The ancient performance art of wayang beber and its resurgence after 300 years, Part I: The history of traditional wayang beber

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18th century Wayang Beber Gelaran: the Competition between Panji Sepuh (left) and Jaya Puspita (right). Source: Kant-Achilles, Wayang Beber. (Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/file:abb68;gelaran)

IO – Wayang beber is the most ancient and least known form of wayang, a form of performance art which usually utilizes puppets. It is different from the other forms of wayang such as wayang kulit (shadow puppets) or wayang golek (three dimensional puppets) in that it consists of paintings of scenes that are scrolled from one side to the other and the performance has only very limited orchestral sound (gamelan) and very little movement as it does not use puppets. Some even question whether wayang beber truly is a performance art or simply art. Wayang beber does however, have a dalang or puppet master who manipulates the scrolls and provides a narrative or story to accompany the scenes. 

On May 15th 2020 the Italian Cultural Institute in Jakarta in collaboration with Universitas Sebelas Maret (UNS) in Solo organized an extremely interesting webinar entitled “Wayang Beber: The Space and Landscape Perspective & the Challenge of Regeneration”. They invited two speakers: Italian anthropologist, Ferdinando Dagostino from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Social and the Centre Asie du Sud-Est in Paris and Dr Avi Marlina, who heads the Masters’ Program in architecture at UNS and has begun a project in Solo to regenerate the art technique of creating wayang beber. Ferdinando Dagostino has been researching wayang beber since 2014 

Ferdinando Dagostino is an Italian anthropologist researching wayang beber. (Photo: Ferdinando Dagostino)

Dagostino perused Indonesian language, culture and social studies in Bogor on a scholarship from the Indonesian government. Later his master thesis at the University of Naples L’Orientale was about wayang kulit or shadow puppets. He first heard of wayang beber when he read about them in an Indonesia wayang encyclodedia. Wayang beber as explained earlier is scroll painting performance art where a large scroll is slowly wound from one roll to another while a dalang (or puppet master) narrates the story and a gamelan plays in the background. 

“The technique of scroll painting theatre also exists in Italy where it is called cantastoria or singing story and in Germany where it is known as die Moritat or murder ballad. These are from the 19th century. Older scroll painting performances exist in Japan and China which are 15th century but these originated from India as did wayang beber. In India it known as patachitra and is still famous in Bengal today. Here unlike wayang beber the scroll is unrolled vertically. It is then performed by the chitrakata or one who plays pictures. In the past they were wandering beggars of low caste who tell stories in front of people’s houses and the stories were linked to religion. They went around with pictures of gods of the Hindu pantheon and told stories about them. One group called yamapathika brought pictures of Yama and told stories about the god of death and hell. People would give them offerings of rice and vegetables as food. These are the oldest examples of scroll painting techniques used to perform narratives. 

Dagostino explained that the oldest recorded mention of something akin to wayang beber is from 934 AD when King Jayabaya of Mamenang in Central Java ordered paintings made of his ancestors on lontar paper and these were used to provide information about his ancestors. At Jayabaya’s time this was not yet wayang beber but a sort of wayang lontar. “According to the Indonesian historian Mulyono in around 1109 AD a dalang (puppete master) began to be used to provide the narrative of the characters on the lontar leaves. In 1223 Raden Panji Kesatriaan is said to have added Kawi poems and gamelan to the ritual. By the time of Prabu Surya Amiluhur (the son of Prince Panji and Princess Candrakirana from the Tales of Panji) the lontar leaves had been replaced by daluwang, a type of paper made from plants with rough texture. 

In the chronicles Babad Tanah Jawi and Serat Kanda the founder of Majapahit was Jaka Sesuruh also known as Prabu Bratana. In 1361 he was said to have asked that the pictures be enlarged to become a long scroll and this then became wayang beber. “So, wayang beber is a term first used during the Majapahit period,” Dagostino explained. “In the beginning wayang beber was used for religious rites of passage and for the ruwatan cleansing ceremonies. It was only later that the performance element came in.” 

Ma Huan or Zongdao was a 15th century Chinese Muslim translator and explorer who accompanied Admiral Cheng Ho or Zheng He on three of his epic Ming treasure voyages to the Western Oceans. He made notes about the places he visited some of which he later published in his book, Yingya Shenglan under his pen name Mountain-woodcutter. Dagostino says that amongst the things he wrote about were the customs in Java including a description of wayang beber performances and the reaction of the audience who were crying, laughing and at times joking indicating how much they were involved in the narrative and ritual. This is the first evidence of wayang beber that has been found from outside of Indonesia and it also shows that wayang beber already existed during the Majapahit period. 

At first during the Majapahit period the wayang beber was still black and white and not in colour and as a ritual it was part of the courtly sacred traditions. Also during the Majapahit period only stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were performed. It was only in 1378 that the figures in the wayang beber began to be coloured and depicted on the paper from the side rather than the front. 

The stories of Prince Panji only appeared in the wayang beber at Majapahit’s peak or just thereafter. After the three wars between Majapahit and Demak (in 1478, 1517 and 1524) Demak came out victorious and as part of the spoils of war apparently, three sets of wayang beber were carried off to Demak and the art of wayang beber moved to Demak. 

Dagostino explained that with Islam came the belief that depicting the human figure was not appropriate and the result was a stylization of the figures in the wayang beber. This first began during the Sultanate of Demak (1475-1554) and was continued under the kingdom of Mataram (1587-1755). It is believed to have begun in 1521 and the Wali Songo were thought to have been involved in propagating such a stylization which also appears in wayang kulit, wayang golek (wayang puppets) and even batik. In the act of the symbolization of the human figure, the characters arms both in wayang beber and wayang kulit became very long and the figures took on strange perspectives. They are actually seen in profile but both eyes and both cheek bones of a character are visible. 

Wayang beber reached the hight of its popularity by 1561. “After this the tradition of wayang beber slowly went into a decline,” remarked Dagostino. “Slowly wayang kulit took over especially during ruwetan ceremonies. Wayang beber almost died out as a performing art. For the last 300 years, there have been very few traditional wayang beber performances.” 

A Wayang Beber Gelaran performance in 1902 at the house of Dr Wahidin Soedirohoesodo (right) in Jogjakarta with Dr G.A. J. Hazeu a scholar of Javanese culture (centre) and the dalang, Gayakarya (left). (Photo: Photographer Kassian Cephas/ Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden/ Wikimedia Commons)

The first professional Indonesian photographer Kassian Cephas documented a rare wayang beber performance in 1902 in Jogjakarta at the house of Dr Wahidin Soedirohoesodo, the first leader of the Budi Utomo movement. The owner and dalang, Gunakarya was from the village of Gelaran. In the photograph is also Dr G.A. J. Hazeu a scholar of Javanese culture from Leiden who researched wayang and who later wrote a description of the performance. 

The exception to this decline, are two villages located in the border areas between East and Central Java. They have each preserved ancient wayang beber scrolls. They each also continue to create wayang beber scrolls in the traditional manner and occasionally hold performances in their villages. Dagostino says, “The first is the village of Gelaran (it is located in the Wonosari district of the the Gunung Kidul area of Jogjakarta) in Central Java. Its wayang beber is known as Wayang Beber Gelaran or Wayang Beber Wonosari. Gelaran means ‘folds’ but so far I have not found any documented evidence that the word relates to wayang beber. The wayang beber scroll in Gelaran is from 1735 and consists of a complete collection of 8 scrolls. Four of the scrolls depict the story of Panji Ki Remeng Mangunjaya who lived during the rule of Sunan Pakubuwono II. The remaining four contain other stories about Joko Tarub, Syekh Bakir and so on but the last four scrolls may not be seen by anyone.” 

Wayang beber at the Mangkunegaran palace. (Photo: Gunawan Kartapranata/ https://commons. wikimedia.org/wiki/file: wayang_beber_opened)

Once Prince Mangkunegara VII tried to buy the wayang beber set but the village refused to sell it as it is a sacred heirloom from their ancestors. So, in 1939 Prince Mangkunegara VII ordered a reproduction of the wayang beber depicting the story of Jaka Kembang Kuning and in 1941 he ordered another depicting the story of Panji Ki Remeng Mangunjaya. In 1940 he instructed the creation of a new wayang beber called Arjuna Wiwaha with 20 scenes but the War intervened and only 11 scenes were finished and these have never been performed. 

The second place to have a traditional wayang beber from 1690 is the village of Karangtalun in the Gedompol district in the regency of Pacitan in The wayang beber tells one of the stories in the Tales of Prince Panji namely the story of Jaka Kembang Kuning. This is why it is called Wayang Beber Pacitan or Wayang Beber Gedompol or Wayang Beber Jaka Kembang Kuning. The set consists of 6 scrolls which each contain 4 scenes consisting of 24 scenes altogether. However, scene number 24 which is considered scared may never be shown. 

Wayang beber Gedompol:Princess Sekar Taji, mbok Kili (left) and Ganda Ripa or Princess Panji (right) in the palace in Kediri. Author unknown. Source: Kant-Achilles, Wayang Beber. (Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/file:abb36,gedompo)

It is possible to still see performances of reproductions of those wayang beber scrolls, today. The original wayang beber scrolls of the two villages are very, very rarely used in performances. This is in part because they are in a very fragile condition with damage in some parts that have never been restored. Partly, it is also because they are considered sacred ancestral relics or heirlooms and objects of devotion especially in the two villages. Dagostino describes how, “Once a year in Galeran there is a performance with the original wayang beber scrolls in a ruwetan ceremony to cleanse the village but only villagers may witness it. So, it is a closed circle of people who may attend. In Gedompol it is very rarely that the original scrolls of the Wayang Beber Jaka Kembang Kuning may be seen or used in a performance. I think it is probably even more difficult to see such a performance or ritual. 

In Leiden there is a set of wayang beber scrolls but it is not known from where they originate. They are in the style of the Gelaran wayang beber. Most of the wayan beber scrolls in museums or keratons or courts are reproductions and not ancient scrolls of traditional wayang beber. 

There are differences between the two wayang beber styles. The painting style of the Gelaran Wayang Beber is plainer and has some empty spaces. The paintings seem divided into upper, middle and lower levels. The backgrounds of the Pacitan Wayang Beber meanwhile, are full of decorative motifs. Almost as if the artist were afraid of leaving empty spaces. Like the wayang kulit which has the gunungan or holy mountain to depict the end and the beginning of the performance as well as change of scenes the wayang beber also has a gunungan or kekayon in it for the same purpose. The gunungan is the Maha Meru Mountain which is the abode of the Hindu gods whereas the kekayon symbolizes the tree of life. In fact the two are the same. The triangular shape of the mountain can also be seen as the tree of life. Trees and mountains are the link between heaven and earth, this world and the other world to come. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)