Feb 27, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Performing Islam

Performing Islam
Published: Nov 22, 2011

Ki Enthus Susmono’s hugely popular wayang santri challenges standards of authenticity

Sadiah Boonstra

Enthus weaving his magic
Sadiah Boonstra

It was around midnight when I arrived at an Islamic secondary school after a sweaty nine-hour bus drive from Yogyakarta to Tegal. A big event was taking place to celebrate the school’s thirty-second anniversary. Music got louder as I walked through a large gate and passed by mobile food stalls. A stage rose high above a large crowd watching a wayang golek performance, played with three dimensional wooden puppets.

As I had seen countless wayang performances, I expected to see a dalang (puppet master), a number of pesindhen (female singers) and a large gamelan orchestra of some thirty musicians all dressed in traditional Javanese costume. The dalang was there, but he was dressed in a non-traditional white outfit. Although he was wearing a blangkon (a traditional Javanese cap), it was white, not batik, and had the appearance of a turban, giving it a religious twist. There were only two pesindhen, also dressed in white instead of a kain and kebaya and wearing headscarfs. There were just ten musicians in the gamelan dressed in black and wearing kopiah (fez) instead of blangkon. The story was a local story about Muslim daily life and not derived from the wayang golek repertoire. There were two synthesizers used to play electric guitar and other non-gamelan instruments, and the songs being sung were Qasidah, religious chants in Arabic sung to the rhythm of a stringed, plucked instrument of Arabic origin.

This is the newest wayang creation of the popular and controversial dalang Ki Enthus Susmono, in the genre he calls wayang santri. Enthus Susmono is one of just a few superstar dalangs in Indonesia whose work attracts a real mass audience. His extreme innovations – the incorporation of Islam is just one manifestation – combined with rude language and harsh social and political criticism, make him wildly popular with his fans, but prompt critics to refer to him as a ‘destroyer’ of wayang.

Wayang santri

Enthus Susmono is always searching for ways to reach new audiences. His concern is that people do not relate to wayang anymore. He tries to address this by making wayang an interesting spectacle and by relating his performances to people’s everyday life so that the philosophical values in religious and moral lessons can be easily understood. To these ends Enthus Susmono innovates in the field of puppets, music, language, theme, genre and performance style. For example, when his children did not stop talking about Harry Potter he realised that the younger generations are more familiar with international fiction and cartoon characters than with wayang characters such as Kresna, Arjuna or Gatutkaca. To relate to the world of his children and their peers, he created characters such as Batman, Superman, Doraemon and Ninja Boy to use in his shows.

But it is Enthus Susmono’s newest creation, wayang santri, that is one of the most popular shows around. Enthus Susmono, his crew, sponsors and audience regard wayang santri as an opportunity to make wayang available to a larger audience. A wayang santri performance involves a relatively small number of singers and musicians, and has a considerably shorter duration of two to four hours compared to six to eight hours for a regular wayang show. The costs are therefore much lower: around 10 to 15 million rupiah, whereas a regular wayang kulit show costs 40 to 100 million rupiah depending on the location of the performance. The group passes on these savings to the audience, which means that many more people can afford this form of wayang.

It is hardly a surprise that wayang santri quickly became wildly popular. In the four months following the first performances in August 2010, Enthus Susmono performed his new wayang show 173 times – some 17 times more than the ten performances per month of his regular shows. Clearly, it’s not only its accessibility and affordability that has made the show a hit; its form and content speak to the audience’s imagination.

When I arrived at the wayang santri show in Tegal, the clown scene (a kind of intermezzo when the dalang can joke freely) was in full swing. At first it appeared like a regular wayang golek performance, as Enthus Susmono pulled out his full repertoire of funny characters. On the stage was Limbuk, a black female puppet that constantly showed her enormous, bare behind. There was also a puppet whose head was not fastened to its body and therefore could kiss his own genitals. And then there was Enthus Susmono’s famous drunken puppet. This puppet peed in his bottle of grog, then promptly forgot that he had done so and took another sip. The crowd screamed with laughter, took pictures and recorded the action on their phones. But then, the dalang closed the lively show with a prayer.

I was struck to see Enthus Susmono perform his usual crude – to some perhaps vulgar – jokes in a most obviously Islamic wayang show. The alternation of these jokes with Islamic songs appeared contradictory, but nobody in the audience seemed to care. The crowd couldn’t get enough of the spectacle. Indeed, Enthus Susmono’s wayang santri might be extremely popular not despite, but because of this apparent contradiction.

‘Authentic’ wayang and Islam

But not everyone approves of this new form of wayang. Some people think that Islam should not be incorporated in wayang at all because – in their view – religion and wayang belong in separate and incompatible spheres. Some in this camp are actively involved in the preservation of wayang, including policy makers in the field of heritage management. Others regard wayang and Islam as incompatible for other reasons. In October 2010 Muslim hardliners attacked several small wayang shows in Central Java without clearly-stated motives. Performances by famous dalangs have not been targeted, but Enthus Susmono and other dalangs have strongly condemned the attacks.

As far as the general audience is concerned, though, wayang and Islam are inextricably linked. It is popularly thought that the Wali Songo, the legendary nine saints believed to have brought Islam to Java, adapted the wayang form to Islam as far back as the fifteenth century and used it to propagate the new faith. Although Islamic elements in classical wayang are scarce, pseudo-historical Islamic story cycles such as Wayang Menak portray propagation and victory of Islam. The recent emergence of dalang ustad – puppeteers-cum-Islamic teachers – like Enthus Susmono is nevertheless an entirely new trend.

Like his audience, Enthus Susmono is fully convinced of the compatibility of Islam and wayang. In his performances he strives to reflect on current social life, of which Islam is a prominent part. For him, religion in any form, be it Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity, is about the ‘human philosophy’ of how to live a good life. He tells people how to live a good life by incorporating Islamic messages in his shows. When not performing, he also gives Islamic lessons in Tegal and surroundings. He claims that people invite him to do this because they understand him better than the regular Islamic scholars, and is skilled in conveying stories and messages in ways that are interesting and comprehensible to a wide audience.

Authenticity in innovation

With almost unrestrained creativity, Enthus Susmono emphatically tries to interest a wide audience to wayang by relating to their daily lives and realities. His creation of wayang santri is just one manifestation of this. In search of new audiences, Enthus Susmono is not afraid to stretch his innovations to the limit and search for the boundaries of what is commonly regarded as the wayang tradition. In this, he is as creatively adventurous as economically minded.

Critics claim he crosses the line, but the instant success of Enthus Susmono’s wayang santri demonstrates that the boundaries of wayang are fluid. Enthus Susmono’s audience appreciates his shows for their comprehensibility, his openness, creativity and humour. This mix is appealing especially to young people and makes crude jokes and Islam wholly compatible. Innovations, both in content and form, appear to be indispensable to maintain wayang in the present. Perhaps innovation is the truly ‘authentic’ trait of tradition. In this light, the extreme innovator Enthus Susmono does not ‘destroy’ the tradition, but rather perpetuates it through innovations like wayang santri.

Sadiah Boonstra (sn.boonstra@let.vu.nl) is a PhD Candidate at VU University in Amsterdam. Her research examines dynamics of heritage formation in contemporary Indonesia using the wayang puppet theatre as a case study.

Inside Indonesia 106: Oct-Dec 2011

Latest Articles

Essay: Local tradition in a global religious community in modern day Java

Feb 20, 2024 - LEO BARRY

Ghosts and spirits often come up in conversation but attitudes are changing

Review: Netflix’s ‘Cigarette Girl’ promotes Big Tobacco interests in Indonesia

Feb 08, 2024 - MARINA WELKER

Netflix’s series Gadis Kretek (Cigarette Girl) romanticises an industry that kills around 290,000 Indonesians each year

Book review: I am that unicorn

Feb 06, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Essay: A movement to remember

Feb 01, 2024 - GHINA TSABITAH

This essay is the first in a new series featuring the writing of and edited by young people.

Obituary: Soni Farid Maulana (1962-2022)

Jan 23, 2024 - IAN CAMPBELL

Lontar Modern Indonesia



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

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

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