Feb 24, 2018 Last Updated 11:17 PM, Feb 21, 2018

Wisanggeni, Ned Kelly, and Tommy

Published: Jul 30, 2007


Marshall Clark

Back in May 1998, just a few days before president Suharto resigned, like most Westerners in Indonesia I was lying low and keeping out of trouble. This strategy allowed me to catch the late Saturday-night wayang kulit puppet show on Indosiar, apparently one of Indonesia's highest rating TV programs. The name of the puppetmaster, or dalang, escapes me, however the star of the show, Wisanggeni, was unforgettable. Small and petite in stature, Wisanggeni spoke in a high-pitched voice in ngoko, low Javanese, and, on a rampage against the gods, he parried, thrusted, somersaulted and taunted with the best of them. After the death of each adversary, he broke into an energetic victory dance. Considering the context of economic crisis, riots, and reformasi, my question was obvious: was Wisanggeni a student in disguise?

I later discovered that Wisanggeni is one of several Mahabharata characters indigenous to Java, and almost for this reason alone he enjoys great popularity. His popularity might also have something to do with his status as an outlaw and a rebel. Even before his birth, Wisanggeni was hunted by the gods, who are horrified by this offspring of a brief union between the playboy Arjuna, a mere 'human,' and the goddess Dewi Dresanala.

The gods are also aware that his weapons and magical powers make Wisanggeni totally invincible, which, in the context of the equally weighted fratricidal conflict between the Pandawa and the Kurawa cousins, is disastrous. According to popular understanding, if Wisanggeni were to participate in the great war at the climax of the Mahabharata, the Pandawa would almost certainly win, but at great personal cost. Eventually, for the sake of his family, Wisanggeni sees reason and relents, ascending into the heavens.

In the years after Suharto fell, Wisanggeni has proven himself an irresistable hero, the star of a story with purpose, passion, and pain. By opposing the will of the gods, and by refusing to use the polite registers of Javanese, Wisanggeni at once represents the dissatisfactions of the common people of Java and Indonesia who sympathise with him, as well as being set apart from them by his outlaw status.

Ned Kelly

Since 1998, Wisanggeni has appeared as a major figure in two critically acclaimed novels, Ayu Utami's Saman (1998) and Seno Gumira Ajidarma's Wisanggeni sang buronan (2000). He also appeared in a major drama production by Teater Tetas, Wisanggeni berkelebat (2000), the script of which was written by Arya Dipayana. As an oppositional figure, Wisanggeni clearly still has much to offer, much like Australia's own outlaw of stature, Ned Kelly. In the words of Graham Seal, author of Ned Kelly in popular tradition, '[To] most of us he is somehow essentially Australian. Ned Kelly has secured the national pedestal because the image that we have made of him has been our own. As long as most Australians see themselves, no matter how realistically, as tough, resourceful and independent pioneer types who give everyone a fair go but take no nonsense from anyone, Ned Kelly will endure. Perhaps we will too.'

The Wisanggeni placed on a pedestal (or is it stabbed into a banana trunk?) by the likes of Ayu, Seno, and Teater Tetas is by no means deliberately represented as a figure of political rebellion. Yet Wisanggeni's rebellious spirit, and the fact that he is a fugitive living outside the rule of the gods, can easily be understood as the focus for an alternative set of values, a rallying point for resistance against the Indonesian status quo.

However, when I spoke with Seno Gumira Ajidarma in Jakarta in November 2000, soon after the hunt for 'Tommy Suharto: Outlaw of the People' was launched, I realised that too many Wisanggenis might be too much of a good thing. In Seno's words: 'The problem with Indonesia is that it has too many Wisanggenis.' Tommy aside, there has been no shortage of Wisanggenis clamouring for attention, be they in the form of Sukarno clones, the clown-god Semar, or the long-awaited mythical Javanese saviour, the Ratu Adil. Many would even go so far as to say that Indonesia cannot benefit from any new Wisanggenis anyway, as she has already, as it were, lost the plot.

Meanwhile, in Seno's narration of the Wisanggeni legend, the opposite occurs. When Wisanggeni accepts the need to withdraw from the wayang realms, the plot of the Mahabharata is not lost but saved. In Seno's version, Wisanggeni does not ascend, Jesus-like, to heaven. Instead, he flies off, dips in and out of a few clouds, and ends up about 2000 feet above the sultan's palace in Yogyakarta, just in time to catch the last few scenes of a wayang kulit performance!

Intriguingly, the tale being performed is the very same tale that Wisanggeni had been enacting on the pages of Seno's novel. As the gamelan plays on, Wisanggeni slips in amongst the sleeping audience and sits behind the screen, watching the shadows of Arjuna and Kresna, who are discussing whether Wisanggeni has accepted his fate. At this point Wisanggeni, who looks like a tramp, bursts into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. The audience, however, fail to see the humour and, thinking he is mad, drag him off to be thrown out into the street.

Such a callous denouement to the novel is most unexpected, but in many respects Wisanggeni's fate sits perfectly with the rest of the novel. Earlier, Wisanggeni's life is often defined in terms of fiction. Even principal actors in his life story, such as Batara Brahma, are aware that Wisanggeni is but part of an extraordinary drama. However, Batara Brahma is unaware of how Wisanggeni's tale will unfold, even as he unfolds it himself. 'O dear holy baby, the child of fate', wept Batara Brahma uncontrollably, 'what tale is it that comes with your life, to the point where your grandfather is duty-bound to kill you?' (p39). Therefore, by leaving the relative safety of his fictional wayang world, Wisanggeni is confronted with a different type of threat, the threat of the 'real world.'

Fried dog

I use the word 'threat' here guardedly, as the world of contemporary Indonesia is only threatening when viewed in comparison to the comparative safety, predictability, and beauty of the wayang world. One narrative technique in particular highlights this point: the strategic usage of suluk verses, which are usually sung throughout wayang performances. The suluk verses in Seno's novel, however, not only present the majestic scenes of poetic beauty common to the traditional wayang world, but also foreshadow the sense of decay and lurking danger one may assume is inherent in the contemporary world outside the wayang universe. The juxtaposition between the 'heaven' of the wayang world and the 'hell' of the real world reminds us of the postmodern clichthat reality is as much a fictional representation as fiction itself.

The first suluk of Wisanggeni sang buronan, which from my observations has puzzled both critics and dalangalike, juxtaposes the timeless beauty of a lotus in a pond with the depravity of eating pork satay and fried dog:

a song for a scholar passed away, o,
pork satay and fried dog
o, how the oil oozes and drips
and a lotus blossoms
in a small pond
awaiting the love of the outlaw, o!

Other suluk describe haunting Dante-esque images of burning wayang screens, drunk poets, debauchery, prostitutes, marijuana smoke, flowing arak beer, blood coughed up, and cold-blooded murder. Just as the narrator alludes more than once to the distant sound of gamelan accompanying his account, the suluk verses act as a significant point of convergence between the wayang world and the real world of contemporary Indonesia.

Despite the points of convergence, the two worlds are separate entities. So much so that, once Wisanggeni unwittingly disturbs the real world of Yogyakarta, he is no longer considered an outlaw representing the interests and perceived injustices of the supportive masses. On the contrary, his uncontrolled laughter at dawn confirms his reputation as a madman. Ironically, now that Wisanggeni, through death, has lost his fictional self, as reflected in the metafictional allusions throughout the novel, we find that the fictional self is hardly an object at all. It is a mere shadow, as it were.

In other words, Wisanggeni's self of real life imitates the self of fiction, only in reverse. Just as the gods reject Wisanggeni outright, and therefore attempt to wipe him from the Mahabharata slate, the audience at the wayang kulit in Yogya are equally unable to see the tramp as anything more than a madman, and so they too regard him as a threat to the natural order of the world. Wisanggeni's status as an outlaw is doubly ambivalent: on the one hand he has given up his fight against the gods, but on the other hand he is on the run from the very people who would normally consider him a kindred spirit.

Despite the imaginative use of narrative techniques such as metafiction and suluk to highlight the instability and lack of fixed identity of fiction and reality, the key point to emerge from such an unexpected climax to the novel appears to be ultimately political. Wisanggeni's fate suggests that for Indonesia's Mahabharata to continue, more and more of Indonesia's Wisanggeni-figures must give up their personal struggles and either have a glass of Baygon and a good lie down, or return to the real world, regardless of how bleak such a prospect may seem. Yes, Tommy, this means you.

Marshall Clark (Marshall.Clark@utas.edu.au) teaches Indonesian at the University of Tasmania, performs the odd GST-free wayang kulit puppet show, and is completing a PhD on modern Indonesian literature at ANU.

Inside Indonesia 66: April-June 2001

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