Waving an old art into daily life

An invitation to a wedding with a traditional East Javanese puppet performance is special, as it reveals that the tangled cultural diversity of Indonesia isn’t easily unraveled.

Waving an old art into daily life Photo: Unsplash

Any link with Jakarta is purely coincidental. The Indonesian capital is far, far away, physically and culturally. The 472 miles mapped by geographers might just as well be years and then some.

The evening performance started with the dahlang giving a triple twirl of a gunungan. A deep gong beat quivers through the pillars propping up a ceiling of sagging pink and blue drapes under a metal roof. The mud floor auditorium was open on two sides and collecting puddles; houses flanked the others, doors and windows open. The launch of a wayang kulit (shadow puppet) show at a wedding in the remote hamlet of Krisik satisfied the nit-picking traditionalists in the audience paying the tab, while not offending the less whiskery hoping to see and hear something hotter and more 21st century.


They had already been ignited with “semi-dangdut” a milder version of the raucous mix of Indian, Arabic and local folk music that’s knockout popular across Java. This has to be amplified to the max. The invitation should have added ear plugs to the batik dress code.

Another sign of slight cultural shifts: the inclusion of a keyboard, synthesizer, trombone and trumpet among the metallophones in the orchestra pit. Indigenous music-making in Java is moving, not fast but steadily.

Rudi Gareng | Photo by: Erlinawati Graham

Dahlang Rudi Gareng described his style as “contemporary wayang.” He says: “I want to preserve the old arts, but I know they can’t stay stationary. We need the younger generation to get enthusiastic, to keep our inheritance alive. There’s so much competition for teenagers’ attention. Western music can pull them away from their culture. My job is to keep them here by making wayang relevant.” He seems to have struck the right chord because he’s booked up weeks in advance.

Dahlang means “puppet master,” although in reality Gareng is more conductor, composer, singer, tale-teller, showman and businessman. And importantly, he’s a guide into the spectral world that runs alongside ours and merges on nights like these. Only polymaths gifted with a touch of mystique get to the peak of their craft. Despite his relative youth, Gareng, 43, has already made it in a profession usually dominated by the wrinkled and toothless, their rheumy eyes peering into a past that is invisible to amateurs.
Dahlangs are the intermediaries between reality and the spirit world. They are popularly supposed to meditate, even slip into a trance before squatting in front of the screen, presenting their backs to the watchers. Some seem to pray before jerking the two-dimensional puppets into well-rounded characters.

Gareng is relaxed and casual, though this may be veneer. His family says he sleeps for hours before changing from a T-shirt to black jacket and sarong with a holstered kris (a wavy-bladed dagger) thrust into his waistband. He lights up and smokes away the hours, as do most of the male musicians. Some of the cigarettes are kretek, with clove leaves mixed in tobacco. Even the zero-tolerance quitters reluctantly find the scent agreeable.

The pear-shaped gunungan (Javanese figurine) Gareng presented to get the show going is something like a map of life, starting with steps to a gateway. However, this is no sacred parchment fixed for eternity. There are variations and sizes according to the regions where they originated, and the creativity of the maker. Everything’s as flexible as the buffalo skins used to make the contorted thin-limbed puppets distinctively Javanese. Likewise, the story is told in front of a stretched white sheet serving as a screen, the shadow images projected using a high-watt lamp. In the old days, it would have been a kerosene lantern, the flickering flame adding to the unearthly atmosphere.

The tale is of sharp-nosed Petruk and his successful pursuit of Dewi Ambarawati after defeating other swains in combat. The theme is universal, as old as humanity: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl after many adventures and heroic actions. Then they get married and settle down. Happy ever after. Petruk is one of the four Punokawan brothers: Gareng, Bagong and the leader, Semar, with a big belly and fat backside designed for many jokes about digestion and breaking wind. In some versions he seems to be suffering from hemorrhoids, hinting that constipation is a common complaint.

Indonesia is full of contradictions in this prim and proper republic, politicians think they’ll attract voters by proposing laws to regulate bedroom behavior.​​​​

Indonesia is full of contradictions in this prim and proper republic, politicians think they’ll attract voters by proposing laws to regulate bedroom behavior. The government has teams of censors blurring out the slightest décolletage in imported TV shows and films, and trumpeting that hundreds of thousands of porn sites have been shut down.

Instead of protesting, the kids just yawn, then use their fingers to bypass the prudes and access their fetishes through overseas virtual private networks. The Javanese prefer to adapt rather than confront. Smut and double-entendres remain well-embedded in the wayang tradition, secure by being indigenous and not from dirty-minded Hollywood.

The low-level crudity leads some to assume the Punokawan are simple knockabouts playing much the same role as clowns in European pantomimes. That’s a mistake, for all have a serious side, a little like the fools in Shakespearean drama and jesters in regal courts. These characters were licensed to tell monarchs truths that courtesans feared to speak. Don’t dismiss Semar out of hand. According to the late American cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Semar is wise and divine, the guardian spirit of Java. His name is linked to the Javanese word samara, which translates as “mysterious.”

Gareng learned his skills and the stories he tells from his late father. If he needs reinforcement and more ideas, he has only to visit his heritage by driving 30 minutes to the Penataran temple complex. This is around 7 miles outside of the city of Blitar and is the largest Hindu relic in East Java.

It’s not as well preserved or as old as the 9th-century Prambanan Temple near Yogyakarta, and not as famous as Borobudur, the Mahayana Buddhist temple that draws pilgrims and tourists from around the world.
However, the 12th-century Penataran has something special a vast number of carvings illustrating daily life. So we have clear images of people living in houses with tiled roofs and riding in large-wheeled carts pulled by horses. These wear harnesses much like those used today. There are buffaloes, coconut trees and numerous monkeys, and laborers turning the soil with hoes, as they do now.

There are also fables, such as the buffalo and crocodile that appear on the terraced monuments, and a bathing pool so clear that the fish scales wink in the sunbeams. The crocodile gets stranded away from water so hitches a lift on the bull’s back. Once safe, the reptile attacks its savior, who is rescued by other animals. The supernatural stuff includes winged lions and snakes, and the forbidding Dwarapala squatting stone giants armed with maces and usually found by portals. They’re not exclusively Indonesian but guard gateways in Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and China, though they are called different names in each country.

Photo by: pixabay  


Mixed among all the domesticity and children’s tales is the Ramayana story, described by historians as “one of the largest ancient epics in world literature, with almost 24,000 verses.” The Sanskrit original may be 2,700 years old. It tells of Prince Rama’s 14-year exile after being rejected by his stepmother, eventually helped to his rightful regal place by the flying monkey king, Hanuman, and his warriors. It’s clearly more than an adventure story of dashing deeds by handsome heroes and coy maidens. Watchers can extract what they like, whether its moral messages, style guides for a proper life that may eventually be rewarded, or just a good night out revisiting a familiar story.

The carvings at Penataran don’t follow the Indian original but a local version and source of Gareng’s tales. The Punokawan are not found elsewhere, so are thought to be a Javanese addition. There’s another account exclusive to the island of Bali. The first known image of Semar is on a temple carving dated 1358. American scholar Ann R Kinney is the lead author of “Worshiping Siva and Buddha: The Temple Art of East Java,” a major account of temple art in the region. She writes of Penataran: “The presentation of the Ramayana, with its deeply carved frontal figures and the complete elimination of empty spaces in the panel of reliefs is an excellent example of the wayang style developed during the Majapahit period.” (This ran from about 1293 to 1527).

In Krisik and surrounding towns, the first language is Javanese. Although all schoolchildren are taught the national language, Indonesian is reserved for formal and official interactions. Javanese has at least three styles, labeled “registers” by linguists. These are chosen according to the ranks of the users and whether they’re speaking up to superiors and the elderly, or down to peasants and kids. No need to list the chances of making gaffes, so best stick to egalitarian Indonesian.

Gareng interprets the character Petruk’s quest in a local dialect that flummoxes city folk. That puts them in the same basket as non-Indonesians, making the storyline a tad difficult to follow. Comprehension comes from closely watching the puppets’ body language. They put their hands on their hips, wag fingers, wave hands, point decisively, stalk off stage or rush on in short, much the same as actors. It doesn’t take long to figure out the personalities. The music helps. When armies clash, so do the gongs; when romance looms, the flutes take over. The demons are so grotesque its difficult discovering their benign side, though Javanese lore teaches that none are wholly bad.

Fortunately for foreigners, there’s nothing rigid or solemn about the art and its rituals. Apart from being barefoot on stage, the protocols are minimal. The 100 puppets get a mighty thrashing in their adventures and battles between good and evil, so repairs are often necessary. Gareng designs his own and has staff who patiently perforate and color the leather. The characters are multidimensional and so complex that philistines would be tempted to glance and depart. They’d miss the spectacle and the revelation that the location, the wedding, the environment, the music, the play, the assaults on all senses are scrambled with no chance of separating the yokes and whites, then scooping them back into the smashed shell.

For some, the gunungan represents a mountain as the first six letters of the word mean “mount,” as in Mount Kawi, with Krisik on its Western slope. It’s a dormant 8,369-foot volcano and an important spiritual site mainly for ethnic Chinese seeking business breaks, but also pribumi (indigenous Indonesians) who follow the Kebatinan beliefs of old Java and add a shake of nationalism.

Among Kawi’s attractions are the graves supposedly encasing the remains of Mbah (leader) Imam Sujono, who died in 1876 and his colleague Mbah Djoego, also known as Kiai Zakaria, who died five years earlier. The spelling of the names often differs. In keeping with the rest of this feature, so do the stories. The principal theory is that both men were supporters or relatives of the elite-born Javanese Prince Diponegoro, who led a rebellion against Dutch colonizers. The prince was caught in 1830 in Magelang, in Central Java, and exiled to Makassar, South Sulawesi, where he died 25 years later. His colleagues fled to Mount Kawi, where they helped restore religiosity and improve cropping techniques.

Visiting the graves is supposed to bring good fortune. Does it work? The best known case, real or imagined, is that of Ong Hok Liong, who established the Bentoel tobacco company after meditating on the mountain.
For years, he'd unsuccessfully sought the right name for his cigarettes. Then the sight (or dream) of a hawker selling edible bamboo roots known as bentoel set the heavy smoker and drinker on the road to creating what became the nation's second-largest tobacco company, now owned by a multinational company, and an early death from liver disease.

At least he didn't have to sit for hours or longer under the sacred dewandaru (Eugenia uniflora) waiting to catch a falling leaf, another alleged path to prosperity. The tree has outgrown its original railings so a bigger was built to stop the impatient giving the branches a shake to rain down wealth. If the classification is correct, the tree is a recent import from South America, where it's known as the Surinam cherry. This slice of science prunes the myth that the shrub was cursed by a holy man to remain small because it snagged his clothes. The sage was trekking through the area to divide the territories of King Airlangga. That was in the 11th century. On Mount Kawi, fiction trumps facts.

Mythology, history (plain and embellished), ancient values and modern mysteries, bubble to the surface like air trapped in hot mud, ignoring the top coverings of the monotheistic religions that all Indonesians are supposed to follow.

By now you’ll realize that the lush wilds of East Java aren’t just the rich deposits of volcanic eruptions that make the entire island among world’s most fertile, but layers of mythology, history (plain and embellished), ancient values and modern mysteries. These bubble to the surface like air trapped in hot mud, ignoring the top coverings of the monotheistic religions that all Indonesians are supposed to follow.

Overseas visitors to Kawi are welcome, though they tend to find the beliefs confusing and contradictory; this is the wrong place to apply Western reasoning. Although Krisik is about 3,300 feet from the summit, when the three-day ceremonies involving the marriage of groom Setiono and his bride Cicik Erfita were underway, the peak was obscured by low clouds and heavy rain.

It’s hard to find Krisik on maps, but this is spirit central. It isn’t just saturated by the heavens; it’s also deep in traditions and superstitions, ideal for Gareng to pay homage through his performance. No one seems to know when the village was established. The nearby Rambut Monte (Monte’s hair) temple and lake is a Hindu worship area, so possibly a Majapahit Empire settlement. Swimming is prohibited to pacify a “God fish,” so local authorities built a pool alongside hoping this might lure tourists. It just might if the roads were repaired.

For others, the gunungan suggests a place of worship, a position strengthened by including a pop-eyed, multi-fanged and monster-like kala carving, atop the image of stairs, trees, tigers and buffalo symmetrically facing each other. On the reverse, another kala with claws and surrounded by tongues of fire. This links the wayang to the culture, so some background should help fit things together.

The kala is the sculpted visage found above gateways of Majapahit temples such as Penataran. The East Java kingdom, based around an inland port on the Brantas River, controlled or traded with much of Southeast Asia. Nationalists are of the view that this was Java’s golden time, with its navy defeating a Mongolian Yuan army invasion and forcing the fleet to flee back to China. The hero of the era was the “prime minister,” Gajah Mada, a figure still revered today. One of Indonesia’s leading universities, Gajah Mada University, in the Central Java city of Yogyakarta, carries his name.

The collapse of the empire in the 16th century, either through volcanic eruptions, in-fighting among the royals over succession or the arrival of Islam that ousted the existing hierarchal faith, is still debated by historians. Maybe all three combined to send the regal families and followers east. Most eventually settled in Bali, which is why the island is predominantly Hindu. There are also breakaway pockets of Hindus in East Java around the hilltown of Malang, the port of Banyuwangi facing Bali and in mountain villages such as Krisik.

Upscale hotels in Yogyakarta and Ubud, in north Bali, often promote wayang. These cut-down tourist specials usually last less than an hour to match the attention spans of outsiders unfamiliar with the art, for the real ones only end come sunrise. This is the case in Krisik, where the families of the newlywed couple have found Rp 35 million ($2,600) to hire Gareng’s Cakra Budaya (Chakra culture) group to entertain guests and local villagers. For this, they got 44 performers and a 10-hour concert.

The support team drove three trucks for two hours from their base near Blitar to Krisik. One carried a 50 kVA generator; the production sucks so much power it could blow fuses using the local government power system. It took four hours for six stage hands to construct the stage. It can take three more hours to dismantle and repack. Crew boss Sadik Kalish, 48, said it’s tough to find workers to do the job because they have to spend so much time away from their families. “On one tour, we never took a break for 113 days,” he said. “We just sleep in the cabs.” The work isn’t arduous, though lifting heavy boxes bigger than coffins of wayang kulit characters needs muscle. Much time is spent arranging the puppets in the right order and waiting for the show to start and end.

In the play’s second hour there were about 500 in the audience scattered around. Men and women, boys and girls sat together. Islamic headscarves were rarely seen.

People came and went. Some watched and focused, others chatted. Inattention didn’t seem to bother the musicians. The respect given by sober-faced audiences to players in Western symphony orchestras was absent. Kids ran around with balloons daubed with Disney cartoon images. Fortunately, popping eventually deflated the alien intrusion. Those who drifted away bought snacks from hawkers who had driven up the mountain to cook, sell and tease. The bored chanced their luck on kletek, a crude board game involving balls rolling down a slope into numbered slots. Gambling is illegal in Indonesia, but that didn’t seem to be a problem for the dozens of men clustered round the croupier. While playing, attendees could follow the plot broadcast through giant speakers. Any who wanted more checked a live video feed, though the connection was weak.

Much stronger was the smell of cattle owned by Krisik’s 350 families, who make their money by selling raw milk to the Nestlé Indonesia processing plant in Pasuruan, on the north coast. Tankers collect the milk daily. The animals are hand-fed in byres alongside homes, the cattlemen cutting and carting loads of grass on their motorbikes.

Among this collision of real and imagined, old and new, there are flies and mud, crumbling cobbled roads and plunging hillsides, lowing bovines and rattling motorbikes. The nearest basic hotel is 40 minutes away, so accepting a wedding invitation in this region is not for those who put comfort first. But for the curious who want a raw experience of ancient but still throbbing culture and a glimpse into Java’s secret worlds seek now.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist based in Malang, East Java Province, who has been writing about Indonesia for the past 22 years.

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