The vast archipelagic nation of Indonesia is blessed with a wealth of indigenous cultures that stretch across from Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam to Papua. So diverse and various is Indonesian culture that the national slogan Bhinneka Tunggal Ika -- "Unity in Diversity" -- is an apt reflection of this plurality.
One art form that is part of this richness is the wayang (traditional puppetry), influenced by Hinduism, and the history of which can be traced as far back as the 9th Century in Indonesia.
The wayang exists from Sumatra to Lombok, but in various versions according to the local culture. There are many types of wayang, from the wayang kulit (shadow puppet) to the wayang topeng (masked puppet) to the famous wayang wong or wayang orang.
Wong in Javanese and orang in Bahasa Indonesia both mean person, and the "puppets" in this art form are human performers.
Wayang wong was historically staged only within the palaces of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, but its popularity rose and wayang wong came to be performed in public. In wayang wong, the dalang (narrator and troupe leader) only provides a suluk (prelude) to the story, and the performers dance, sing and speak -- usually in Javanese -- to act out the drama.
The wayang developed and adapted to suit the local way of life. For example, the punakawan, the comical and wise servants of Pandawa, are found only in the Javanese wayang, and do not exist in the country of its origin, India.
In the 1960s, about six wayang troupes existed in Jakarta. One of them, Panca Murti, had three different groups of performers: one performed at the Realto Theater in the Senen area while the other two toured Java and Sumatra. When the Panca Murti dispersed in 1972, several of its members formed another group called Wayang Orang Bharata that continued to perform.
Today, only the Wayang Orang Bharata survives in the capital, but the troupe continues to face a life of struggle for their art.
"In the early 1970s, all Bharata members and their families lived together, crowded in the Realto Theater. Fortunately, the housing problem was solved when in 1972, Sudarno Djajadi, at that time the chairman of the Bharata Foundation, asked his Chinese businessman friend, known as Tan Kudus, to purchase and donate land in Sunter, which later became our housing complex," Bharata troupe leader Marsam recalled after a show in early January.
At the end of 1999, the troupe received the happy news that the Jakarta government had decided to renovate the Bharata Building, their home. But the bad news was that the renovations would take until 2003, which meant they had no place to perform and were thus forced to take a hiatus for almost four years.
When renovations were eventually finished, Marsam was disappointed to find out that the completed building did not qualify as a wayang theater.
"The restoration was carried out without ever consulting me. The building contractor and the authorities should have asked us what we needed," said Marsam. "We can still perform there, but the stage is not what we need it to be."
The Jakarta government thus offered to subsidize the troupe to perform at the Gedung Kesenian Jakarta, but in 2005 they decided to return to their original home and performed for free at its theater. But after such a long absence from performing, the Bharata troupe struggled to win back their fans.
By 2007, Bharata was performing once a week, with ticket prices set at Rp 25,000 for first-class seats and Rp 20,000 for second-class.
"We have faced many obstacles in our existence, but thankfully there have been solutions so far," said Marsam.
At present, the Bharata Building has around 290 seats.
"When the weather is fine, the theater is filled to half-capacity. On some very special occasions, more spectators come," said Aris, who mans the Bharata box office.
Revenues from ticket sales are spent on operational costs such as chartering two minibuses for the troupe, meals and production costs. The remaining funds, if any, are divided among the troupe members. With a total membership of 85 performers, the honorarium each performer receives is undoubtedly small.
In addition to the dwindling financial support from the Jakarta administration, Bharata faces other impediments in its journey. Mismanagement and a lack of attention from relevant authorities for their development and welfare, as well as the rapid emergence of alternative, modern forms of entertainment also have burdened them.
"We certainly must look to other means of income to survive. Old and experienced members usually work as masters of ceremony for traditional Javanese events, traditional bridal makeup artists or traditional dance instructors, while the younger generation take on jobs as background dancers or work at Dunia Fantasi Ancol as entertainers," said Marsam. "Still, I am proud of them because however bitter the situation is, they are still enthusiastic to perform."
Behind the gleaming costumes they wear on the stage every weekend lie the hard struggles of life as a wayang wong artist. And they leak this fact to the audience during a performance, through satirical jokes about their harsh life on the stage.
Other traditional arts often find it difficult to cultivate successors among the younger generation, but the Bharata troupe has been relatively fortunate in this aspect.
"We have been performing since the establishment of Bharata in 1972. And we and our children still perform here," said senior performers Haryati, Mamik and Heru.
Haryati's children, Widuri, Dora and Angga, joined the troupe as wayang performers soon after they graduated senior high school. Widuri's children -- and Haryati's grandchildren -- 19 year-old Didit and 10 year-old Tika also have made the wayang wong their life's work.
As with the fate faced by many other traditional artists, the Bharata troupe members are uncertain about their future. Will they still be able to perform? Will they survive another year?
It is solely because of their profound love for the wayang wong that they keep Wayang Wong Bharata -- and this traditional art form -- alive.
Wayang Wong Bharata Jl. Kalilio 15 Senen, Central Jakarta Tel: (021) 927175
The story of `Gatutkaca Luweng'
Following is a synopsis of the Gatutkaca Luweng drama, which the Wayang Wong Bharata performed on Jan. 5, 2008, from 8:30-11:15 p.m. at their home theater:
Lesmana Mondrokumoro, the bad knight of the Kurawa clan, decides to seduce Pergiwa, the wife of Gatutkaca. In order to realize this, he abducts Pergiwa's son Sasikirana and takes him to the kingdom of Astina, over which Lesmana rules.
Immediately following this event, Pergiwa follows Lesmana to his palace to reclaim her son -- falling into Lesmana's trap.
Gatutkaca, although he is severely ill at the time, upon hearing about the abduction of his son and wife, rushes to Astina Kingdom to save his family. But weakened by his illness, he is easily captured, falling into a luweng (a deep and dark pit).
The punakawan wise men inform the Pandawa brothers Bima (Gatutkaca's father) and Arjuna (Gatutkaca's uncle) of the situation, who then combine forces to rescue Gatutkaca and his family, and to punish Lesmana and the Kurawa clan.
Their task fulfilled, all return safely to the Amarta Kingdom in a happy ending.
-- Ani Suswantoro