Grassroots theatre rising again in East Java © Duncan Graham 2007
Organizers reckoned around half a million people attended this year’s five-day Malang Festival – a marvelous annual free event staged in the East Java city's elegant boulevard – Jalan Ijen.
Official participants and many onlookers wore period costumes; favorites were the floppy light khaki of the 1945 Revolutionaries and the pith helmets and twirly mustaches of the Colonialists.
The mood was nationalistic, fun and upbeat. The crowds were enthusiastic about the huge blow-ups of old time photos that lined the street – their genuine interest proving history is not bunk.
Overwhelmingly popular were the ludruk (grassroots theatre) shows, coarse, traditional, improvised knockabout music-hall style performances with men and transsexuals playing the roles of women to the clang of gamelan. The language was low Javanese and the huge crowds loved it, particularly the rude words.
Before television spread to the towns and villages ludruk artists could be found almost everywhere. According to one researcher, by 1965 there were 40 times more dramatic groups in Java than in the US.
Ludruk producer, Henri Supriyanto a lecturer in culture and art at UNESA, the State University of Surabaya, said: "Ludruk is the theatre of the poor. It's a political movement.” Other academics have described it more formally as theatre that 'amplifies and highlights issues of social importance drawn from everyday life.'
Founding 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, and then suppressed.
A crowd favorite at the Malang shows was East Java singer Kadam a long-time performer who became famous under the patronage of Soekarno where the vocalist with an extraordinary range became a court favorite.
Nicknamed 'Golden Voice', Kadam first met Soekarno at the Presidential Palace in 1960. At that time the 17-year old was a member of a ludruk group from Surabaya invited to perform in Jakarta.
"He took a real liking to me and I returned to the palace and his home in Bogor 13 times," Kadam, 64, said at his home in Malang. "He even picked me up because I was very small, and always waited for us to change after our performances so he could chat to us.
"I was never frightened of him because he treated everyone as equal. He didn't discriminate between high and low. He felt he was in touch with the village people – and he was.
"He was a teacher. He hadn't come from a business background. Unlike other leaders he never forgot his roots. What he said was in his heart and people understood that.
"He was a most exceptional person. There has never been anyone like him. I feel that God has accepted his soul."
Kadam said he earned enough money during the ludruk heydays to buy land and help him survive when the shows fell out of favor.
The Jakarta Post went backstage (meaning behind sheets of ripped plastic and rusty corrugated iron). We watched the players preparing to set the audience roaring with delight at the slapstick routines, songs and robust social comment on everything from the Lapindo mud volcano to politicians' behavior.
The actors had to improvise, do their own makeup while catching the director's orders, rehearse lines, calm nerves, fix their outrageous costumes and boost each other's egos – and all for Rp 30,000 (US $3.50) a night.
Maybe it was like this in Elizabethan England when Shakespeare's plays were performed in a similarly rugged environment by people who wanted to act – not for gain and glamour – but because the stage is their world.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 2 November 07)