Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, our third festival of Indonesian music, dance, and theater, celebrates some of the many manifestations of Islamic culture in the island nation, which is home to more Muslims than any other country. We’re interviewing some of the people involved with the festival. Sumarsam, a scholar, puppeteer, and professor of music at Wesleyan University, helped plan tomorrow night’s lecture series. He also will share his talents at our shadow-puppet play (wayang kulit) Thursday evening.
You have a long history with music, particularly the gamelan. How has that passion intersected with your interest in puppeteering?
I began playing gamelan when I was seven years old, in the village where I was born, in East Java. That was also the time when I became interested in wayang puppet plays, which gamelan groups often accompany.
I continued studying and teaching gamelan at the conservatory and academy in Solo [Surakarta, Indonesia] from 1962–68. When I was a student at the conservatory/academy, no major on puppetry was offered, but students were required to take a course on the subject. So that’s the only formal training I have received on puppeteering. But I was determined to continue learning, so I learned on my own, with occasional guidance. I still feel I am a student of the art of wayang, especially in performing wayang for a Western audience.
How does wayang kulit intersect with music in general?
Gamelan music accompanies wayang performances almost without a break. It is played to accompany entrances, exits, journeys, battles, the puppeteer’s chanting, and dialogues and narrations. Different pieces and songs are performed for the particular moods of the scenes. Kendhang (a two-headed drum) closely accompanies the puppets—certain puppets’ movements are accompanied by certain rhythmic patterns.
The puppeteer (dhalang) has complete control over the music. He (or, rarely, she) signals the ensemble to start and end the music, to cue dynamic changes, and to ask musicians to play certain pieces. The cues are conveyed by sounding a box with a mallet; there are also verbal cues and cues from certain puppet movements. The puppeteer also produces clashing sounds from a set of metal plates that he kicks against the box to accentuate the movements of the puppets. Besides delivering dialogue and narration, the puppeteer sings songs to heighten the mood of a scene.
I think that the complex connections between the play and its musical accompaniment make it difficult to stage wayang performances in the United States. Many rehearsals are needed. I am glad that I have had ample time to rehearse with the Indonesian Embassy gamelan group and with an ad hoc group consisting of gamelan teachers and players, members of the Society for Ethnomusicology.
Tell me a bit about the story that the puppets will tell on November 10.
Here’s a synopsis of Bima’s Quest for Enlightenment:
Durna, a spiritual preceptor, asks his loyal student Bima to search for divine enlightenment. To commence his quest, Bima must go to dangerous places. First, he must search for the “Tall Tree, Nest of the Wind” on the peak of Mt. Candramuka. There, Bima encounters two ferocious ogres who attempt to foil his effort—they are actually transformed gods testing his will and strength by attacking him. Bima repels and kills the giants, but he does not find the tall tree. Disappointed, he returns to Durna empty-handed.
On the second leg of Bima’s quest, his guru orders him to search for lustrating water in the depths of the ocean. Plunging himself into the sea, he is attacked by a dragon monster. Using his long, sharp nails, Bima destroys the dragon. Miraculously, a tiny figure, Dewa Ruci, appears from nowhere. He teaches Bima the highest mystical insight: the divine enlightenment, which includes some aspects of Islamic Sufi teachings.
What do you hope audiences will experience and take away from the play?
In my early years at Wesleyan, I used to perform wayang in the Javanese language. One hundred or more people came to watch the performance. However, after two hours or so, people started leaving; only a dozen stayed until the end.
Like all of my more recent performances, Thursday’s will be about two hours long and presented mostly in English. For me, performing wayang in English is an ongoing project. Finding well-constructed English sentences that suit the mood of wayang is a challenge (not to mention making sure to pronounce English words clearly). Fortunately, several wayang stories and a number of Javanese literary works from past centuries have been translated into English—they are my main references. For example, the eighteenth-century Serat Cabolek (composed by R. Ng. Yasadipura, a court poet) has been translated into English by Professor Soebardi. This classic work has sections that tell the story of Bima’s quest for enlightenment.
The November 10 performance will be a condensed version of an all-night wayang play, featuring only the main episodes of the story. But it will have almost all aspects of a wayang play, including the three-division plot structure of the story (music, fight scene, and clown scene), popular songs and local jokes, and the teaching of a mystical path.
You’ve been closely involved with Performing Indonesia from the start. Why do you feel the festival is important?
I am always happy to be part of the festival to introduce the performing arts in Indonesia, exploring the diversity of their content and context, and the crisscrossing of their national, ethnic, and religious identities. This year’s Performing Indonesia, with the theme of Islamic Intersections, is a way to introduce the dynamic formative and transformational process of performing arts in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world.