The ancient performance art of wayang beber and its resurgence after 300 years, Part II: A new modern wayang beber

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17th century wayang beber Gedompol, picture roll 5, scene 3. Final fight in alun-alun in Kediri. Tawang Alun kills Klana. Unknown author. Source: Kant-Achilles, Wayang Beber. (Photo: https://commons. wikimedia.org/wiki/ file:abb32,gedompol)

IO – Although the ancient art of wayang beber or scroll painting performance art has its roots in the pre-Majapahit era, it became a performing art during the Majapahit period and this was also when the term wayang beber was first used. At the time the stories performed were mainly from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Later it also included stories from the Tales of Prince Panji and during the Islamic period of the Kingdom of Demak the painted characters became highly stylized in harmony with the Muslim belief that the human figure should not be depicted. Wayang beber reached the height of its popularity in 1561, after which it went into a decline with very few performance during the last 300 years. 

The Istituto Italiano di Cultura Jakarta or Italian Cultural Centre in Jakarta is to be congratulated for its excellent webinar during the corona virus pandemic on wayang beber for there is currently a highly interesting resurgence of wayang beber in Indonesia. In the webinar entitled “Wayang Beber: The Space and Landscape Perspective & the Challenge of Regeneration” held on the 15th of May 2020 the Italian Cultural Institute in Jakarta in collaboration with Universitas Sebelas Maret (UNS) in Solo had two speaker who spoke about this resurgence. One of them Dr Avi Marlina, who heads the Masters’ Program in architecture at UNS has begun a project in Solo to regenerate the art technique of creating wayang beber. 

Dr. Avi Marlina speaking about wayang beber painting. (Photo courtesy of: Dr. Avi Marlina)

Avi Marlina was born in Solo 48 years ago and from a very early age her parents palnted the seeds of an appreciation for culture in her. She already began her training in Javanese dance during kindergarten and continued to practice and perform until she finished secondary school. During her youth she was frequently asked to perform at weddings or at school events. When she went to university she studied architecture and ceased dancing however at the Faculty or Architecture there was a place for cultural and heritage studies which she enthusiastically pursued. 

The research for Avi Marlina’s Master’s thesis was about the Surakarta keraton or palace and the Baluwarti. The word baluwarti comes from the Portuguese word baluarte which means fort. Around the keraton is an inner wall known as the cepuri. After this is the area where the houses of the palace courtiers or retainers are located and which encircle the Keraton and cepuri. This is the Baluwarti and around it are the outer palace walls which look like a fort. These are known as the tembok baluwarti or simply beteng. All the old royal towns of Java had palaces surrounded by forts. In fact the word kota (town) is an old Sanskrit word meaning fort. For her doctoral thesis Avi Marlina continued researching the same subject with special emphasis on the magersari abdi dalem namely a piece of land which the keraton permits a courtier or retainer and their descendants to occupy. So, they do not have a land certificate because ownership of the land remains with the keraton. 

Surakarta keraton wayang beber artist Joko Sriyono and Dr Avi Marlina instructing. (Photo courtesy of: Dr. Avi Marlina)

It was during the course of her research into the keraton and magersari abdi dalem that Avi Marlina discovered the existence of a pesungging wayang beber or wayang beber artist. He is an old man named Joko Sriyono who had learnt the art of painting wayang beber scrolls during his youth. He learnt this traditional royal art form from a very high ranking keraton courtier who did not pass it on to anyone else. Joko Sriyono himself had also not taught anyone else this dying art form. “The artistic style of the royal wayang beber of the Surakarta keraton is quite different from that of the artistic style of the wayang beber in the villages of Gelaran and Pacitan,” declared Avi Marlina. 

Indeed, she was appalled at the thought that this royal wayang beber form of painting of the Surakarta keraton should die out and applied to the Universitas Sebelas Maret for a grant to carry out a program to regenerate the wayang beber art of painting together with Joko Sriyono. Her project began in 2019 by teaching secondary school students in Solo a style of painting that is specific to royal wayang beber. In this way the University acted as the intermediary between Joko Sriyono and Solo secondary school students. 

Solo secondary school students creating a wayang beber painting in the style of the Surakarta keraton. (Photo courtesy of: Dr. Avi Marlina)

However, there was another reason Avi Marlina wished to save the royal wayang beber art form. She wished to support and encourage the court retainers and courtiers living in the Baluwarti, who have been in a difficult position since the internal conflict that ensued within the Surakarta Keraton walls. “They are in fact a veritable warehouse of potential for cultural arts which includes such things as royal dances, ketoprak wayang orang performances, children’s wayang and many other things. So, I asked for funding for three years and now we are preparing our planning for the next 15 years. I would like to transform the Baluwarti into a sort of cultural tourism village. She is in the process of obtaining a legal recognition of the Forum Kampung Wisata Njeran Beteng from the kelurahan or district officer and the Ministry of Law and Human Rights.” 

So, what about the new wayang beber paintings being created by the secondary school students of Solo? Do they stick to traditional subject matter or are innovations permitted? 

Dr Avi Marlina’s reply is, “In the past wayang beber was a ritual performed with incense and offerings in sacred ceremonies. If wayang beber is only kept for such ceremonies then it will not be of interest to our millennials. It was the same with shadow puppets. The situation now is that shadow puppets plays are still being performed in the traditional way but there are also performances with modifications. However, these should always be discussed first with wayang experts i.e. when a performance should perform with the traditional standards and when it may be modified.” 

Ferdinando Dagostino holding a wayang beber. (Photo courtesy of: Ferdinando Dagostino)

Meanwhile, Ferdinando Dagostino from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Social and the Centre Asie du Sud-Est in Paris who has been researching wayang beber since 2014 remarks, “What I love and really attracts me to wayang beber is that now in Indonesia there is a resurgence of the art of wayang beber. In Jakarta for example a wayang beber troop has emerged which calls itself Wayang Beber Metropolitan. It is quite startling because wayang as an art form is not so developed in Jakarta but this wayang beber troop which lives in Depok and performs mostly in Jakarta is contemporary wayang beber or wayang beber kontemporer. They use the traditional technique of wayang beber but have made changes to it. 

Firstly, what is quite revolutionary is that they do not use Javanese but Indonesian for their performances. They look at Indonesia as one country and they would like to bring wayang beber kontemporer to the next level namely, to a national level rather than the regional level it was before. So, that all Indonesians can understand it.” 

Wayang Beber Metropolitan is the case study for Dagostino’s doctoral thesis and he describes how the group have taken a traditional art and added new elements to it. The subject matter of the performance and scroll painting is no longer the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Tales of Prince Panji or other ancient Javanese story. The Wayang Beber Metropolitan has created a new narrative for their wayang beber performances and scroll paintings which encompasses current political and social issues such as corruption for example. 

Dagostino observed, “Another example is how during the corona virus pandemic Wayang Beber Metropolitan did two performances that were live streamed on instagram where COVID-9 and the lockdown were the theme and where they discussed what people needed to do during the pandemic to prevent it from spreading. They tried to help make people aware that they needed to stay at home. Each performance lasted about an hour. They were not the only wayang beber kontemporer troop that created performances around the theme of COVID-19. The Wayang Beber Tani for example also did so.” 

The Wayang Beber Metropolitan performing. (Photo courtesy of: Ferdinando Dagostino)

The second revolutionary thing that Wayang Beber Metropolitan did was to open the medium. So, the music that they use is not only gamelan music but they also use a base guitar and singers in their performances. Also, they created new additions to the medium. They began to use puppets made from re-cycled materials such as broken flipflops or shades together with the scroll paintings in their performances. They also used the gunungan or Maha Meru mountain as well as the kekayon tree of life in their wayang beber performances to indicate different parts of a performance. Traditionally, these were used in wayang kulit or shadow puppet performances. Originally the gunungan or kakayon were also used in the traditional wayang beber but there they were painted on the scroll. The Wayang Beber Metropolitan uses separate puppets for the gunungan or kekayon tree of life. 

Dagostino commented, “I am an anthropologist so I always look at the role of a thing in the community. Traditionally, wayang bebebr had a ritual religious role but was also an art. Now with the wayang beber contemporer that religious role has decreased while its role as a performing art has very much increased in their performances.” 

The members of the Wayang Beber Metropolitan vary in age from roughly 28 years old to about 45 years of age. The dalang or puppet master and also some of the musicians are from Solo but other members originate from different parts of Indonesia and they are musicians, painters and leather workers. They believe very much in ths state motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika or Unity in Diversity which they try to promote in their performances. 

The Wayang Beber Metropolian describe themselves as a bridge to traditional wayang because in the “metropolitan city” of Jakarta wayang is something rare for most youths. They write on their website, “We spend our daily lives in this city with a million activities, a million things always changing, where nothing is certain and where everything becomes relative. So, we try to calm the nervousness we feel at this ceaseless activity in our beloved city by creating a beautiful work of art rather than participating in some anarchical action.” 

Dagostino explains that at first it was startling but also finally moving when he found how open-minded the troop was. “Their productions take inspiration from the traditional but use it as a new medium to try to promote brotherhood, unity, the concept of one nation, freedom of religion and freedom of speech. From a dying art it has become an art that looks at our times.” 

And therein lies wayang beber’s survival and strength for by adapting and changing it has a chance at surviving for any art that is not growing and developing but lies fossilized in a museum is a dying art. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)