The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, March 13, 2006


THE MEN BEHIND THE MASK © Duncan Graham 2006

In many other countries they’d be living out their lives on a state pension, the happy recipients of a grateful society that recognises their contribution to the nation.

But Sutrisno and Gimun aren’t former politicians or generals. They’re just two old men living in central East Java who have to survive on their memories as artists.

When they pass away so may the special talents they once employed to the delight and wonder of so many.

For Sutrisno, 71, was a carver of wooden masks before he suffered a stroke two years ago. Gimun, 80, was the dancer in the traditional tari topeng (masked dance theatre) from Kediri that is now seldom seen.

These custodians of culture learned their skills as pre-teenagers at the feet of another artist, Kasimun, who died in 1968. The main chance of the two men’s knowledge surviving lie with Sutrisno’s 12-year old son Tri Ganjar Wicaksono. He’s been sent to Solo in Central Java to learn Javanese culture in the hope that he may become a dalang (narrator) in puppet plays.

The old men live in Tumpang, a village near Malang where they are supported by their families.

“We’re really both farmers who were taught how to carve and dance by a very special man,” said Sutrisno.

“In the past our skills were much in demand, but television has become the favoured entertainment. Now the money isn’t available to sponsor performances and not too many people are interested in the old dances and stories.”

Karen Elizabeth Sekararum agrees. She’s the American-born managing director of the Mangun Dharma Art Centre in Tumpang which she runs with her Indonesian husband M Soleh Adi Pramono.

The centre includes a substantial open pavilion with a gamelan orchestra and many fine examples of East Java carvings.

Ibu Karen is an anthropologist and University of Wisconsin graduate who came to Indonesia to study theatre 15 years ago and stayed. She is now fluent in Indonesian and Javanese. She dances and is an accomplished pesinden (a woman who sings with a gamelan orchestra.)

“Pak Sutrisno was skilled in putting expressions into the masks he carved,” she said. “You can’t fake the traditional styles.

“People have lost their interest in sitting around for hours to watch traditional arts and the demand for performances at weddings and other gatherings has dropped off.

“But Mangun Dharma is determined to preserve the culture and we’ll custom-make a performance to suit anyone. We also teach and have foreign students here to learn the crafts.”

The topeng tradition goes back at least 1,000 years. Although a few tales written on palm leaves (lontar) have survived, written records are few. Javanese is essentially an oral culture with variations in stories and dances from district to district. This is not a theatre form where you can go back to the original text.

Tari Topeng can be found throughout Java and Bali where it is now performed for tourists. But few places in Java apart from Yogya have enough overseas visitors to support cultural events and pay the artists. This is particularly so in East Java which has not been well promoted as a tourist destination, despite a wealth of attractions, including Mangun Dharma.

About 900 years ago Kediri, a former Hindu kingdom and now a major agricultural city south west of Surabaya, was the centre of Javanese literature. This was during the rein of Joyoboyo. His name is widely recognised in Indonesia through his prophecies that the archipelago would be ruled by a white race, then briefly by a yellow before achieving independence.

Because there is so much variety and local interpretations of Javanese theatre it’s difficult to generalise. In some dance versions (like those performed by Gimun) up to 40 different characters were portrayed – and all by the one actor.

The plot was usually recounted off stage by the dalang.

Ability to remember the lines, use the right mask and the correct hand movements meant this was a role for no ordinary artists. Some stories are in prose, others in verse. The dalang also has to be a linguist because there are regional differences in Javanese. Not having a list of stage directions also compounds the task.

Endurance is another requirement as performances often run for much of the night. However not all plays were formal events. Roving buskers also used the mask dances to make a living around market places.

The Kediri plays were linked to the Panji story cycle that originated in Java. Others derive from the great Indian classics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana. They were composed about 3,300 years ago and were long ago absorbed into Indonesian culture.

The Panji stories were so popular they were even exported to Thailand. They involve four kingdoms and feuding families. In the best traditions of epic literature there are great wars and awesome obstacles to be overcome before the star-crossed lovers are reunited to live happily ever after.

Comic characters, sinister plotters, deceived lovers, just regents, flawed rulers and brave suitors come alive with the masks. They encounter curious events, enduring passions, mind-stretching coincidences and help from the afterlife.

Legends and real historical events get inextricably mixed. Just like the plays of Shakespeare. Or as they say in Hollywood: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy finds girl again.

The masks reflect the characters. The grotesque are kasar, coarse and cruel. The nobles, with their elongated features, are halus, refined.

It is believed that the Panji stories, which were performed in wayang kulit (shadow puppets) as well as tari topeng, became popular during the Majapahit Era, the so-called Golden Age of Java.

When Islam gained ascendancy in Java the remnants of the Hindu families moved to Bali, which they already ruled. With them went the dances – and topeng. The stories were embellished and took on local flavours.

Masks now on sale in tourist shops are sometimes mass-produced and can even be found manufactured from hard plastic – with price tags of Rp 600,000 or more. The authentic versions, which are carved at Mangun Dharma, start at a quarter of that price.

Not surprisingly the counterfeits get short shrift from Sutrisno who carved his masks from wood cut from the local nyampoh tree using a set of hand tools. These are kept in a little decorated wooden trunk that is now seldom opened.

As the mask was carved, so the history of the craft and the 1000-year-old story were slowly worked into the wood by hand. The topeng really becomes the character in the hands of the dancer.

Try doing that with a production line mask gouged and cut by electric tools in a factory. The mask you bought in a souvenir shop and which hangs in your lounge is not the crafted artefact carved from timber cut from the living tree.

The real thing isn’t a talking point on the feature wall. It talks the language of centuries past and a threatened culture.

(For more details of Mangun Dharma see
Gunung Tabor, a nearby retreat and hotel with pool and restaurant caters for locals and foreigners, and offers an alternative route to Mount Bromo. Phone: 0341 787 711)

(First published in Jakarta Kini March 2006)


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