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

Wednesday, May 02, 2007



Henri Supriyanto is lucky to have escaped jail when a young man.

Not because he was a thief, killer or corruptor. He's a man of culture, not criminal intent.

Back in 1965 when he was 22, a failed coup d'etat allegedly engineered by communists resulted in the installation of General Soeharto as head of government. Tense times; anyone who might have been remotely associated with dissent that could be labeled communist was open to arrest.

Henri's crime was to be involved with ludruk, the East Javanese improvised theatre of, for and by the people that offered raw social comment disguised as comedy.

Henri escaped the military crackdown. He thinks this was because he's a Catholic and the church was considered firmly anti-communist.

In the pre-TV days ludruk was enormously popular. According to one researcher, before the coup there were 40 times more dramatic groups in Java than in the US.

First president Soekarno was a fan and reportedly hosted 17 performances at his Bogor palace. But Soeharto's New Order government was intolerant of criticism. At first ludruk was controlled, then suppressed.

Those who survived the censors are now trying to make a comeback. Henri, a lecturer in culture and art at UNESA, the State University of Surabaya, together with other lovers of ludruk have set up a cultural center and 3,000 book library in the village of Mangliawan Pakis outside Malang.

Pictures of a determined Soekarno in full rhetorical flight stare down from the walls. There are no portraits of his successor – but why bother? Henri looks a lot like the Republic's second president in his younger days – an observation neither man would find pleasing.

Why wasn't the center established at a university where all could get easy access? "There's no love of culture on campus," Henri said. "And we haven't received any government money; they don't like culture either.

"Ludruk is the theatre of the poor. It's a political movement. Students and academics are now only interested in status and money. They think I'm crazy because I don't have a car. I use my money to buy books."

But today's uni students are from a generation with no personal experience of life before television. Easier to express yourself to a wider audience in an Internet chat-room than staying up half the night in a fug of kretek (clove cigarette) smoke trying to decode ludruk.

Early next month in Malang some of the 15 troupes in the region will be performing stories based on the Lapindo mud volcano saga that has flooded villages, farms and factories at Sidoarjo, displacing more than 15,000 people.

The shows are likely to be scathing, even rude, for ludruk is grassroots protest theatre featuring clowns and transvestites. In the words of one academic ludruk 'amplifies and highlights issues of social importance drawn from everyday life.'

Henri has an important university position and knows all the Western theories of social communication and economics. He can talk about the 'proletariat' and 'hegemony' without batting a left eyelid, unconcerned that in the West these words have passed their use-by date.

He's also written scholarly books on ludruk. But his interest is more than academic.

"I came from a poor farming family with twelve children," he said. "As an 11-year old I used to go to ludruk performances to sell snacks.

"When all the food had gone I stayed to watch. Shows could run for up to eight hours. I noticed these were community events where people used the opportunity to get out of their houses and mix with neighbors.

"At the same time the performances gave people the chance to express themselves and their common concerns. The dialogue was two-way, unlike television which is unidirectional, from the top down and straight into the home where it's watched in private."

Ludruk never entirely died during the Soeharto era but retreated to distant villages. Its messages of social concern and criticism of authority were heavily muted. Bureaucrats tried to use it for government directives on development. When that didn't work television was employed using the Palapa satellite that could reach every nook of the archipelago with propaganda from Jakarta.

Henri put himself through university by selling newspapers and working as a reporter. Later he became a lecturer and, of course, a ludruk performer. The Latin motto ora et labora (pray and work) hammered home during his Catholic schooldays became his personal philosophy.

"I was never afraid to work hard," he said. "No, I wasn't a communist. I was and am a nationalist.

"I came from a farming background, though my father didn't own land. I realized that being a farmer was very difficult and I had to make my own way.

"I've never forgotten my roots. I've always been on the side of the little people and supported their struggle. There is still a longing for ludruk in the villages. It creates togetherness.

"I'm very proud of our local culture and believe it should be exported. We are losing out in the race to be educated and knowledgeable to the Japanese and Koreans because we are not reading and learning and doing."



If you're a foreigner keen to see a performance of ludruk, best go along with a knowledgeable local, preferably someone from East Java.

Being fluent in formal Indonesian will be of little help for performances are usually in a mix of low Javanese, Madurese and slang.

You'll also need a broad mind and be aware of the complex and suggestive metaphors used. For example, comments about the narrow leaves from a particular tree are references to young women because they're shaped like female genitalia.

Ludruk is ironic and iconoclastic, a useful social release in a society where leaders are supposed to be revered and disruptive comment has to be suppressed. However the clown character can say the outrageous things people are thinking because he's not held responsible for his comments.

In the past village shows ran all night. Now performers are aware that attention spans of modern audiences are limited so the plays are often contracted to one or two hours.

All parts used to be played by men, but women are now involved, sometimes taking male roles with penciled-in moustaches.

Many authorities claim ludruk started in the 1920s and was linked to the revolutionary movement. The Dutch authorities gave it little attention, probably because they couldn't understand what was going on and we more concerned with written forms of dissent.

Others believe ludruk goes back to the strolling players of the Majapahit era 700 years ago, and developed in the triangle between Surabaya, Malang and Jombang.

Henri thinks it originated in this fertile agricultural zone because there was no keraton (palace) culture to influence theatre and impose a hierarchy as in Yogya (Central Java).

(First published in The Jakarta Post 23 April 07)


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