THE MAN WITH MANY FACES © Duncan Graham 2006
About six years ago Swarsito realised his life wasn’t going anywhere. He worked in the East Java town of Malang as a builder’s labourer – a job with more applicants than opportunities.
There was also the problem of physical strength. He’s a light, elfin-like figure, not a hulk. Hauling bricks and mixing concrete requires brawn, not brains.
For a while he tried selling fruit, which was equally unprofitable, particularly when the produce matured faster than the arrival of buyers.
That didn’t bring in enough cash and his wife Sutami was pregnant again. (The couple now have ten children.) A follower of Javanese mysticism he meditated regularly. But in the search for answers to his big questions about finding work and maintaining his family a higher involvement was required. So he spent a week meditating atop Mt Arjuno. This is the 3339-metre peak south of Surabaya.
His faith was soon rewarded. To pass the time while waiting for customers for his fruit stall back in Malang he started carving faces into the hardened crusts of rotten fruit.
Then it occurred to him that wood would make a more lasting medium. Talents he never knew he had began to develop under the blade of his pocketknife. Here was a chance to explore his creativity. He bought more tools to gouge, chip and smooth, paint to fill in the features of the characters he knew so well from the traditional Javanese Panji stories.
A few people liked his work – including a dean at Malang’s University of Brawijaya. He introduced his friends. Some were foreigners. Sales grew. His work has been exported to Belgium, Holland and Australia – but most trade is done from a roadside stall.
He also discovered another gift; he was a paranormal. In the masks he made for dancers he was able to call in the spirits, good or bad according to the mythological figures they portrayed.
He changed his name to Tito, gathered some artists and started a dance troupe called Kepang Budaya Malang (Malang Cultural and Spiritual Group) which stages shows three or four times a month. Its repertoire includes a fire-eater, acrobats, singers, a band, mask dancers – and horse trance dancers.
This is not the refined tourist experience which can be found in Bali. Cultural purists in East Java heap contempt on kuda lumping (Horse trance dance) for its coarse movements, brutality and the fighting in the audience that sometimes follows.
When the spirit enters the dancer through smoke or having incantations whispered in his ear, he experiences spasms and goes rigid.
When his limbs eventually relax he’s a horse. He eats grass or grain, gets whipped by his trainer and prances around the performance area. Some dancers are so convincing the crowd gets frightened and fears infection by the spirit.
Release can come only through a reversal of the infusion.
Tito, 52, spoke to The Jakarta Post in his tiny house deep in a Malang kampung where he and his sons turn slabs of wood into strange and contorted faces. In a curtained niche are racks of masks, grotesque and benign, huge and complex, tiny and neat – all used in the performances.
Is it difficult to find the right wood?
No. I get mine from Mount Arjuno. The problem is getting the cow tails (used for the hair on some masks). The abattoirs sell to the big buyers who take two tonnes at a time.
Why do you think you’ve been successful?
Because the God told me to work with wood. He is wise and fair and gave me talent. I seek guidance from God. Before this I was just a coolie.
You follow Kebatinan which is not an approved religion. Is that a problem?
No worries. I’m a Muslim on my KTP (identity card).
Why did you change your name?
To make it shorter and easier to remember. But I’m not a harsh man like the former president of Yugoslavia!
Is there black magic in your masks?
It’s very easy for me to do that, so I ask buyers what they want. If they’re going to use the mask for their collection, to hang on the wall, then there’s no black magic. .
If I sell to a performer that’s different. But at the end of the show they have to pray and send the spirit back to the compass point where it came from.
One of my sons can do this too – he’s got the gift. I can’t put spirits into animals, only masks
Are the spirits good or bad?
That depends on who you are.
Can women meditate and also get these gifts?
Yes, they can.
If I pay you, will you curse my enemies and those who do me wrong?
I only want to do good. If you ask me for help in getting a soul mate I can do that. But I won’t help you get a divorce.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 July 06)