Sat, 02 Dec 2000

Malang's mask puppets wait for new talents

By Tarko Sudiarno and Nugroho CH

MALANG, East Java (JP): The charm of the mask puppet show is too strong for Mohammad Soleh Adi Pramono to resist, luring him away from his teaching career at Malang's Teachers Training Institute to develop and preserve the traditional show.

It is not too surprising, really, considering it is in his show; the 49-year-old is a direct descendent of the pioneers of the mask puppet show in Malang. However, the decision to dedicate his life to the traditional show did not come easy, and was only reached after a long and complicated process.

After graduating from high school in 1972, Soleh studied the Javanese orchestra kerawitan at a conservatory in Surabaya. After his graduation in 1975, he worked at the Malang office of the ministry of education and culture, where he stayed for four years.

Soleh moved to Yogyakarta in 1979 to continue his studies at the Yogyakarta Indonesia Arts Institute, where he studied dance until his graduation in 1984. After finishing his studies, he accepted an offer to work as a lecturer at the Teachers Training Institute. Although he enjoyed his new career, he soon felt trapped in his routine and began to feel uneasy.

After working as a lecturer for five years, he decided it was time to make a move, setting up the Mangun Dharma arts retreat in his hometown of Tulusayu village, Tumpang district, Malang regency. Through this retreat, Soleh planned to preserve and develop the mask puppet show he inherited from his ancestors.

The decision to completely quit his career as a lecturer was made in 1992, after he realized he was spending more time at his new retreat instead of lecturing.

"I didn't want to get paid for doing nothing," Soleh said.

The arts retreat does not only preserve and develop the mask puppet show, but also others arts and crafts, such as mask carving and the leather puppet tradition.

Soleh, in cooperation with Malang's Merdeka University, has accepted at the retreat students from Japan and the United States who wish to study the traditional puppet show from Malang. He ended up marrying one of his foreign students, Elizabeth from the United States, and they now have two daughters.


There is no accurate data about when the mask puppet show first appeared in Malang. According to information in the libraries, the show first was performed sometime in the 8th century during the Gajayana kingdom in Malang. But according to stories handed down from one generation to the next, the tradition was developed during the early 20th century.

According to the stories, there were at least two important figures responsible for the development of the mask puppet tradition. They were Mbah Reni, a dancer and mask carver from Polowijen village, and Kakek Ruminten, a puppeteer. Ruminten was said to have a loyal student named Tirtowinoto from Tulusayu village, and Mohammad Soleh is Tirtowinoto's grandchild.

The mask puppet show is basically a dance drama with stories taken from numerous sources, but mostly based on the stories of the Panji. All of the characters wear distinctive masks. The traits of the character also can be identified through the color of the masks. Red, for instance, reflects a character who will easily get angry, while white is for an honest character.

The arts center now has around 560 students. Still, Soleh finds it difficult to develop the traditional show. For this, he realizes he needs more time and perseverance.

At least he can take pride in the presence at the center of three great artists, Rasimun, 79, Gimun, 76, and Jakimin, 77.

Although he cannot hear, Rasimun has no difficulty following the rhythm of the gamelan and playing the role of his character in the show. These three artists are still a match for the younger performers.

But Soleh worries about the age of these great artists.

"How long can Pak Rasimun, Gimun and Jakimun continue? The mask puppet world will loss great artists when they are gone," said Soleh, who has videotaped performances by the three artists to help younger artists study and learn the traditional show.