to be, of all the performances considered here, the one where we can identify the most directly pragmatic political agenda. And yet, this agenda is never mentioned, not even indirectly.
Is it accurate to say that these kontemporer performances are politically conservative? Yes, but demanding more explicit treatment of political themes in wayang kontemporer would require us to dismiss the place of these performances in contemporary Javanese society. These performances are participating in the present by negotiating layers of tradition in ways that are very different from contemporary theatre. An unjust but pertinent comparison with teater thus throws these differences into sharp relief, illustrating the particular qualities of political discourse in wayang kontemporer.