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

Saturday, May 06, 2006



Has television murdered indigenous culture? Have the daily demands of job and family, maintaining mortgages and keeping ahead of the bank devoured the time once spent relaxing and creating?

Before John Logie Baird’s invention changed the planet forever the people of Java watched a big white screen backlit by flickering oil lamps. Across this canvas jerked the phantom characters of ancient dramas, their adventures told by the dalang (puppet master).

A wayang kulit (two-dimensional puppets made of animal skin) performance can be taxing indeed – on the imagination and bottom. Some start in the early evening and go on to daybreak. Seating is often basic, like the technology. No computer graphics to numb the brain.

Better to stay on the sofa and doze off on a dose of cathode rays.

That’s the theory behind the demise of Javanese culture but not all are giving in. One of the more resilient - and most unlikely custodians - is Karen Elizabeth Sekararum.

She’s the American-born managing director of the Mangun Dharma Art Centre in Tumpang. This is a village about two hours south of Surabaya. It lies on the western slopes of a cluster of volcanoes known as Pegunungan Tengger.

The art centre opened in 1989. It’s run by Karen with her Indonesian husband M Soleh Adi Pramono. It includes a substantial open pavilion (pendopo) with a gamelan orchestra and many fine examples of East Java carvings.

Karen is an anthropologist and University of Wisconsin graduate who came to Indonesia to study theatre 17 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.)

You can see her and others perform in Surabaya at the Taman Budaya (Cultural Centre) on 19 May as part of a performance schedule for winners of the young dalang competition that started two years ago.

“In the past our skills were much in demand, but television has become the favoured entertainment,” she said. “Now the money isn’t available for sponsorship. Few people are interested in the old dances and stories.

“The demand for performances at weddings and other gatherings has also 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, including tari topeng.”

The tari topeng (masked dance) 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.

Because there’s so much variety and local interpretations of Javanese theatre it’s difficult to generalise. In some dance versions up to 40 different characters are portrayed – and all by the one actor.

The complex plot is usually recounted off stage by the dalang.

Ability to remember the lines, use the right mask and the correct hand movements mean this is a role for no ordinary artist. 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.

It’s believed that the Panji story cycle that originated in Java (as opposed to the Mahabharata which came from India) was performed in wayang kulit as well as tari topeng. It became popular during the Majapahit Era, the so-called Golden Age of Java about 700 years ago.

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.

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.

If you’ve sat through Gilbert and Sullivan and suspended judgement on plot and logic then you can cope with Javanese art.

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 Mangun Dharma’s carvers. They use wood cut from the local nyampoh tree using a set of hand tools.

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

“Because the traditional arts in Java are integral to the well-being of the community they have to reflect the changes in the artist’s world,” said Karen.

“The Mangun Dharma Arts Centre exists to reinforce the sense of identity that grows from the act of making art. We want to give the arts back to the community at the local and international level.”

(For more details see

(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 May 06)


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