Maskmen of the Mountain
The slopes of Mount Semeru, Java’s highest peak, are the haunting grounds of many princesses. Battles, intrigues and other strange things have happened on these uplands in central East Java.
At one time local people borrowed – or stole – the rope supporting a magic gamelan gong. The cord had been made from the root of a plant and had to be returned for the performances to continue.
The object was recovered, though the story doesn’t say how. If it hadn’t, would the mountain have exploded?
“When that happens it will be the end of the tari topeng [mask dance] traditions of Malang,” said cultural custodian Ki Soleh Adi Pramono. (Above) He’s made the tough climb to the barren, rock-strewn summit once, and to the slopes and lakes below several times.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen, although it constantly belches smoke.” The mountain is an active volcano and often puffs like a steam train. Also known as Mahameru [the Great Mountain] Semeru is part of Hindu-Buddhist cosmology and an abode of the Hindu deity Shiva.
Soleh won’t be lacing his climbing boots any day soon following a stay in hospital with stomach problems. Nor is he likely to be dancing for a while as the 64-year old multiskilled performer recovers.
However he’s still able to drum in the gamelan orchestra, flick and swirl the two-dimensional figures as a dalang [producer and director in wayang kulit shadow puppet] performances. His more sedentary choice is to carve masks.
Given the choice Soleh prefers mahogany from the island of Madura off the north coast of East Java, otherwise he settles for the local timbers. Some techniques are traditional – four fingers laid horizontally determine the distance from chin to nose, three to forehead and two to the crown.
Inevitably modern technology has crept into the process. Soleh’s toolkit includes a builder’s tape measure and a pair of compasses to balance the eyes.
“Malang’s masks and dances are quite separate from those of Solo and Yogjakarta in Central Java, and that’s not well known,” Soleh said at his workshop in the Mangun Dharma Art Center at Tulus Besar near Tumpang village 25 kilometers east of Malang.
“Fortunately the culture is returning, and that’s thanks to television programs about the old Javanese kingdoms. This is a turn around from a few years ago when TV was destroying our culture with imported programs and Western themes. Now I’m getting plenty of pupils.”
Including some from overseas, mainly ethnomusicologists and other academics keen to study the ancient arts of East Java. As with so much Indonesian traditional culture, the origins are obscure for written records are rare. As Japanese explorer and scholar Dr Masatoshi Iguchi noted in his book Java Essay, East Java has a “difficult history”.
Some authorities claim the mask dances go back to the eighth century when Gajayana, the son of King Dewasinga, fled east from Central Java for reasons unknown.
Others believe the dances are more recent, but Soleh has no doubt they are deeply embedded in the local culture and linked to the Prince Panji story cycle.
This originated in Java, as opposed to the Mahabharata, which came from India, and was performed in wayang kulit as well as tari topeng. It became popular during the Majapahit Era, the so-called Golden Age of Java about a century after Gajayana arrived.
Soleh’s favorite character is the antagonistic Klana who comes with a moustache made from the carver’s own hair. As a dalang he can’t have a special figure from the wayang kulit as tradition says he must treat all equally.
Soleh said the performance center was named after a famous Javanese leader who is believed to have died at Tulus Besar during the Mataram Kingdom of the eighth and tenth centuries.
Mangun Dharma was built almost 26 years ago with Soleh’s former wife, the multi-skilled American anthropologist Karen Elizabeth Sekararum. Now back in the US she became well known in East Java as a pesinden, a singer in Javanese who performs with the gamelan.
Mangun Dharma has a complete gamelan, studio, workshop, outdoor performance space and just about everything needed to keep the culture alive.
The second of three children born to a family of artists, Soleh was the only one to become a dalang and mask maker, picking up the skills from his grandfather and an uncle.. After studying the gamelan in Surabaya he worked for the education department before further tuition at the National Arts Institute in Yogyakarta.
Back in Malang he lectured at the Teachers’ College while setting up Mangun Dharma. The center proved to be a winner so he gave up the academic life to concentrate on a career as a freelance teacher and performer.
He also wrote a book recording some of the masks, music and dance steps. Appropriately enough it’s in Javanese
Then came the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s. Families cut back on lavish wedding parties featuring traditional Javanese performers, but Soleh said work has been returning.
On 17 August 2013 dancers and musicians from 12 villages came to Mangun Dharma to celebrate Independence Day. This year there’ll be another two day festival in Malang.
“The government should be helping the arts more, as they do in the West,” Soleh said. “Here they spend Rp 6 billion [US$ 460 thousand] on sport – and nothing on culture.
“Despite this I’m optimistic. More young people are showing an interest in art and want to keep our culture alive. As you say in the West, if you don’t use it you lose it.
“I know of only five other old mask carvers and dancers who understand the traditions and stories, so it is important that their knowledge be preserved. [See Breakout]
“ UNESCO has listed some Indonesian arts – masks should be included before another country steals them.
[The UN Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity has six Indonesian crafts – the wavy-blade kris, the bamboo musical instrument angklung, batik and wayang kulit.]
“Our culture is like the bamboo – you can cut it down or burn it, even nuclear bomb it as in Hiroshima in 1945. But the root always remains and new growth soon appears.”
Master maskmaker Suparjo has 42 characters in his head and knows which one is hiding in the split logs he confronts at his desk.
It takes up to three days to transform the plain lump of wood, which others would see as best used in the fire under a cooking pot, into an object of gem-encrusted beauty, mystery even, almost with a life of its own.
Not all are regal. Ferocious demons or objects of fun, toothless oldies and the pink-cheeked Emban chewing an oversize betel nut, are also waiting to be revealed when the chisel cuts.
Suparjo, 59, is the community leader in Argosari, a hamlet deep in the corn fields and close to the Hindu Kidal Temple. This fertile area is saturated in history.
This 13th century tower is about 20 kilometers along winding roads from Mangun Dharma, far less as the Javan hawk-eagle flies. A brief walk from Soleh’s home is the Jago Temple of the same religion and period, though architecturally unalike.
Suparjo’s masks are also different, even when depicting the same character.
“Each village has its own style, though not everyone can tell them apart,” he said. “The names are not always the same either.
“I’m the fourth generation in my family of mask carvers and dancers. I started when I was in elementary school. Fortunately my son Sugeng Suprianto, 26, is also learning the craft so I believe and hope it will continue.”
(Firt published in The Jakarta Post J PLUS on 5 April 2015