Top puppeteers in demand -- for a price
By Kafil Yamin
BANDUNG (JP): Udung Supriatna was forced to sell his car to pay for that special something at his daughter's wedding reception.
To the delight of everybody in his neighborhood, he hired popular wayang golek puppeteer Ade Kosasih.
"It cost me Rp 10 million. I had to do it because it was the request of my youngest daughter," he said.
Ade lowered his fee for his friend Supriatna, a former village head.
"If somebody else hires Ade, the price can be Rp 15 million or so," Supriatna said.
If a family plans to hold a wedding party or sunatan circumcision ceremony) in a Sundanese community, people in the neighborhood usually hope for an all-night wayang golek show. They usually stay awake until the show's conclusion in the wee hours.
Despite its popularity, the performances are increasingly rare. For one, the show is expensive for middle-income families, let alone low-income ones.
"Only the rich can afford to hire a top dalang (puppeteer)," said Iwan Suryawan, a fan of the art form.
For another, there are few puppeteers left.
"Even those with talent would think twice about becoming professional dalang because they would see gloomy days ahead," said Juju Juanda of the Bandung station of state radio network RRI.
Data at Taman Budaya Sunda reflect the decline; only 53 puppeteers are registered at the Sundanese cultural center. "Years before there were hundreds," said Eli Suliasih from the center.
She said people were more concerned about saving money than maintaining traditions.
"People will think about cost-efficiency. Instead of spending tens of millions of rupiah, they would hire a fledging popular music group. That would cost no more than Rp 2 million or so, with the same potential to draw a huge crowd."
Many puppeteers acknowledge their high price but said there was no other choice. They noted the problem was the number of people required for the performance, usually from 20 to 25, mostly members of the gamelan orchestra.
"All of them must be paid," said a puppeteer. "If a member of the group gets Rp 400,000, then the whole group would need at least Rp 10 million.
"The amount does not cover the puppeteer's fee and the money that needs to be put aside for the period when there are no bookings for performances."
Puppeteers argue their fees are low if their working hours are factored in, including preparation for the show and the cleanup.
Their long working hours are due to the rigors of the script. Wayang weaves in stories taken from the Hindu epic Mahabrata, with local nuances added.
All wayang stories can be condensed in one theme: the war between good and evil. Legend has it that Sunan Kalijaga, one of the wali songo (nine holy men), created the art as a medium to propagate Islam in Java.
Thus, the wayang is not only a cultural show, but also a sacred performance, with a ritual opening led by the puppeteer.
The length of the shows is one of the difficulties for the traditional art to make the crossover to modern electronic media. Slow-paced and lasting for hours, Wayang cannot fit into regular TV viewing schedules.
In a more industrialized society, people do not have the time to devote to long stories like the wayang. The audiences are still there, but they are limited in number and age group.
"Those who stay awake to listen or watch wayang performances are old Sundanese people, or youths who are socially marginalized just like the art they are enjoying," said a Sundanese culture figure.
"The youths are usually jobless. They enjoy wayang while playing cards or something."
In a bid to preserve the traditional art, the arts and culture office of the Bandung city administration provided regular wayang performances at affordable ticket prices in a modest theater building on Jl. Naripan. It is a venue where fledging dalang have the chance to perform.
Unfortunately, the audiences did not show up.
The regular shows were then moved to the RRI building -- and the number of viewers was still low.
"Only when top dalang like Asep Sunandar Sunarya or Ade Kosasih are on show will people flock to the hall," said Juju.
What does it take to be a top puppeteer?
According to RRI's survey, people like dalang for three main reasons. First, a dalang should have a good voice, more specifically a baritone with the flexibility to voice different characters.
"When we hear a dalang with suara cempreng (a shrill voice), we just ignore him," a fan said.
Second is the ability to characterize si Dawala alias si Cepot, a popular clown figure in wayang golek. The voice and jokes of si Cepot are specific to the play, and true wayang fans can identify his voice with the dialect.
Inseparable with the perfect tone of voice is the skill of playing the different characters.
"Every character in wayang has individual gestures, style and expressions. Each character has specific ways of dancing, greeting and fighting. And wayang fans know them well," said Juju.
He added the other requirement was the ability to modify the tales into short, condensed and interesting performances which would fit in with the needs of modern audiences.