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, April 02, 2012


Masking Culture

Psst! Feel like a shot of East Java culture laced with local flavors? Not interested? Aduh! OK, how about an international poetry festival?

Tell you what, give it a go and you can have both for the price of one. In fact, we can do better and make it all free. That’s an offer no-one could refuse.

On Saturday 7 April three busses will leave the central East Java city of Malang and head for Tumpang, about 20 kilometers distant, on the slopes of smoking Mount Semeru, Java’s highest mountain.

Here the travelers will be the first to see the performance of a new mask play devised by author and artist Bambang Adrian Wenzel (pictured above) and his friend, dalang (puppet master) Soleh Adi Pramono.

The play is called Kunjoro Karno, and it will be staged on the remains of Candi (temple) Jajaghu, also known as Jago.

Jajaghu is believed to have been built in the mid to late 13th century, probably to contain the ashes of Wisnuwardhana, the fourth king of Singosari during Java’s Hindu-Buddhist period. The carvings appear to depict scenes from the epic play The Mahabharata, and are the source material for the mask theater.

The Mahabharata originated in India. The stories were composed about 3,300 years ago and later absorbed into Indonesian culture.

Sadly the temple is in poor condition. Many treasures have been plundered or mutilated and the weather has savaged what the vandals have overlooked. It’s officially protected. This means the site has been ringed with ugly fences, but it also has well-manicured lawns.

Ignore the modern additions and you’ll find Jajaghu retains a powerful sense of pre-Islamic culture that Bambang hopes will be revealed to a sensitive audience.

He has been visiting the temple regularly during the past six months sketching many of the figures and researching the stonework scenes that will form the play.

“The performance will be mid-afternoon when the light is right and people can take photos,” Bambang said. “There’ll be no artificial lighting and the only sound system will be the dalang’s microphone. About 15 people will be taking part.

“We’ll also have a gamelan orchestra. I want people to get a sense of the past and the rich, but little known culture of East Java through tari topeng (mask dances).”

East Java’s mask tradition goes back at least 1,000 years. Written records are few. There are variations in stories and dances from district to district. This is not a situation where you can retreat to the original text for reassurance.

The ancient stories, which were performed in wayang kulit (shadow puppet plays) as well as tari topeng, became popular during the Majapahit Era (14th century), the so-called Golden Age of Java.

When Islam gained ascendancy the remnants of the Hindu families moved to Bali, which they already ruled. With them went most of the dances – and masks. But pockets of the old culture remained in East Java. The stories were embellished and took on local flavors.

Genuine masks are made from a local softwood using hand tools. As the mask was carved, so the history of the craft and the stories were slowly worked into the wood by hand. The mask really becomes the character in the hands of the dancer.

Few centers in Java apart from Yogya have enough overseas visitors to support cultural events and pay the artists. This is particularly so in East Java, despite a wealth of attractions.

The upside is that places like Tumpang haven’t become tourist sinkholes with hustlers hawking overpriced plastic imitations of hand-made artifacts.

Unlike the original performances that often lasted all night, Kunjoro Karno will take less than 90 minutes. Audiences will get the chance to buy local foods and ride in dokar, the pony traps used for public transport.

Bambang hopes the Saturday afternoon performances (free entry during the first three months) will become a regular event, drawing visitors.

He’s not just referring to foreigners. Young Indonesians often shun the traditional arts in favor of Western-entertainment. The shorter, more modern performances may help revive interest.

Certainly the first audience should be appreciative and enthusiastic, mainly artists involved in the four-day International Celaket Cross-Cultural Festival. These are the people who will be bussed to Tumpang.

After the Tumpang event poetry readings (with translations), music and dance will be held in three locations in central Malang, in the kampong just off the main road to Surabaya.

“We chose these streets because we want to take cultural performances out of the big halls where the elite go, and give access to the arts to ordinary people in the places where they live,” Bambang said.

“Celaket was one of the first kampong built in the centre of Malang. Celak is Javanese for being close. There’ll be translations of poems that aren’t spoken in Indonesian.”

The event is part of another festival, the peripatetic Second International Poetry Festival (the first was ten years ago) that will run from 1 to 13 April in Magelang and Pekalongan (both in Central Java), then Surabaya and Malang.

Apart from the street shows 30 Indonesian poets and 17 from 11 overseas countries will take part in performances and workshops at the State Islamic University. Other sponsors could not be found.

“If it had been a pop music festival we might have had more luck,” said organizing secretary Aga Herman ruefully, tearing up his projected Rp 600 million (US$ 68,000) budget.

So the visitors will be paying their own fares and won’t get performance fees – but will be given accommodation. The Malang students, academics and artists making it happen are all volunteers, determined to maintain East Java culture and make it accessible to the world, even when corporations and governments are indifferent.

The festival theme is: ‘What’s Poetry?’ Here’s one answer: ‘The expressions of people who care’.

(First published in The Sunday Post 1 April 2012)


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