Life

Slamet Gundono: Imagination
through grass

Courtesy of Slamet Gundono

Born Gundono, he received Slamet as his forename from his primary school teacher. “It was only to make it longer and more stylish,” said Slamet Gundono, who was fond of wayang (puppet) shows as a child.  

Although his father was a wayang kulit (leather/shadow puppet) master in Tegal, Central Java, Gundono was not seriously engaged in this art as a youth, because the puppeteer profession used to be linked with drinking and debauchery. This sturdy man chose to study in a madrassa (Islamic school) in Lebak Siu, but it was at this school that his interest in wayang was rekindled.   

In 1999, he set up a community, “Sanggar Wayang Suket” (the Grass Puppetry Studio), in Solo, Central Java, where he revolutionized this type of wayang art mostly regarded as coming to a standstill. Since then, his approach to the wayang suket he recreated has fluctuated between the Western theater and the Eastern wayang traditions.

The puppets are named after the material used to make them, which is grass, or suket in Javanese. The types of grass shaped into the different figures are usually teki (sedge grass), gajah (elephant grass), or mendhong (mat-making grass). Apart from their strong texture, these grass varieties have long leaves, which make them easier to fashion.

However, wayang suket has no standard profiles, as is the case with the characters in leather puppetry. At first glance, these grass puppets look like wayang kulit, which can be manipulated by hand, yet it’s difficult to distinguish one figure from another due to their similar forms.

A 1999 graduate of pedalangan (puppetry) from the Indonesian Art College (STSI), currently the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI), Surakarta (Solo), Gundono has now become the icon of wayang suket. Once also known as a dalang (puppeteer) of wayang kulit, this 150-kilogram artist is delving even further into wayang suket.

Born in Tegal on June 19, 1966, Slamet Gundono never thought in the beginning that grass puppetry would be a trendy art. He was just exploring his childhood experiences and happened to present it as a performing art on stage. Roaming in paddy fields as a boy, Gundono would observe farmers weaving grass leaves into wayang models during their breaks.

He staged his first grass puppet show in 1997 in Riau. When he was, unexpectedly, asked to perform there, no wayang or gamelan were available. As his older brother had an art studio in the middle of a neglected area full of weeds, his childhood memory popped up and he decided to use grass to make the various wayang puppets. With vocal imitation of the gamelan, the first story presented was Kelingan Lamun Kelangan (Reminder of Loss).

Wayang suket allows full freedom for the audience to build on their unlimited imagination. The philosophy of grass as an ever-growing plant needing only water and sunlight represents the spirit of an art that generates pride and strength of imagination.

The performance itself symbolizes the grass roots questioning themselves instead of rebelling or causing harm in life, which is likened to children playing in a house yard.

Gundono elegantly and uniquely weaves his grass puppets into new wayang creations. The stories chosen are not merely the classic epics of the Mahabharata or the Ramayana, but also daily events including bombings and general elections.

Unlike most dalang, clad in a traditional suit with a headcloth and a kris, Gundono sometimes appears without a shirt, or dressed like a cowboy. His other performance media, apart from the main characters and gunungan (mountains symbolizing human and spiritual worlds), are made from vegetables such as chili, cucumbers, tomatoes and onions stuck to a banana tree stem.

His experience in popularizing wayang suket over several years has indicated that those inviting him to perform display a strong romantic response commonly shown by an agrarian society, which comes from the subconscious minds of urban people. And not only the Javanese, even the audience in Berlin, Germany, expressed the same enthusiasm. They were so impressed that Gundono was treated to dinner after the program.

The other episodes revised or written by Gundono include Sukesi atau Rahwana Lahir (The Birth of Rahwana), Limbuk Ingin Merdeka (Limbuk wants Freedom), and Bibir Merah Banowati (Banowati’s Rosy Lips) to service the relevant market demand. In his hands, wayang suket becomes fresh and interesting infotainment.

“I’ve always seen wayang in its traditional history, like the Western theater. I don’t mean to combine both in my shows, I just take a look at the two and then create something between them,” he pointed out.

According to Gundono, wayang suket can be found in many places. But wayang craftsmen produce very refined works, corresponding to the already existing characters in wayang kulit.

“My wayang simply take the form of woven grass. Characters like Gatotkaca, Arjuna, Semar, Gareng, Petruk and Bagong are all about the same. I give the audience the chance to identify the wayang figures. I don’t want to dominate the stage.”

In other words, added Gundono, his grass puppets were not derived from existing models. He did not claim to be the original creator of wayang suket either. “It’s just my attempt to present the wayang in my own way,” he maintained.

Through wayang suket, Gundono would, in fact, like to free wayang from its rigid constraints. Not only grass but various objects like stones, coconut shells, sawn wood and even flip-flops appear as Gundono’s media to arouse the imagination of spectators.

“I’m trying to produce a synergy between the theater-and-dance world and Java’s art of puppetry. Rather than major episodes, the Mahabharata and Ramayana serve as a means to expose different topical issues,” concluded Gundono, now living at Sanggar Wayang Suket, Jomboran village, Karanganyar, Central Java.

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