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

Puppetry in the shadow of COVID-19

Published: Jan 27, 2021
Versi Bh. Indonesia
Javanese shadow puppet performance artists and audiences in Jakarta adapt to the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic

Rahmadi Fajar Himawan

This past September, as I was talking with Warsiah, a sinden (female vocalist for Javanese gamelan music), our discussion about art performances before the pandemic led her to share about her experience on New Year’s Eve 2019. Warsinah was performing at a wayangan (Javanese shadow puppet performance) in Cengkareng, North Jakarta, held to welcome the New Year, when it was suddenly disrupted by heavy rain. Even after the wayangan ended, the rain didn’t stop. Later that night when she arrived at her home in Kramat Jati, East Jakarta, she found that her house had flooded. Such calamities also struck other Jakarta artists returning home after performances that night; most arrived home after midnight to flooded houses.

‘How could it be?’ Warsiah asked me about the disaster on New Year’s Eve. We asked ourselves if such a calamity was a sign, a welcoming into the hardships of 2020.

People in Jakarta have been affected by COVID-19 in many ways since March 2020 – socially, financially, and so on. By 14 September 2020, Indonesia’s PSBB (large-scale social restrictions) had been extended yet again. ‘Almost a year without a single performance!’ said Warsiah. I can imagine what she felt. After social restrictions started in April 2020, many performance opportunities had been cancelled or postponed indefinitely. Events like wedding parties or wayangan were perceived as too dangerous since they always attract big crowds. Artists like Warsiah who earn money from singing Javanese traditional music at social events and gatherings were now unable to do their jobs.

With PSBB still ongoing, a question occurred to me: do traditional performances, particularly wayangan, still happen in the era of COVID-19?

Wayangan in Jakarta

Prior to COVID-19, the Javanese arts, especially wayangan and karawitan (Javanese gamelan music), were flourishing in Jakarta. Since the Javanese are the largest ethnic group in Jakarta, Javanese traditional art and music are in high demand. Javanese musical performances usually accompany slametan (blessing events), conducted frequently during weddings, birthdays, circumcisions, the inauguration of a new house or building, commemoration days and more. Those who can afford to do so will rent a full gamelan orchestra and karawitan group to play at their slametan. At the top end of the price scale, the wayangan: a performance of Javanese shadow puppets accompanied by a large karawitan group. Even though hiring a karawitan group or holding a wayangan is perceived as a privilege for the wealthy, the cost of a performance is negotiable, and the quality and execution of the performance varies based on the buyer’s budget. Thus, karawitan performances and wayangan can be found all over Jakarta, from small alleys in lower-income areas all the way to the presidential palace.

Before the enactment of PSBB, on Friday nights or Saturday nights, up to three wayangan could be found in various sub-districts of Jakarta or in Bekasi, Depok, Tangerang and other locations close to the city. Popular dalang (puppeteers) performed weekly, as did less popular dalang (such as those famous only in their own communities or district/sub-district), student dalang, and dalang who have just begun performing. Famous dalang from Central Java, Yogyakarta, and East Java also regularly perform in Jakarta; names like Ki Seno Nugroho, Ki Manteb Sudarsono, Ki Anom Suroto, Ki Sri Susilo Tengkleng, Ki Cahyo Kuntadi are quite familiar to Jakarta audiences.

Ki Manteb Sudarsono in action / ANTARA FOTO

With such a dense schedule of wayangan and karawitan performances, demand for dalang and pengrawit (gamelan musicians) is high. Who are these artists? Most dalang, sinden, and pengrawit come from Yogyakarta, Central Java and East Java. Some have graduated from vocational high schools for the traditional arts, while others have graduated from the prestigious ISI (Indonesia Institute of the Arts). However, the majority of dalang, pengrawit and sinden in Jakarta are self-taught. Most study the art of wayang and gamelan in their hometowns, and many start their careers after arriving in Jakarta. Not all of these people are full-time artists; some have day jobs as traders, government employees, judges, police officers and more.

The enactment of PSBB on 10 April 2020 severely affected large numbers of dalang, pengrawit and sinden. Suddenly, these performers lost their stages. All of their opportunities to perform – from big art events to modest wedding parties in small alleys – disappeared in an effort to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. The performers also lost the wages they normally earn at their gigs; a dalang student, a sinden or a musician can be paid as much as Rp.1 million (A$94) for a single night of work at a wayangan show. Singgih, a musician friend of mine, earns between Rp.300,000 and Rp.800,000 for an all-day karawitan performance.

While some part-time artists could at least depend on their day jobs, most were forced to find other means to survive, such as selling household goods or starting up a small business. They also had the opportunity to apply for a one-off Rp.1million financial assistance package from the Ministry of Education and Culture as well as their regional governments, but by no means were all artists’ applications approved.

Performances on YouTube

Beginning in the 2010s, livestreams of wayang performances on YouTube became quite common. Some famous dalang, like Ki Sri Kuncoro Brimob, established their own YouTube channels. Multimedia labels commonly hired to record performances at social occasions like weddings also began livestreaming. Performances in this context happened in public places for live audiences; livestreaming allowed those unable to attend in person enjoy the show from home.

After news broke in March 2020 that the coronavirus had been detected in Indonesia, all arts and musical performances, including livestreaming of performances, were temporarily suspended. This affected all performances, including wayangan, that brought crowds of people together in public spaces. PSBB aimed to keep people at a safe physical distance; in the early period of PSBB, police officers actively monitored residential areas and often intervened in social gatherings, even small ones. No wayangan performances in public places in Jakarta were streamed through YouTube channels during PSBB other than rebroadcasts of videos from previous years. With no new shows taking place, livestreaming was impossible.

In May 2020, however, I saw that a small-scale, one-hour wayangan video had been uploaded by Panji Laras Art on YouTube. Fakih Tri Sera Fil Ardi, an undergraduate student of Javanese Studies at Universitas Indonesia, was the dalang. The wayangan was described as Pagelaran Wayang Climen (performance of wayang climen), and the title of the lakon (story) was Jagad Kemul Pageblug (A Universe shrouded by Plague). The wayangan, which had a simple story line and just a few characters, was accompanied by four young musicians and had no sinden. Indonesian subtitles had been added to the video after recording.

As it turned out, the video was part of a Universitas Indonesia community service program. In the story of Jagad Kemul Pageblug, Fakih interpreted the conditions of social life during the pandemic using characters from the Javanese version of the Mahabharata. The story started with imagery of the universe in the grip of a pandemic. This condition impacted many aspects of people’s lives, particularly the economic and social activities of the lower classes. Some people seized the opportunity to plunder others. These crimes were stopped by the three sons of Wrekudara (a famous character in Mahabharata story and one of the five Pandawa brothers).

In the real world, PSBB has hindered people from undertaking their regular economic activities, especially those requiring face-to-face interaction. Thus, people like small-scale merchants, public transport drivers, barbers and entertainers cannot do their work as usual. The wayangan by Fakih warns audiences that if such conditions persists, people are likely to turn to crime simply to survive.

At the end of the story, Antasena, the youngest son of Wrekudara, told his two brothers that the outside world was now shrouded in virus and wickedness. Lower class people were the primary victims of the plague. Antasena also raised the issue of celebrating Eid at the end of Ramadhan, the Islamic fasting month. It is a tradition for people in Indonesia to mudik – to return to their hometowns – at Eid, so Antasena reminds audiences about the mudik ban announced by Indonesian President Joko Widodo in April 2020. Fakih interpreted this prohibition as an act of prevention; since so many crimes can happen in the open street, it is better for people not to join the annual mass exodus, rather ‘just stay at home’ while the universe is ‘shrouded by plague’. The sentence ‘just stay at home’ (di rumah saja) has been very popular during the pandemic, repeated many times in government communications and commercial advertisements.

Wayang climen

In addition to the substance of the story, something which attracted my interest about the wayangan by Fakih was the term ‘wayang climen’. Since I know little about Javanese language and its use in Javanese shadow puppet theatre, I consulted with Roby, a friend who studied in ISI Surakarta, Central Java. He explained that in Javanese, climen means ‘small scale’ or ‘simple’. The term wayang climen is commonly used to describe a Javanese shadow puppet performance executed on a small scale or in more modest way. Imagine this: A a Javanese shadow puppet theatre with an improvised white screen adorned with a small number of wayang puppets, accompanied by a few sinden and gamelan players. In contrast, wayang performances broadcast through YouTube channels are usually performed on a grand scale; a long white screen is adorned with numerous puppets on both the left and right side of the puppeteer, while a complete gamelan orchestra provides accompaniment. Such events are staged in public spaces for large audiences.

In 13 June 2020, a famous Jakarta puppeteer, Ki Sri Kuncoro Brimob, staged a performance described in its poster as wayang climen. The event took place in front of his house in Cimanggis, Depok, West Java, and was livestreamed through a YouTube channel called Andhika Multimedia New. Just a few people watched the show. There were only 10 pengrawit – three of them playing two instruments during performance – and four sinden. The story depicted Gatotkaca (another son of Wrekudara, the Pandawa hero) defeating an evil ogre king. I think the lakon was chosen to symbolise people’s recent struggle to eliminate the pandemic. Kala Pracona represented an evil spirit, or in my interpretation, COVID-19 itself. Gatotkaca embodied the strength of the people to fight the evil power. This interpretation was supported by the words of the dalang. At the beginning of story, Gatotkaca talks to the people about the pandemonium affecting their country. In this condition, the dalang says, life is uncertain, and lower-class people become the first victims. It reminded me of the wayangan by Fakih, which suggested that during the plague, lower-class people were the most affected segment of society.

Wayangan being livestreamed via YouTube is not a new phenomenon. But it should be noted that during pandemic, the online platform has become the only way for most people to see a performance. Only a few people are physically present – the performers, event crew, some neighbours and invited guests – and the audience is primarily virtual, comprised mostly of Javanese people, living in Jakarta and elsewhere, longing for entertainment. As the quarantine continues, virtual entertainment could encourage more people to just stay at home.

Concerning the staging of wayang climen, the addition of new interpretations of existing stories or characters in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and livestreaming as the main tool for attracting audiences, COVID-19 has opened new possibilities for Javanese shadow puppet theatre in Jakarta.

Is performing virtually the only option?

After the wayang climen performance by Ki Sri Kuncoro Brimob on 13 June 2020, the YouTube channel Andika Multimedia New continued livestreaming other wayangan. As of August 2020, the channel had presented four wayang climen performances. All of these took place in sanggar (studios) in Depok and Bekasi (West Java). Some were advertised with slogans like ‘saksikan di rumah saja’ (just enjoy it at home) or ‘ruang ekspresi di masa pandemi’ (the space for art expression during the pandemic).

The idea of watching wayangan virtually is compelling. Such a show doesn’t require audiences to sit in front of a stage and obey health protocols. Through these livestreams, some dalang, pengrawit and sinden have been able to come out of their vacuum and earn income like they used to. Could it be that livestreamed wayangan has become the only option?

Wayangan for live audiences suddenly returned on Malam Sura (the night of Sura), the night of the new year according to the Islamic calendar and considered sacred by many Javanese people. On the night of 21 August 2020, many sanggar in Jagakarsa, Depok, Ciledug and Ciputat, three town/sub-districts near Jakarta, celebrated Malam Sura by holding live wayangan performances. A public event attracting a large crowd during quarantine – could it be?

I was invited to join a small-scale live performance of wayangan in South Jakarta around this time. The event was intended to commemorate the reopening of an artists’ studio which had been closed for months. Although staged simply compared to pre-pandemic shows, this performance drew a packed live audience – mainly male members of local wayang fan clubs. Sitting together behind the pengrawit, they mostly wore face masks while filling the air with cigarette smoke and chatting without observing physical distancing. During an interlude of light, entertaining sinden songs, they started to dance in time with the rhythm of the drums; the show had a festive atmosphere. It was as if people were unaware that their country was still in the grip of COVID-19 – and that police officers could turn up at any time to enforce regulations.

One thing was clear: people are still fond of wayangan. They miss the atmosphere of the event itself. Apart from the wayang itself, these shows are places where they can gather with their friends and socialise. For native Javanese living in Jakarta far from their hometowns, the shows are an opportunity to watch wayangan and listen to karawitan music while enjoying friendly conversation with other Javanese. The black coffee and sweet tea, snacks of boiled peanuts and sweet potatoes, and cigarettes create an atmosphere that cannot be enjoyed virtually.

Now, we have wayang climen that can be witnessed virtually. At the same time, standard wayangan, even though not executed with the usual large-scale arrangements, has slowly reappeared in some places in Jakarta.


I remember one question in particular that Warsiah asked during our conversation. Could it be that the flooding rain at the beginning of 2020 in Jakarta signalled the hardship ahead for everyone, including traditional artists and their audiences? This is a question that I cannot answer, but it is clear that hardship has prompted people to try different ways of keeping wayang alive. Virtual wayang climen is one approach, even though live wayangan remains the preference.

‘Almost a year without a single performance!’ – Warsiah said. I remember this clearly. Wayang has persisted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, albeit in the simplified form of wayang climen. But its performers still live in uncertainty, waiting for the time when they will again be able to earn money using their creative skills as they did before the arrival of the coronavirus.

Rahmadi Fajar Himawan ( graduated from Department of Sociology, University of Indonesia, with undergraduate thesis focused on Javanese shadow puppet theatre.

Inside Indonesia 143: Jan-Mar 2021

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