Semar, the most Indonesian wayang figure: his role and meaning

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This is a set of Punakawan or male clowns. Greg Churchill also ordered a set of female clowns to be created which he calls the Punakawati. There are two well-known female clowns in wayang: Cangik and Limbuk. Women dalangs also exist like Ibu Sri who sometimes does wayang performances of mousedeer stories in front of the Jakarta Wayang Museum. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

IO – I was first made aware of the fig­ure of Semar many years ago through a Dutch member of the Euro parlia­ment named Janssen van Raay. He was born and raised in Indonesia before the Second World War. When the War broke-out he was 14 years old and put into the men’s prisoner-of-war camp, away from his mother and sister. He managed to survive all the horrors of the prison camp but when Allied troops finally freed him, there was no one to meet him. His father was still in prison elsewhere and his mother and sister were in the Batavia camp. Like many of the boys that age in the same situation he started to become ill, lay in bed turned his head to the wall and began the process of dying.

A bue-eyed wayang is apparently considered good in the wayang – unless it is Jan Pieterszon Coen, of course. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The boys had survived all the horrors of the war for only one thing: to be reunited with their families but at the end: there was no one and they began to die. His mother could not reach him be­cause the road between Jakarta and Bandung had too many ambushes. So, she and his sister went to see the military commander in Batavia but he refused permission citing the danger. His mother leaned across the table grabbed his gun pointed it at him and told him, “If you do not give me permission to go I am going to shoot you.”

The military commander allowed he considered a crazy woman, to go and she rushed to Bandung. The moment she reached her half unconscious son and told him that she was there he opened his eyes and began to re­cover. Later, he became a member of the Euro parliament and despite his terrible ordeal his love for Indonesia never wavered. He defended Indo­nesia on everything including East Timor and led delegations to Indo­nesia every year. To hear him speak you would think that he was the In­donesian Euro MP rather than the Dutch one. His talisman and symbol was Semar. Why Semar? Van Raay wore a tie with a picture of Semar in the center and being rather rotund the resemblance was clear. Was that the reason he chose Semar? Who in fact is Semar?

Semar. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

An artist once explained to me, “Semar is neither a god nor a king but an ordinary man however, he has a very wide world view and is wise. He advises gods and kings and knights.”

Pak Sadir my sister’s driver told me, “Today Semar would be like the state, in the sense that he is like the president. He represents the whole country. Wayang is still relevant. I go regularly to watch wayang kulit  (leather puppets) performances and I love it. Last year after wayang was declared a UNES­CO world heritage, the President de­clared a national wayang day. Its on the the 7th of November. Sadly, it is not a public holiday though… but it should be! Wayangs make us happy. The Presi­dent should understand that.”

Greg Churchill and friend stand in front of glass painting, wayangs and masks with Semar and the Punakawan or clowns. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)
Semar, Ever so Smartly. (photo: Prive. Doc)

Gregory Churchill is an American wayang collector who has lived in Indonesia for over 30 years and his favourite wayang is Semar. So much so, that he helped put together a book on Semar entitled “Semar, Ever so Smartly”. It is about images of Semar in Indonesian folk art. Churchill says about Semar, “He is a clown but also a misplaced god and he is so important that he gives advice to the gods in the Hindu religion. The Hindu gods are like the Greek gods in that they have romances, make mistakes and have mishaps. Semar tells them what to do to get out of their troubles but he nev­er forgets that he is of the ordinary people. He speaks in the vernacular, he gives political commentary regard­ing the current situation, he dares to criticize the gods and kings and he is a clown but a clown with substance. The things he clowns about are meaningful and the audience really waits for his appearance in a performance.”

The first wayangs were probably made of dried grass like these wayang suket. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

In talking about how wayang orig­inated Churchill described how once years ago when he was in Enrekang, Sulawesi he saw a young girl cov­ered in a bed sheet who had made a wayang figure out of herself with sticks as arms. She was reciting a story and the crowd around her was fascinated but also a little frightened, as though she were not just a story teller but also a sort of medium. “In­donesia probably imported and then localized the Mahabharata story and used it for wayang performances,” remarked Churchill. “I suspect that wayangs probably started out as wayang suket woven out of grass.”

Churchill has one hundred and twenty full sets of wayang; each set has dozens of wayang puppets. He owns wayang kulit (leather puppets), wayang golek (three dimension­al wooden puppets) wayang suket (made from dry grass) and wayang klitik which are also made of wood but are two dimensional. So, how did Churchill first become interested in collecting wayang?

Greg Churchill owns 120 wayang sets with hundreds of wayangs that he has painstakingly catalogued and inventarized. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Greg Churchill was born in Niag­ra Falls, New York in 1947 but grew up in Connecticut. After studying at Cornell he joined the Peace Corps in the idealistic days of President Ken­nedy. At first, he went to Malaysia. Afterwards, he spent a year hiking in Sumatra and Sulawesi; then gradu­ated from Harvard Law School but kept returning to Indonesia during the summer holidays. He was asked to catalogue Mochtar Kusumaatm­adja’s collection of legal documents and books and then met Marjono Reksodiputro who was just setting up the legal documentation center known as the Pusat Dokumenta­si Hukum or PDH. Churchill began work there in 1976. Now PDH is part of the University of Indonesia. He also worked closely with the Badan Pem­binaan Hukum Nasional or “National Law Development Agency”. Then he worked for a while as a lawyer at an Indonesian law firm and now he is finally retired.

Another more polite version of the Punakawan or five clowns. photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

In 2000 Churchill began collect­ing wayang when PDH documents has been more or less catalogued leaving him at a loose end. When he was still in high school he bought a board with masks on it, with money from his paper route. By 1972 he had purchased many Jogjakarta masks and held an exhibition of his masks. Later he made friends with a very artistically gifted man from Gegesik in Cirebon who created paintings, masks and carvings in a uniquely Cirebon style. Through him he was introduced to Rastika, one of the best Cirebon glass painters, a craft which requires great skill for the painting is painted in layers on the reverse side of the glass. Churchill bought several glass paintings from Rastika who kept trying to sell him a set of wayangs. Finally, he purchased a pyramid of wayang goleks that he found charming. They were so differ­ent in style to any wayangs he had ever seen before, it made him won­der how they could be so different when they all come from the same tradition. Cirebon wayang stories are usually Menak tales i.e Persian tales centering around Amir Hamzah, the Prophet’s uncle or tales about Prince Panji, a Javanese creation from the period of the Kediri kingdom who ap­pears on ancient temple carvings and even in other parts of Southeast Asia. These differ of course, from the usual wayang stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The wayang also looked different. They appeared rougher, fiercer and more goofy or ec­centric. They triggered his curiosity. “How many wayang styles are there?” he wondered.

Here are wayang in the uniform of the colonial army and the sultan’s guards while others are dressed as simple peasants.(photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Churchill then made friends with a Sundanese dalang or puppet mas­ter named Tizar Purbaya who lived in Jakarta and created a new style of wayangs using real peoples’ faces. For­eigners liked to buy them but during the 1998 riots many for­eigners hurriedly left and did not take their orders. So, Tizar creat­ed wayang golek lenong Betawi to perform Betawi (old Jakarta) tales. Here a young village girl might be­come involved with a Dutch soldier – and then Tizar could use the left over wayangs that foreigners had ordered with foreign faces. Tizar in­troduced Churchill to many dalangs and helped him to obtain complete wayang sets. Churchill also bought wayang sets from Central and East Java and from other countries in Southeast Asia countries. He even bought a set of Chinese wayangs called wayang Potehi.

This is part of an environmentally friendly wayang set with Dewi Sri the harvest goddess with paddy stalks and insects. Here is Surya, the sun god.(photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

“Malaysians also think that they invented Semar and the Punakawan (Semar and his clowns) despite wayang being banned in Kelantan and Trengganu. After banning it they realized that wayang was a source of tourist revenue so now it is allowed to be performed but only in front of foreign tourists. Semar however, clearly originates from Java because Semar already appears on old Javanese temple carvings and there is no evidence of such an an­cient tradition of Semar elsewhere.

I have heard that there are Chi­nese in Penang who are trying to preserve old Malaysian wayangs – to preserve mind you, not to perform. They now have things like wayang fusion with super heroes like Super­man. They are trying so hard to cre­ate a non-Hindu superhero…” sighed Churchill.

In Indonesia wayang fare better and are actually a flourishing and vi­brant art form. Financially, it is cheaper to hire dangdut for a circumcision cer­emony than a wayang performance but there is innovation in the wayang performances and puppets and there are dialogues and debates about wayang: what is prop­er and what is not. Wayang is under threat in places like Banten and in Purwokarta performances were once banned and signs about performances ripped up but Purwokarta now has a mayor who sup­ports wayang. There seems to be some ­what of a backlash against those trying to ban our tradition­al culture. The Mayor of Palembang tried for example to ban a wel­come dance originating from Sriwijaya and was promptly attacked left and the right and this all affects wayang of course.

In the last row are the Wali Songo wayang. They are the nine guardians who spread Islam in Java and they used wayangs to spread their message. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Islam spread to Indonesia peacefully. The Javanese love the arts and so the Wali Songo or nine guardians who spread Islam used the arts to spread the message of Islam in particular Sunan Kalijaga. There is in fact a wayang that uses the figures of the Sunan Walisongo just as there is also a Christian wayang called Wayang Serani.

Wayang Serani or Christian wayangs tell the story of Christ. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Wayang figures appear in comics, in paintings and carvings. The Balinese have something called wayang listrik where the wayang figures appear on film and there is a TV show using wayang kulit with new characters and stories reflecting modern life and modern needs.

The most important and the most philo­sophical personality though in the vast phalanx of wayang figuers, is Semar. He has great depths of character. Semar and his band of clowns known as the Punakawan were an Indonesian creation added to the stories of the Mahabharata and audiences wait ex­citedly for him to appear in a per­formance. He is an ordinary man who criticizes the government and society and expresses people’s current concerns but he is also very wise. He advises knights, kings and even gods. The other thing about Semar is that within him all sorts of contradictions flourish at the same time: he is well-known and beloved but he is also unknowable and alone, he is never happy nor is he sad, he is physically deformed but his soul is perfect, he always tells the truth but speaks in riddles, he is never sick but neither is he healthy, he is a clown who teaches serious lessons, Semar’s eyes are filled with tears even when he is smiling but he never cries, he is an ordinary man who is revered by the elite, he is far but also near.  In many ways Pak Sadir, my sister’s driver is correct: Semar does represent Indonesia, a country that happily lives with enormous contradictions existing side by side. Where other countries say our land, in Indonesia it is our land and water. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world but recognizes and has public holidays for all the major religions. The Javanese are the largest population group but everyone speaks Malay, the mother tongue of less than ten percent of the population and so it goes on. In that sense Semar would be the perfect figure to represent Indonesia.

But Semar goes deeper than that. Who in fact is such a person that can hold so many contradictions? In fact only a god can encompass so many contradictions. Many contradictions existing harmoniously in one being is a strong indication of a godly presence. Semar is not a god and yet ultimately Semar represents the highest god of all…

(Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Christian missionaries also used wayang to spread their message. This gunungan depicts two angels and is part of a wayang Serani set. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)