Ki Anom Suroto: Staying
true to classicism

(JP/R. Berto Wedhatama)

It was an evening unlike any other for Javanese puppeteer Anom Suroto.

That night, about a hundred pairs of eyes – most of which belonged to Indonesians – glanced back and forth between the dozens of leather puppets that came to life in his hands and a handful of screens displaying English subtitles to his Bima Bungkus show.

It was a charity night in a luxury hotel ballroom in the capital, where Anom’s show took second stage – intentionally – for the sake of giving a new lease of life to the art of classic Javanese leather puppetry.

And sometimes Anom’s shows take on a more modern flavor, despite his belief in classicism.

“We can try to simplify the language, as long as it does not lessen [the show’s] characteristics,” the 60-year-old puppeteer says.

His show that night, Bimo Bungkus, The Birth of Bima at the Dharmawangsa Hotel on April 24, was the opening act for half a dozen others scheduled as part of the Bima Series, a bimonthly fundraising event featuring wayang performances by five seasoned classical shadow puppeteers.

The aim of the series of events is secure funding to follow up the project of producing educational documentation about the art of classical wayang. For second-generation Javanese puppeteers like Anom, the classics remain at the foundation of the centuries-old performance art that blends philosophical values with everyday entertainment.

“We have two basic set of rules: The rules of the story and the rules of puppetry,” he explains.

The rules of the story, according to Anom, depend on how mature a puppeteer is in improvising classical storylines – or lakon – taken from the two basic sources of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

“What we define as classic wayang involves those that stay true to the basic rules of puppetry while not setting aside creativity,” Anom adds.

There are several puppetry styles in Jakarta, of which the Surakarta and Yogyakarta styles are the most prominent; other less well-known styles include Banyumasan, Tegal and East Java, all of which refer to the area where the style originated.

On top of his adherence to classical style, creativity is indeed Anom’s secret ingredient.

While staying true to what he calls the classic pakem or rules of puppetry, Anom is not afraid to add his own touch by putting the classical philosophy of wayang into a more modern context.

He incorporates into his shows pop songs that are hits among youngsters – and sometimes even songs in English – between the Javanese lines.

Some critics claim he does it merely to seduce his audience, because, of his generation, Anom is in tight competition with Manteb Sudarsono for the hearts of the scant wayang lovers. The competition between the two has, critics argue, led to a certain deterioration in the role of a dalang, shifting it from community leader and teacher to mere entertainer.

But Anom, as a puppeteer who often highlights the comedic aspects of his shows to broaden their appeal responds by saying “We can preserve classical wayang, but with a classicism that remains contextual.”

For him, the classical art of puppetry is only the foundation for a dalang or a puppet master. It is the stepping stone from which one leaps, boosted by one’s own imagination and artistry.

“That was my advice to my son: Be creative, but master the basics first,” he says. And while there are schools that can teach the basics, the art of puppetry is perhaps more of an acquired skill than a formal one.

Anom himself first learned not to perform, but to love the art.

“I was busy following my father performing until morning. Slowly, it [wayang] got to me [to the point] that I started to neglect my formal education,” he said.

In pursuit of doing what he loves, Anom, who was born in Klaten, Central Java, left school after junior high to go to a special school for puppeteers. At that age, he had already learned by watching his father Sadiyun Harjadarsana and his renowned colleagues such as Nartosabdo.

By the age of 20, when most of his peers were becoming either civil servant or teachers, Anom had broadened his audience by performing on national radio station RRI.

“My own son seems to be following in my footsteps,” said Anom, referring to Bayu Aji Pamungkas, whose work as a dalang comes before his study at university.

As a seasoned dalang, Anom is not only performing, but also creating his own gendhing (Javanese pentatonic orchestra) and offering his own take on the philosophical values conveyed through the leather puppet shows.

“Wayang is but a wire that people can hang their clothes on,” he says. “We [dalang] can basically hang anything there, the good and the bad, and let the audience decide on which path to take in life.”

Among his own creations are Semar Bangun Khayangan (Semar Builds Heaven) and Hanoman Maneges (The Strict Hanoman), into which he has inserted ancient leadership values that he learned from old Javanese books.

“We can learn a lot from our ancient history like Majapahit,” he says. “If we can build a storyline teaching people about the values of life from it, why not do it?”

For Anom, puppetry is a kind of religious teacher conveying a message through the medium of art. And Javanese wayang, like any other traditional performing art, is indeed full of philosophical messages – about good and evil, but also about all the shades of gray in the world.

And despite being an art based on and highly influenced by foreign cultures, its roots have penetrated deep inside the Javanese community.

“I am sometimes still amazed that one or two people still declare wayang as haram [forbidden according to Islamic teachings] because it comes from India,” Anom says.

“Don’t they know that it has aspects that its ancestor in India doesn’t have? Like some characters and the gunungan [symbol of a mountain] used during the show.”

Yet Anom is not bothered by criticism, whether of the way he performs or of his apparent love of the limelight. He believes in his art, and in the importance of preserving that art by nurturing young artists.

“Those who come later should be better than their predecessors,” he says, referring to young puppet masters. “If they are not better, they had better not come at all.”

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