May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Petruk as counsellor

Published: Apr 14, 2007

Post-earthquake, Klaten villagers receive laughing therapy through wayang.

Kathryn Emerson

Cleansing ceremonies take place in Klaten, Central Java, every Ruwah (the month before the Islamic fast), and people visit the graves of loved ones (see box). As part of these ceremonies, many villages sponsor wayang (shadow puppet) performances in and around cemeteries and in villages.

Last year plans for wayang were cancelled due to the effects of the earthquake on 27 May. No one could afford to put on a wayang and people simply didn’t have the resources necessary.

This disturbed the musician, Mas Wito Radyo, a highly respected player of gender (instrument with metallic keys), rebab (stringed instrument) and kendhang (drum) player in Solo. He has played for years with Ki Anom Soeroto, a famous dhalang (puppeteer). Mas Wito is originally from Wedhi, Klaten and has a karawitan (gamelan orchestra) group there that he works with and supports. Mas Wito commented to me, ‘It’s easy to think, “Let’s just cancel the Ruwah wayang this year, no big deal.” But if we cancel this year, it will be easy for people to do without them next year. They may be replaced by other types of events, and little by little the tradition may disappear. It seems like just one year but I think things are fragile here artistically these days — I think one year makes a difference. I think that it’s just too easy to cancel them and start to make them less important. I think this year more than ever we need the Ruwah wayang.’

So last July he put together a proposal with a detailed budget and put out calls to communities basically worded like this, ‘If you want a wayang in your village this Ruwah, let me know. If you think it wouldn’t be appropriate in the current situation or you feel it isn’t necessary, that’s of course understandable.’ He was overrun with requests. He had 35 requests for wayang in different areas of Klaten, all affected by the earthquake. He called upon dhalang to perform for free, offered his own gamelan, and asked people to donate as much as possible for essentials such as sound systems, food and electricity.

In the end he came up with a bare-bones budget that laid out plans for 35 wayang performances from mid-August until 22 September, for a total of about Rp 30 million (a little over Rp 1,000,000, or about A$140 each wayang). This is an unbelievably low cost: most modern day wayang with full fees to all — dhalang, musicians, pesindhen (female singers), as well as hire of sound system, gamelan, screen and puppets, transport, food and video documentation — would cost anywhere from 15 to 50 times that amount, sometimes much more. A full scale wayang like those put on in Klaten normally costs anywhere from A$1300–A$4500 for a middle-range dhalang. It was a remarkable feat to be able to stage 35 wayang performances at this low cost.

Ki Purbo Asmoro’s performance

The final wayang took place on 22 September in Ceporan, Gantiwarno, Klaten and it was also the only one I was able to attend. The performance was by the highest profile dhalang of the 35 nights — Ki Purbo Asmoro, who is not from Klaten. He accepted no fee at all for his performance.

Ki Purbo traces his lineage through 13 generations of Javanese dhalang. He has a Master’s Degree in Performance Art from Universitas Gadjah Mada and divides his time between an active performance career and teaching at the Arts College (STSI) in Solo. His distinctive style combines innovation and classicism.

Ki Purbo performed the story ‘Semar Mbangun Kahyangan’, in which Semar (the wise clown servant of the Pandhawa brothers) builds the Heavens — an appropriate story for the occasion.

It was, to say the least, a very memorable evening. For me, it began with the drive to the Klaten wayang location through incredible devastation, still painfully visible four months after the event — piles and piles of rubble that were the remains of a home, each accompanied by a tent, where a family is currently living. Rubble and then a tent, rubble and then a tent — over and over again … At crossroads there were the remains of the old stone gapura (gateways) or simply a broken gapura post, followed by more tents. Yet somehow — miraculously — in that devastation (right next to a home that had been turned into an emergency care centre) we came upon the site where the performance was to be staged, which had been made as special and as artistically decorated as any wayang in any situation. The stage had been put together with donated items and donated services — this was not an event where very much cash was involved at all.

If you believe in laughter therapy (and I do after seeing that performance), it must have been a very healing 35 nights for Klaten. Ki Purbo had the crowds alternately laughing harder than they must have laughed in months, and then listening intently to what Semar had to say about life and facing its challenges. He must have been a real spokesman for what the crowd was thinking as Petruk (Semar’s son, the clown who often speaks the dhalang’s own thoughts) spoke at length, hands on his hips, about the inequity of the situation and then wondered, not mincing any words, about the relief efforts. He got many cheers and applause. You could tell the crowd was feeling someone was finally speaking for them. He had the pesindhen and others describe in public what they were doing when the quake hit and you could tell everyone was thinking about their own experiences. I’ve heard that it’s also therapeutic for everyone to gather and tell each other their experiences of a trauma.

Tradition ensured

Some people have said that every cent spent should go to rebuilding homes, but I feel that the crowds watching the performance that night were grateful for the opportunity to keep the entire village together as a unit — thinking, laughing, reflecting and being entertained for seven hours. Mas Wito’s inspiration and hard work ensured that the tradition of Ruwah wayang wasn’t broken — even for one year.

Mas Wito still has impressive plans. He has worked out a five-year plan for getting Klaten to return to self-sufficiency with the Ruwahan wayang performances. Next Ruwahan he’s hoping that the villages will be able to use their own funds for the dhalang, and donations can be raised for the gamelan and sound system. Then the following Ruwahan the villages will also pay for the gamelan rental and transport.

Kathryn Emerson ( lives in Jakarta and has studied gamelan for 20 years. More recently, she has been studying the language, philosophy and stories in wayang and has worked closely in this regard with Ki Purbo Asmoro. She has served as a translator for performances of his in Jakarta and Singapore, as well as on his US tour in June 2006.

Sadranan in Ruwah

The Javanese hold the ritual of purification of graves (sadranan) during Ruwah, the eighth month of the Muslim-Javanese calendar. It is likely that sadranan is a ceremony which pre-dates the arrival of Islam, as a ritual known as ‘sarada’ existed in the Hindu kingdom of Majapahit, which glorified and honoured the ancestors. It is possible that the current sadranan is the result of the sarada ceremony merging into Javanese Islam.

During sadranan, Javanese visit their ancestors’ graves, clean the graves, pray and give offerings of incense and flowers to their ancestors’ spirits. In return, the spirits of the dead are believed to grant the living peace and prosperity. It is not uncommon for Javanese of other faiths, such as Christians, to also practise sadranan.

Sadranan may also be celebrated with a village cleansing (bersih desa) and with the harvest celebration (bubar panen).

Inside Indonesia 89: Jan-Mar 2007

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