Saturday, July 11, 2020

Traveling 'dalang' brings 'wayang kulit' to life at schools Down Under

Jul 07. 2019
The story: Students watch as puppet master Sumardi depicts Dewi Sinta speaking to her loyal followers. (Prapti Widinugraheni/-)
The story: Students watch as puppet master Sumardi depicts Dewi Sinta speaking to her loyal followers. (Prapti Widinugraheni/-)
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By The Jakarta Post

It is midday at a local primary school in Perth, Western Australia, when a group of about 100 students and their teachers squeeze into a modified classroom and take their places on the floor, sitting cross-legged on either side of a large screen that divides the room roughly in half.

As the room is darkened and the ceiling lights replaced by a bright tripod light behind the dalang, the air turns thick with the unfamiliar melody of gamelan music and the loud rattling of keprak cymbals.

The show has begun and for almost an hour the students watch in awe as Pak Sumardi, the dalang, breathes life into an assortment of wayang kulit puppets in the ancient tradition of wayang shadow-puppetry storytelling.

It is always a bittersweet moment for dalang Sumardi, who has held performances at Australian schools for more than a decade.

“Every time I perform, I’m reminded that while I should be grateful and happy that Australian students readily embrace the art of wayang kulit puppetry – and do so with such enthusiasm – the same cannot be said for Indonesian children and that deeply saddens me.”

Through an Australia-based organization called Cultural Infusion, Sumardi has been able to visit Australia for several months at a time since 2006 for the sole purpose of performing at schools across the country.

Driving alone in an old, beaten-up station wagon with his gear piled up in the back, Sumardi is nothing less than a traveling showman – an occupation that, in Indonesia, is declining as rapidly as the popularity of wayang kulititself.

In Australia, however, Sumardi is likely to remain gainfully employed, thanks to an ongoing national interest in multiculturalism, school curriculums that promote cultural understanding and the teaching of Bahasa Indonesia as a second language in many Australian schools.

Sumardi’s job has taken him multiple times on the three-day journey across the deserts and vast Nullarbor plains separating the continent’s western and eastern seaboards; it has brought him as far north as Cairns in Queensland and south to Hobart in Tasmania – feats that most Australians cannot begin to claim.

It doesn’t seem a big deal to him, though, and so far the problems he has encountered during his time on the road have been “minor”: Apart from getting his wheels bogged down in sand and dealing with an engine oil leak and harassment from locals in some remote town along the Nullarbor, his trips have generally been hassle-free. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for what looks like a bleak future for his trade in Indonesia.

“The biggest obstacles to having wayang performances in Indonesian schools is the lack of interest from school administrators and the lack of facilities. Unlike Australia, very few schools have a hall or large covered area that can accommodate wayang shows. Also, many parents can’t afford to pay the extra money needed to host a performance,” he said.

Then there were the parents who considered traditional arts like wayang so old fashioned that there was little hope they would encourage their children to take an interest in the art.

“Our dalang association was once invited to perform at an international school in Jakarta, where parents could easily afford our show. Unfortunately, the dalang used Javanese [the traditional language for Javanese wayang kulitshows] – not Indonesian – which even teachers couldn’t fully understand, so it didn’t really work,” he said.

In Australia, Sumardi delivers his stories in English and, true to his Sragen, Central Java roots, his speech – as well as that of his characters – is laced with a thick, authentically Javanese accent.

For his performance at the school in Perth last month, he turned a section of the Ramayana epic into a 50-minute story that featured fast-paced battle scenes, colorful dialog with slapstick humor and a genuinely Indonesian (albeit slightly sexist) take on husband-wife relationships.

That day, Sumardi held three separate sessions for about 400 students aged 8 to 11; during each session he had students swap their seating midway through the show so everyone had the chance of watching the play from both sides of the screen.

“When I first started my job, I learnt from my Australian colleagues that I should avoid violent scenes because schools don’t like it. So, I have been very careful. For example, I replace drawn-out battle scenes with funny ones; I have Bagong prodding, instead of stabbing, a demon with a weapon and I get a demon to bite Petruk’s nose,” he said.

For students, the most memorable parts of the show might be the funniest, but for Sumardi they come after the performance, when students express their genuine interest in his craft and trade during a question-and-answer time. He loves the variety of questions – from how long it took him to become a dalang, to why wayang kulitpuppets needed to be colorized, when they were “only being used for their shadows”.  

Even as Sumardi is packing away his gear at the end of the day – rolling up the screen, storing his precious wayang kulitin wooden flat packs, and folding up the tripod light – a handful of students stay back; some want to ask more questions, others drag their parents, who are picking them up, to see the puppets and a few want their photos taken with the puppets.

“I wonder if there will ever be a time when Indonesia’s schools have the same level of appreciation for wayang kulit,” he says.

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