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2.5 Stories: Vessels of a Memory Theatre
Before my first trip to Indonesia, I was only vaguely familiar with the plot of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The first thing I did to learn more about the stories was read novelized versions of the entire stories. This was certainly not the best approach, for the stories are never presented in their entirety. A one night show usually deals with only a segment of the story, the life journey of a particular character or a side story (i.e., a story of Javanese invention not found in the novelized versions that take their inspiration from the Indian versions of the epics). However, this rough overview of the stories did prove useful at the early stages of my wayang kulit studies in 2008.
My knowledge of the stories would only increase gradually for the next few months, during which I attended many traditional performances. I attended them dutifully equipped with pen and paper and asked fellow spectators to explain the stories to me, since at the time I was unable to speak Javanese. I also overwhelmed my teacher Pak Parjaya with questions of the genealogy and exploits of my favorite characters. People often asked me for a favorite character and at that time I usually said it was Arjuna. I explained that I admired him because despite being very skinny, he was still a ladies' man. I was extremely thin during my first time in Java and people would always laugh upon hearing my explanation.
Learning from the performances was not very helpful since I only saw a limited variety of lakon (stories) being performed in my first six months. Soon, however, I discovered an entire sub-genre of Indonesian novels dedicated to providing readable narratives of segments of the stories. One of my personal favorites in this genre is The Darkness of Gatotkaca, by Pitoyo Amrih (2008). The book is written in Indonesian but its title is in English. A more appropriate title perhaps would be The Loneliness of Gatotkaca, since the story details the solitary adventures of the young son of Bima. The author confided that he agreed with this but that he preferred the sonority of the word "darkness". The book portrays the psychological life of the hero in more nuanced a light than is usually common in wayang performances, giving it an almost realistic, contemporary dimension. Yet, there is no attempt by the author to deliberately incorporate any element from the contemporary world into the story as some kontemporer performances do (for example, by having Drupadi meet George Bush). In what follows I use this criterion to distinguish between traditional and intermedial story uses. If the stories are wholly located within the realms of a mythological world, I consider them traditional. If they incorporate elements of the contemporary world explicitly, then I refer to them as intermedial. In this sense, the non-conventional stories are those that come from outside the world of either the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. Adapting a story to wayang poses its own set of challenges. I also have some limited experience in this respect, dating to my first attempt to make a wayang show in 2008.
At the end of my six-month residence in Indonesia, I presented a show called The Secret Life of the Volcanoes. For this show, I adapted a well-known myth about the origin of two volcanoes in the city where I grew up. Almost three years later, in September 2011, I performed this story in a double bill show with Catur Kuncoro's troupe, who were doing Wayang Mitologi, a performance that also deals with a myth surrounding the origin of a volcano in Yogyakarta. In between the two stories, we presented a goro-goro scene with two performers. I controlled Bagong and he manipulated Gareng and Petruk. We tried to use this scene as a space to reflect on the intercultural nature of the stories we had presented. Naturally, as befits the clown scene, this reflection had to be shrouded in humor. Bagong accounted for his strange accent by indicating he had spent some time traveling around Mexico, acquiring a strange pronunciation in the meantime.
This limited experience illustrates two principles at work in kontemporer adaptations. A valid reason for incorporating a new story into wayang is that such a story has never been presented through wayang before. This was certainly my initial motivation. But the incorporation of other stories (or other elements) also opens up the possibility of addressing themes not always discussed, as was the case in my collaboration with Catur in 2011.
Conventional Stories
One could also analyse the stories in terms of their narrative model or structure. However, I have decided to focus solely on the origin the stories, regardless of how they are presented, since the main objective is to study the effect of the story that was selected by the dalang. Wayang is a memory theatre where stories are both important and unimportant. Most conventional performances are based on well-known stories and wayang aficionados are usually familiar with the plot of the story being presented. The stories are important because a substantial part of the discussions that follow a performance revolve around the story presented. Yet, the story is unimportant in the sense that few people listen to the entire story. The stories are particular vessels for the transmission of memory where the idea of the story is sometimes more important than the story itself. That is why stories are explored here as building blocks for creative explorations. I will not dwell on the content and interpretation of the stories (which is addressed extensively in Chapter 3). Rather, I focus on the creative implications of using a story from a particular source: the classical purwa cycles, which correspond to either the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. The former is more often performed than the latter, which is most commonly reserved for dance dramas. The Javanese version of the Mahabharata is divided into 16 chapters (parwa). Each of these chapters can become the lakon (story) of an all-night wayang. But even the most traditional performances often depart from the main story line. This is the case in the lakon carangan.
A conventional lakon carangan which is often performed is Dewa Ruci, which provides the material for the eponymous performance by Enthus Susmono (for an interpretation of the spiritual meaning of the story see Spirituality). In another performance by Enthus, Sugriwa dan Subali, the story is taken from the Ramayana cycle. This is one of the few performances analyzed here based on this cycle. Its plot explains why Sugriwa, Subali and Anjani became monkeys (they are Hanoman's uncles and mother, respectively).
Wayang Tanah by Slamet Gundono is the only other performance considered for this dissertation that is inspired by a story in the Ramayana. In Slamet's version, Rahwana is portrayed as an irrational creature, drunk with the desire to marry his new-born daughter, who is successfully hidden from him and sent into exile. However, this story is only used during the first section of the performance. The second section consists of songs by Slamet and the third one is an agricultural ritual invoked to call the rain. Still, the narrative parts of this performance correspond to a purwa story, and they are not combined with narrative elements from the contemporary world (which is the criteria for the stories to be considered non-traditional).
Other performances use purwa stories from the Mahabharata. Sungsang Bawono Balik tells the story of Saroja Kusuma, Duryudana's son, who aims to change his ugly shape and achieve power (see Familial Ties for a fuller description). Sumpah Pralaya tells the story of Abimanyu, who pledges an oath to Utari which he is unable to fulfill and later dies in the Baratayuda war (see Familial Ties and Spirituality). Lara Tanpa Liru tells the stories of Gatotkaca and Karna from the perspective of their mothers: Arimbi and Kunti, respectively (see Familial Ties). Jabang Tetuka deals with the infancy of Gatotkaca and his fight against the giant Nalapracana (see Familial Ties). Kalimataya begins with the Baratayuda war and ends with the ascent to power of Parikesit - Abimanyu's son and Arjuna's grandson - who inherits the crown of Astina long after the end of the war (see Familial Ties). This one is a traditional lakon, but it is not commonly performed. As Magnis-Suseno notes, generally speaking, "there are no lakon carangan after the end of the war, and the Baratayuda Jaya Binangun [i.e., the Baratayuda War] ]is rarely represented" (Magnis-Suseno 1991: 62).
By choosing classical stories and not mixing them with other narrative elements, dalang adhere to a particular path in their reinterpretation of cultural memory. In these cases, like in all other kontemporer performances, the ethical interpretation of the stories can be problematized and other aesthetic dimensions can be heavily modified. In fact, five of the eight performances just described take oppositional attitudes towards ethical themes and the rest adhere to more conventional interpretations. Yet, the story as an essential vessel of memory transmission is firmly maintained at the center of these re-elaborations.
Tellingly, none of these stories were performed in a conventional space. In this dissertation, I hypothesize that the story is a vessel for the transmission of cultural memory and that the usage of the space configures the experience of the performance. Both of these ways of establishing links with the tradition are so strongly embedded in the cultural imagination of Java, that innovation seems to demand that, at least, one of them be reinvented if the performance is to be a kontemporer one. In the performances analyzed here, when the story was conventional, the space had to be either mixed or non-conventional. Traditionalism in the usage of the space and the story seem to be mutually exclusive.
This observation of patterns and regularities is perhaps the result of serendipity. The creations of the contemporary dalang are highly idiosyncratic and an artist will one day perhaps make a performance that uses a traditional space and a traditional story and is still considered kontemporer. Innovation can come in many shapes. But kontemporer performances always keep something and change something, in a mechanism of imaginative substitution I have been calling intermedial tradeoff. In the performances analyzed here, either the setting for the experience of the performance or the main vessel for the transmission of cultural memory had to be reworked in order to reinterpret the wayang tradition.
Intermedial Stories
The story is certainly a medium (according to the definition presented in the introduction to this chapter) and the usage of other narratives constitutes a resensibilization of perception. Thus, we can also consider these combinations in terms of their intertextuality.
The performances which rely on intertextual connections drastically combine the characters of the Mahabharata with everyday situations that correspond to the contemporary world. For example, in Slamet Gundono's Pertaruhan Drupadi, the heroine travels around the world and meets the president of the United States, George Bush (see Politics and Women). In Jendral Karna, the dialogues situate the action in an intermedial realm, which refers to the mythical time of the story and to the contemporary world at the same time. For example, the following conversation takes place between the dalang and a milk saleswoman with a plan to help Karna:
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MILK SELLER. My milk has international class [in English].
DALANG. International class? Is that first grade or kindergarten?
MILK SELLER. What I mean is that my milk sells all over the world [in English].
DALANG. Oh. The world. I will kiss you in no time. When you say the world like that, your lips stand out. Just like an open Thermos.
MILK SELLER. But it's true.... My milk is drunk by all the Mexican cowboys.
DALANG. The Mexican cowboys drink milk?
MILK SELLER. In Texas. If hey haven't drunk my milk, they can't ride a horse.
DALANG. That's crazy!
Consider the way in which Kunti is described in the same performance:
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DALANG. It is said that she was a combination of local and western beauty. Dewi Kunti was really beautiful and her whole body shone. If she was offered a drink you could see the drink's color as it passed through here [he points at his neck]. Every morning she went for a run, man. A morning jog. And in the late morning she went for fitness training. She always drank modern medicines to make her body strong. But she also drank traditional jamu drinks. So her eyes were fierce and beautiful as those of Demi Moore. Her hair was cut like Lady D. But she could shake her ass like Inul [Daratista]. She had a mixed beauty.
As a final example, we can note the way Basudewa describes Kunti's education:
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BASUDEWA. Why would our dad Kuntiboja send you all the way to study in Los Angeles? For you to come back now like this. You have brought shame to our family. Pregnant! Its so shameful that you don't even know who it was!
Another example can be found in Wayang Hip Hop, where one of the punokawan is seduced by the drug trade, which is seen as a topical problem in contemporary Java (see Youth). Likewise, in Sanditama Lagu Laga, a group of young people living in Jakarta discuss the infancy of Karna and Gatotkaca, expressly connecting it to the lives of young people in Jakarta (see Familial Ties). Kasmaran Tak Bertanda presents the story of Bhisma's accidental murder of Dewi Amba, who swears revenge on him. Through many asides, Sujiwo Tejo compares the situations the characters find themselves in with situations in the contemporary world (see Politics).
When stories are maintained as vessels of cultural memory yet reconfigured, they allow the dalang to engage in a selective erasure of those memories, creating gaps in their progressions and filling them with references to contemporary Java. Mixed stories are often coupled with the love for innovation in many other aspects of the performances: none of these performances used traditional music or a traditional space. In terms of the ethical views presented in these performances, all but one suggest playful or even oppositional views on ethical themes. The exception is Kasmaran Tak Bertanda, in which the dalang espouses misogynist views.
Non-conventional stories
The performances which use stories that do not come from the purwa cycle take their narrative material from a variety of sources: 19th century literary works, non-Javanese myths, parodies of the modern world, and history. Many of these are not new, yet they are not conventional. One such example is Wayang Kancil, a performance that uses the wit of the mouse-deer kancil as a way of addressing environmental concerns in present-day Indonesia (see Environment). This story is based on the 19th century tales of the mouse-deer kancil compiled in the Serat Kancil.
A similar example comes from the Serat Centhini, a narrative literary work in verse which also dates from 19th century, and which provided the main story for Cebolang Minggat. This performance is based on one of the chapters of the literary work, where Cebolang - the son of a sheyik - wanders around Java in search of knowledge and pleasure (see Spirituality and Youth). A third example of non-conventional stories is the legend of the origin of the Merapi volcano in Yogyakarta that provides the source material for the plot of Wayang Mitologi. In this performance, two expert keris makers create a weapon that surpasses the power of all the weapons known to the Gods; in retaliation, the Gods close down their workshop with rocks taken from the Himalayan mountain range, thus creating a volcano in Java (see Environment and Politics).
A non-Javanese myth provides the story for Teater Koma's Sie Jin Kwie and Sie Jin Kwie Kena Fitnah. These stories which depict the adventures of the hero Sie Jin Kwie are standard plots for the Chinese-Javanese Potehi (glove puppet performances in the northern coast of Central Java). Teater Koma's versions explore the ascent of Sie Jin Kwie to power in the fight between the Kingdoms of Lisibin and Kolekop, and the subsequent attempt by jealous noblemen to discredit him (see Familial Ties).
Wayang Kampung Sebelah is a parody of the art market: Kampret asks his friend to help him get his paintings sold (see Art). Wayang Onthel is a parable of environmental destruction and capitalism (see Politics and Environment). Bungkusan Hati Di Dalam Kulkasand Perseteruan Getah Bening are both inspired by newspaper articles that describe men who kill their wives and their lovers (see Familial Ties). Raden Saleh explores the work of the famous 19th century Javanese nobleman and artist who painted The Capture of Diponegoro (see Spirituality and Art).
Wayang Republik addresses the role of the city of Yogyakarta in the Indonesian struggle for Independence (see Politics and Music). There have been many previous attempts to use historical events as the source of wayang narratives, but this is still considered as a non-conventional use of stories.
Under this category we find performances that use non-conventional stories, which can come from 19th century literary works, non-Javanese myths, parodies of the modern world, and history. In some cases, these stories represent forgotten legacies, like the sexual exuberance of Serat Centhini or the suppressed Chinese heritage in Java of Sie Jin Kwie. In other cases, there is an instrumental aspect in the choice of stories, as is the case in the usage of the Serat Kancil for environmental education in Wayang Kancil or the history of the Indonesian struggle in Wayang Republik for political objectives. In all the cases considered here, the constraints of traditional stories are seen as too limited for the thematic explorations desired by the dalang. The story, as an aesthetic variable and a vessel of cultural memory, is cracked open, allowing for other narratives to be used in the reconfiguration of wayang.
The whole gamut of experimental aesthetic possibilities is represented here. The three categories for each of the other variables are all represented in these eleven performances with non-conventional stories. In the selection of performances analyzed in this dissertation there are only two performances with mixed language, and both use non-conventional stories as the source for their plots. The plasticity of non-conventional stories is firmly indicated by two facts: every combination of categories and variable is represented here. And, when it comes to the stories, there are more performances in the non-conventional category than in any other.