- Makutharama: Rama’s Crown and the Grand Offering of the Kings: Sesaji Raja Suya (Wayang Educational Package) by Purbo Asmoro and Kathryn Emerson
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was studying Javanese wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre, wayang for short) at Surakarta’s Indonesian Music Academy, now known as Institut Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Institute of the Arts), the puppetry department had about twenty faculty members. Few were performing regularly. Most were content with the life of a civil servant: teaching, producing the occasional report, and contributing to the academy’s experimental productions. The two prominent exceptions were the department’s most recent hires, Purbo Asmoro (b. 1961, Pacitan) and Joko Susilo (b. 1963, Sragen), both ambitious 1986 graduates of the academy who were actively pursuing careers as working puppeteers.
At this time, the final decade of the New Order authoritarian regime, traditional structures of authority were dissolving and Central Javanese puppeteers were increasingly defining their own individual styles in a neoliberal economy (Kayam 2001: 145). The gregarious Joko Susilo, schooled in martial arts, emphasized rousing battle scenes in the style of Manteb Soedharsono, Java’s then most popular puppeteer. Purbo, in contrast, espoused an openly classical style, emphasizing archaic language, elaborate “mood songs” (sulukan), refined movement, and carefully staged tableaux (tanceban). He continued to perform in the village tradition he had imbibed since childhood and when requested could also perform in the courtly Surakarta style taught at the academy. But at a time when puppeteers around him were courting audiences through gamelan covers of pop songs and kung fu–style puppet moves, Purbo achieved particular distinction through extending into the realm of all-night performance the modern concepts of pakeliran padat, a “condensed” or “compact” performance form developed at the academy in the 1970s for foreign tours, festivals, student examination, and entertaining VIP visitors (cf. Sears 1996: 244–251). In line with this academic-experimental stylistic precursor, Purbo injected psychological realism into characters, emphasized human drama over supernatural elements, and downplayed formulaic elements extraneous to plot development.
James Brandon (1967: 147) famously contrasted Western and Southeast Asian drama: In the former plays were “hand-crafted,” each production unique, while in Southeast Asia plays were “prefabricated” with generic dialogue [End Page 206] and staging that could be rolled out in any production. Purbo’s modernized, garapan (“worked on”) wayang plays were “hand-crafted” in Brandon’s terms. He composed new musical pieces for particular scenes, wrote end-rhymed poems for narrations, crafted prologues and flashback scenes, and provided choral lines for his musicians. Purbo saw himself as an innovator working within the constraints of tradition. So, for example, while other puppeteers avidly integrated pop bands into their troupes, Purbo provided gamelan-only musical accompaniment. Purbo gained followers among wayang purists unhappy with the vogue for extended clown scenes, multi-colored “disco” lights, and “guest artists” such as comedians and pop singers. All this earned him the unofficial title of dalang priyayi, “the gentleman’s puppeteer” (Kayam 2001: 125, 213).
Susilo migrated to New Zealand in 1993, but Purbo’s career took an international turn only with his introduction to the American school teacher and amateur gamelan player Kathryn “Kitsie” Emerson in 2004. Emerson had been living in Indonesia since 1992, acquiring fluency in Javanese, but had grown disenchanted with populist wayang, dubbed wayang hura-hura or “mindlessly entertaining wayang” by its critics. She was delighted to discover a puppeteer with a mastery of classical aesthetics attentive to dramaturgical and musical craft. She soon developed a weekly routine, flying every Friday from Jakarta to Surakarta in order to follow Purbo’s tours, and when non-Javanese spectators were present she provided them with English-language interpretation via laptop projection. Over time Emerson became in effect Purbo’s agent—organizing workshops and international tours, managing his Facebook page and website (www.purboasmoro.com), and posting about him on the Gamelan Mailing List (Boonstra 2014: 152). The exchange was...