Achmad Djoko Santoso
Prescription for calm
How’s a body supposed to settle after a tough day slicing cadavers? For one anatomist playing the gender (a type of metallophone) helps release the mind from the gross physical encounters.
Fair enough. People whose job puts them in touch with the dead are entitled to a little eccentricity. But how about recovering after stressful sessions treating patients with poorly articulated symptoms?
Singing a revolutionary song from the war against the Dutch, of course. This tells the story of local sympathisers hiding and feeding guerrilla fighters in the forest.
Then there’s the unwinding following the delivery of heavy duty lectures before the sharp minds of a demanding new generation of university students. A session at the kelir, the white screen where the puppets perform is prescribed.
Dr Achmad Djoko Santoso is a polymath who humbles those who can only tap keyboards. He’s equally at ease peering through microscopes at human tissue in Brawijaya University’s medical school laboratory, as he is on the stage with a gamelan orchestra where he takes many parts, including singing in Javanese.
“Every sound in the gamelan has a meaning, a philosophy,” he said at his home in the East Java hilltown of Batu.
“I don’t mean that this applies solely in Java – it’s universal. When we listen to the gamelan we begin to feel content. When I play I feel peaceful.
“Rice is for the body, but music is for the heart, the soul. We relax and the problems of the day start to fade. I tell this to my students as a prologue to lectures
“Music can heal. Sometimes I recommend it to my patients. (He also runs an early-morning and evening general practice from his home surgery). Occasionally they’re surprised because they expect a prescription for pills, though most know my treatments. I often sing to children as I examine their complaints.”
Like Prince Charles he plays music to his flowers and has a lush garden to prove either the effectiveness of the therapy or the fertility of the volcanic soils. Unfortunately his aged apple trees look terminally sick.
Dr Djoko used to be known as ‘Five Ds’. Apart from being a lecturer (dosen), a doctor and a puppet master (dalang) he was also a politician - a member of the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Daerah (Regional Assembly) and a Dewan Pimpinan Cabang, the local Golkar party leader.
Now 63, he concentrates on music and medicine and sees the two as intertwined.
“A doctor can get close to the community,” he said. “I became interested in anatomy because it’s the basis of all medicine.
”My speciality is micro-anatomy. This helps towards an understanding of the wider world. It relates to my music because a dalang is supposed to be knowledgeable. When I see blood I remember the red of the gamelan.”
Dr Djoko grew up in the small settlement of Jemekan near the East Java city of Kediri where his parents were farmers. Before television and the Internet the people made their own entertainment centered around the night-time shows of wayang kulit (shadow puppets).
His dalang grandfather lived next door so the young boy was raised in an environment of pure Javanese song and sound, undiluted by outside influences.
He was the eighth of nine children, and the first person from his village to enter university. Now 15 members of his extended family have received a tertiary education, with several becoming doctors.
At the end of his long garage is a set of gamelan instruments and a wide, white screen. Here the magic unfolds. The puppets dance and proclaim, attack and retreat. The street noise disappears. The flat characters become rounded; like humans they are flawed and heroic, steadfast or wicked.
Performances with Dr Djoko’s friends are usually held on kliwon, the last day of the Javanese week. At Brawijaya University he’s helped form three gamelan groups though the campus doesn’t have a music department. They play at formal events.
The preparation includes donning a songkok, the Javanese batik headdress, then a black jacket and sarong. Finally he thrusts a sheathed and heavily gilded kris (dagger) in the waistband. Then all is ready.
Of the many wayang characters in the epic Ramayana, Dr Djoko relates best to Hanuman, the white monkey king. He leads the army that helps Prince Rama rescue his bride Sita from the ten-headed demon, King Rawana.
“I identify with Hanuman because he is always hungry for knowledge,” Dr Djoko said. “Although he’s an animal he behaves better than humans.”
He’s also involved with ludruk, the indigenous knockabout street theater, often peppered with political satire and men dressed as women.
“I love my nation and my people, but I have to struggle for my culture,” Dr Djoko said. Although he insisted on being interviewed in Indonesian he soon lapsed into English picked up through studies abroad, including Australia.
He also relaxed with the Western pop song ‘I can’t stop loving you’. Though no Ray Charles, his voice is a soft and pleasing baritone.
This was followed by an English commentary as puppets representing Australia and Indonesia flicked across the screen then clashed. You already know the result, but the doctor is more teasing imp than nationalistic ogre. He now believes that the best way for the gamelan to survive is to synthesise with modern music.
“OK, I’m Javanese, you’re londo (a foreigner), yet we’re the same” he said. “Maybe I’m multicultural.”
Which is logical, for a dalang can’t be locked in a cage of ideology. Some dictionaries define the word as mastermind. He has to be versatile, a sage of many parts, philosopher, story-teller and improviser. Leadership skills and credibility are critical.
Confuse the wayang characters and there goes the reputation, for there’s bound to be an iconoclast in the audience.
“The wayang is a synthesis of Indonesian and Hindu culture,” said Dr Djoko as he pegged the puppets back in their places. “It brings harmony and peace. Isn’t that what the world wants?”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 9 September 2013)