Oct 20, 2017 Last Updated 12:09 AM, Oct 20, 2017

Heritage and paradox

Heritage and paradox
Published: Sep 06, 2009

Sarah Anaïs Andrieu

       The puppeteer Dadan Sunandar Sunarya performing the story Cepot Kembar

As often happens in West Java during November, rain had been falling all day, so Bandung’s central public space, known as the Gasibu, was half-flooded. A large temporary stage had been erected, in front of which stood a large tent sheltering about two hundred chairs. Forty chairs were prepared with white covers for use by government officials, but only about ten were present. Only a few spectators sat behind them. TV and radio crews busied themselves trying to protect their equipment from the rain.

andrieu3 bis.jpg
    Dawala (left) and Cepot (right). Cepot
    is the most popular character amongst
    Sundanese audiences

A performance of wayang golek, the traditional rod puppet theatre from West Java, was scheduled to take place for the entire night. The troupe was already on stage waiting patiently behind their gamelan instruments. The show should have already started, and a crowd should have already gathered around the stage as customarily happens, but very few people had dared to brave the rain and the cold on this night. The improvised market that always appears besides wayang golek performances was barely visible, with only a few sellers offering food and snacks from the shelter of huge umbrellas.

At last, the show started at around half past nine with speeches reminding the audience of the purpose of the performance, namely the protection of the national cultural heritage, of which wayang golek is officially a part. After the audience was reminded too that the event had been sponsored by the National Department of Culture and Tourism and its provincial subdivision in West Java, the committee finally gave a sign to the puppeteer, or dalang, that he could start performing the story entitled Cepot’s Twin (Cepot Kembar).

But soon after the first scene, the dalang stopped and introduced three famous Sundanese comedians who launched into an interactive dialogue with the audience. Spectators asked questions via SMS, which were relayed by the comedians to specialists from cultural and governmental institutions to be answered. After an hour of jokes and questions, the humourists retired from the stage and the wayang performance continued. The dalang recommenced his task of guiding the well-known characters through diverse intrigues and adventures. The rain had stopped, but there were still only a few spectators. Even fewer stayed until the performance ended at three o’clock in the morning.

The structure of the performance, something usually subject to quite strict convention, was upset by the intervention of the humourists just after the story commenced

What happened that night raises many questions about contemporary wayang golek. Government officials left the performance – if they came at all – long before its end. Much more seriously, the structure of the performance, something usually subject to quite strict convention, was upset by the intervention of humourists just after the story commenced. Such a thing could not happen in performances sponsored by rural communities or households. Moreover, the radio and TV broadcasts stopped after the comedians had withdrawn from the stage, even though the wayang performance would continue for a further three hours. For the broadcasters, the entire performance was too long and convoluted.

Local heritage, global value

There is some irony in the rather shabby treatment granted to the performers on this occasion, for it was not long ago that wayang was given its own space on the world’s cultural stage. In 2003, UNESCO proclaimed ‘Wayang Indonesia’ as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. Indonesia’s cultural bureaucrats responded to this recognition: the performers at the Gasibu were advised by the organisers that the performance was being held to honour Indonesia’s commitment to the preservation of humanity’s cultural heritage. But the events of the evening indicated that wayang golek, despite its global value, was encountering difficulties negotiating its status in contemporary West Java and Indonesia.

andrieu3 bis.jpg
       A patron inserts money in Cepot’s clothing

Wayang golek is still considered an essential social and political media, as well as a mark of Sundanese identity within the national context. It also forms the basis for proud family heritages, as artists typically learn their puppetry skills directly from individual teachers who are often their own fathers. The UNESCO proclamation gave these performers hope of a worldwide audience, and since then, they have tried to have some say in the destiny of wayang golek.

How does wayang golek negotiate its status in contemporary Sundanese and Indonesian societies?

However, they feel it loses out on a national stage dominated by the culture of Central Java. The government, on the other hand, sees wayang golek as not only a distinctive regional genre, but also as something shared by the national Indonesian community. Since Indonesian independence in 1945, national cultural policy has attempted to gather the most important, aesthetic and spectacular traditions of each region as part of a unifying Indonesian culture. These icons are then disseminated throughout the country by the mass media and educational institutions as distinctive hallmarks of the regions – a practice that freezes regional culture and contributes to its standardisation. The UNESCO Proclamation enhances this process: after it was made, the government proposed a national action plan that included the creation of wayang schools, which would dispense standard teaching about wayang with adjustments for each regional ‘variant’.

Only bait

The Bandung performance illustrates an important paradox. On one hand, the government’s emphasis on heritage legitimises and supports the continued practice of wayang golek. But, on the other hand, it turns the puppet performances into a (profitable) museum exhibit, standardising them and preventing them from evolving.

andrieu1.jpg
       Very few of the white chairs prepared for government officials were filled

On that November night, the wayang were simply bait, used to attract the audience’s interest, then all too quickly relegated to the background as ethnic scenery for the transmission of other messages. In the process, this event intended to support and safeguard traditional cultural heritage was turned into a demonstration of the government’s lack of confidence in wayang golek.     ii

Sarah Anaïs Andrieu (sarahanais@gmail.com) is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology and Ethnology at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris where she is writing her doctoral dissertation about the political anthropology of the Sundanese wayang golek and its process of patrimonialisation.

All photos by Sarah Anaïs Andrieu.


Inside Indonesia 97: Jul-Sep 2009



Latest Articles

Facing history

Oct 18, 2017 - ELSA CLAVE & ANDY FULLER

Credit: http://www.tribunal1965.org

A witness account of the 2015 International People’s Tribunal on 1965

Review: The ideology of the family state

Oct 06, 2017 - DAVID REEVE

David Reeve reviews David Bourchier’s important contribution to understandings of political thinking in Indonesia

Footy, culture and finding community

Sep 26, 2017 - ANDY FULLER

A group of young Australians and Indonesians in sporting gear smile around the camera.

Indonesians are bonding more deeply with Melbourne, through football and the Krakatoas

The Floating School

Sep 12, 2017 - RAHMAT HIDAYAT

Despite its recent start, the Floating School already has 83 students. (Rahmat Hidayat)

A mobile school in South Sulawesi offers new horizons to young islanders

Gambling with truth

Sep 07, 2017 - LIA KENT AND RIZKI AMALIA AFFIAT

Two Acehnese young women hold up colourful protest signs demanding justice for past human rights violations.

Aceh’s Commission for Truth and Reconciliation has an important, though delicate, mission ahead

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

 


Lontar Modern Indonesia

Lontar-Logo-Ok

 

A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar

Readers said:

  • Remembering Munir
    Pjotr - 06 Oct
    In memory of Munir I like to say that he lives on in our hearts and minds. He was standing for absolute righteousness for those who are in small ...
     
  • Review: Taking a musical journey in Sumatra
    Uwe U. Paetzold - 29 Sep
    Though published already some time ago, I want to add and highlight a further feature of this appreciated book: Margaret Kartomi not only mentions ...
     
  • Freedom of information
    carlos - 21 Aug
    Has anything changed since 2014? There has been a lot of change in government organizations regarding corruption. Are governments in East Java more ...
     
  • ‘I am an Indonesian citizen!’
    otto gusti madung - 14 Aug
    I find the article very good and horizon expanding

30th Anniversary Book

Inside Indonesia - 30th Anniversary Photo Book

 

Have you bought your copy of Inside Indonesia's 30th Anniversary book yet?

The book features 30 of the judges' favourite images from the 2013 Inside Indonesia Photography Competition.

Preview the book  and order your copy online (Soft cover approx AUD$23.00 / Hard cover approx AUD$35.00).