Sat, 09 Oct 1999

Comedian Bondan makes money from mockery

By Tarko Sudiarno

YOGYAKARTA (JP): No performing arts director has been as shrewd as Bondan Nusantara in cashing in on public scorn for the country's leaders amid the terrible economic crisis.

The 46-year-old director of Dagelan Mataram Baru -- the New Mataram Comedy Group -- has seen both his own and the group's popularity soar thanks to his skill at making fun of the country's political leaders, lampooning them as nothing more than clowns on a grand stage.

Performances of his latest comedy play Celeng Degleng (Mad Swine), shown in Jakarta on Sept. 24 and in Yogyakarta on Oct. 2 and Oct. 3, were a huge success.

The play tells of the corrupt system allegedly created by New Order leader Soeharto and the chaos he left behind after he tumbled from his throne last year. Among the cast of characters are President B.J. Habibie, Megawati Soekarnoputri, Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid, Amien Rais and Gen. Wiranto, all cleverly renamed. The actors brilliantly mimic the politicians' speech patterns and behavior.

The group follows the principles of conventional Dagelan Mataram (Mataram Comedy) and the Javanese folk opera ketoprak. Every play has a specific storyline based on historical events.

Unlike ketoprak, Dagelan Mataram innovates by adopting the modern theater concept. In addition to the standard Javanese gamelan orchestra, drums, cymbals and guitars are used. The stage has a more modern setting, including lighting.

"All the innovations aim at making the show more pleasing to the eyes and ears," said Bondan, who founded Dagelan Mataram Baru in 1997.

Bondan said he was inspired by the highly popular ketoprak plesetan, a satirical form of the art which deviates from the pakem standard source book for subject matter. Names of the characters are changed to suit current political and social realities. Ketoprak plesetan was once popular in Yogyakarta and a number of other Javanese cities.

Bondan's bold move to experiment with ketoprak plesetan and a more modern form of Mataram comedy has won him criticism and adoration from arts lovers and observers.

Critics accuse him of playing with ketoprak's standards for cheap sensationalism.

He insisted the criticism was unfounded and contended that Dagelan Mataram Baru was an innovative way of ensuring the survival of the traditional art through gaining popularity among the younger generation.

Popularity of his group, he said, would ensure the survival of the traditional art form.

"I strongly believe that many of our audience members are interested in finding out more about the traditional ketoprak."

It seems his aim is becoming reality. Between 1,500 and 2,000 people show up at every performance of Dagelan Mataram Baru. A recent survey found that more than 70 percent of the audience members were students; the rest were business people, civil servants and employees of private companies.

The survey was made for Celeng Dhegleng, which he adapted from Bayang-bayang Ratu Adil (Shadow of a Just King), a book written by Catholic priest and Kompas daily journalist Sindhunata.

The title of the anthology published by PT Gramedia is taken from one of Sindhunata's reviews of painter Djoko Pekik's work Indonesia 1998 Berburu Celeng (Indonesia 1998 Hunting for Swine), which sold for almost Rp 1 billion (US$125,000) last year.

Bondan initially prepared Celeng Dhegleng for a performance at Monash University, Australia, this December. But the university unilaterally canceled the show after relations between Indonesia and Australia soured over the East Timor chaos.

Bondan had the guts to criticize the government in 1996 when Soeharto was still in power. He directed Ketoprak Kolosal in an event organized by the Yogyakarta government to celebrate Sultan Hamengkubuwono X's eighth year on the throne.

"The sultan said that criticizing (the government) through works of art is better than staging street demonstrations," he recalled. "It was the sultan's statement that inspired me to do all these works."

Bondan inherited his talent from his father, who was a ketoprak actor. The fourth son of five children, he began acting when he was a junior high school student and joined a wandering ketoprak group.

He is a self-educated actor but he learned scriptwriting from Handung Kussudarsono, elder brother of Yogyakarta's best known choreographer Bagong Kussudiardjo. Bondan still writes scripts for ketoprak groups performing for the state television network TVRI's stations in Yogyakarta and Surabaya. In the past, he also wrote scripts for the Sapta Mandala ketoprak group.

His dedication to the Javanese traditional art has earned him numerous awards from the government and private institutions.

The former journalist of Bernas newspaper and Javanese- language magazine Mekarsari is a strong proponent of the reform movement and the freedom it has brought.

During the Soeharto era, public criticism of the government was almost bound to end in trouble for a performer. Criticism could only be couched in indirect terms and could not represent the main theme of an art performance.

"At that time, artists had to become the government's partner in propaganda," Bondan said. "Criticism had to be nicely disguised if you wanted to get home safely."