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Puppet theater in contemporary Indonesia: New approaches to performance events.

Puppet theater in contemporary Indonesia: New approaches to performance events. Edited by JAN MRAZEK. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Centers for South and Southeast Asian Studies, Michigan Papers on South and Southeast Asia, No. 50, 2002. Pp. vii, 376. doi: 10.1017/S0022463405230187

This remarkable volume offers a rich array of informative and thought-provoking essays on the current world of puppet theatre (mostly wayang kulit and wayang golek) in Indonesia (mostly, but not exclusively, Java). The work is an ambitious one, aiming to provide the reader with a comprehensive sweep through the various puppetry genres found from Sunda (West Java) eastward to the island of Lombok and, in that sweep, to concentrate heavily on recent developments. From many perspectives this work could be described as 'dense'--from the sheer number of chapters (25) packed into its 376 pages, to the tiny black-and-white photos appearing in many of the chapters, to the number of words crammed onto each page, with small print and narrow bottom and side margins, no doubt chosen to minimise publication costs without having to omit or (further) shorten existing chapters. In any case, contributing editor Jan Mrazek is to be commended for putting together such an important collection of essays, almost all of which are newly written for this volume, coming from a wide range of currently active scholars. Individual essays offer hitherto unpublished descriptions of one or another puppetry tradition, with emphasis on recent changes, and many draw out issues relating to traditions (past and present) that help us to think about Indonesia's puppetry in new ways.

Beyond the daunting task of soliciting and editing essays from 22 other writers, Mrazek contributes much with his own writing, starting the book off with a useful seven-page introduction to basic cultural geography and vocabulary pertaining to wayang in the Indonesian regions where it is found. This he follows with his own lengthy (38-page) and intriguingly idiosyncratic Introduction to the book, opening with an imagined conversation between 'the God', Wagner, Faust, Mephistopheles, Margaret, Punch and drunken students about wayang, followed by a useful though protracted discussion of the main themes that emerge from and link the other essays: 'Changing performances in a changing world'; 'Performance, language, writing'; 'Performance, politics, the entertainment business, and the (changing) life and work of the puppeteer'; 'Performance and local identity'; 'Performance and ritual'; 'Performance and changing aesthetics and values'; 'Performance and the mass media'; and 'Ways of watching wayang'.

The 24 chapters begin with a thoughtful piece by Hendrik Kleinsmiede discussing not the nuts and bolts of wayang but the themes of mentalism and writing in the previous scholarship (especially Dutch) on wayang, invoking the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant and Spinoza, and stressing wayang's performative and multi-media nature. A. L. Becker, in his nicely crafted essay, reflects on wayang and Rudolph Arnheim's notion of images shaping thought outside linguistic determinism (as espoused from Herder to Whorf and Pike, and earlier by Becker himself). From this point onward, the chapters mostly deal with one aspect of one genre of wayang, beginning with Kathy Foley's essay on meanings associated with opening gestures and texts, primarily in Sundanese wayang golek.

The next few chapters cover political issues. Ward Keeler offers a corrective to what he sees as the exaggeration by recent scholars of the role of the Dutch and, more recently, Indonesian politics in shaping Central Javanese wayang. Focusing on one play by one Cirebonese puppeteer, Matthew Cohen questions the widely shared notion of New Order control and co-optation of the arts. Andrew Weintraub argues similarly with reference to Sundanese wayang golek, citing passages from several performances.

From politics we move to focus on particular puppeteers. Richard Curtis traces the rise of Enthus Susmono, one of the most successful of the new 'entrepreneur' puppeteers in Java, stressing his breaking of wayang conventions and his appeal to the common people (wong cilik). Suratno, himself a puppeteer and musician, describes the packaging 'tactics' of another entrepreneur puppeteer, Ki Warsena Slenk. Rene Lysloff follows with a comparative look at two rival puppeteers from Banyumas (west Central Java): Sugito, a self-conscious preserver of local tradition, and Sugino, a puppeteer possessed during performance, drawing on inspirations and influences from many Javanese traditions. Focusing on the work and ideas of Sukasman, inventor of wayang ukur (unusually shaped versions of the standard wayang characters used in non-conventional performances), Hardja Susilo lays out, point by point, the probable reasons for this genre's failure to gain even modest popularity.

Beginning with Tony Day's chapter on local identity and reinvented ritual in East Java, we are introduced to a range of local wayang traditions outside the Sundanese and Javanese mainstream: W. Setiodarmoko's description of wayang golek Menak (centring on the adventures of Arabian hero Amir Hamzah) from the south Central Javanese region of Kebumen; Judith Ecklund's coverage (dating from the late 1970s) and Philip Yampolsky's addendum (1996) on wayang Sasak from Lombok; M. Misbahul Amri's description of wayang Mbah Gandrung, a ritual form using flat wooden puppets (wayang klithik) from Pagung, East lava, followed by Clara van Groenendael's photographic essay on the same genre; and Brita Heimarck's consideration of changes in Balinese wayang kulit, with focus on the music. Prior to the two essays on wayang Mbah Gandrung is Stephen Headley's study, also of ritual wayang (ruwatan) in post-Suharto Solo.

The remaining chapters cover a range of broader issues, primarily with reference to Central lavanese wayan K. Marc Benamou's subtle and convincing reconsideration of the alus-kasar (refined-coarse) dichotomy; Helen Pausacker's comparison of female clown scenes in the 1970s with those in recent years as evidence of changing status of women; Sarah Weiss's analysis of the conflation of dichotomies relating to gender (urban/rural, refined/coarse, male/female); Bernard Arps's inquiry into the aesthetics of aural apprehension of 'audio wayang' (radio and cassettes); and Mrazek's reflections on watching wayang on television vs. 'being there'/'going there' to watch live. To this already sizable collection of essays, Mrazek adds a short thought piece by Haryono Haryoguritno ('Why watch wayang?') and, finally, a seven-page bibliographic essay for further reading.

Space limitations here prevent me from exploring critically the numerous issues raised in this volume. Each essay offers at least new descriptive data, and many engage insightfully with ongoing issues in aesthetics, performance theory and wayang's own legacy of scholarly literature. Suffice it to say that anyone seeking to know about the wayang world in Indonesia today could find no source remotely as valuable as this--a major contribution to wayang scholarship.


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Author:Sutton, R. Anderson
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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