Feature

Wayang Orang Sriwedari:
A dying art form

Anybody watching?: Bagong (from left to right), Semar, Petruk, Gareng improvise in a scene from a Mahabharata episode performed at Gedung Wayang Orang (GWO), the Javanese dance-drama theater in Sriwedari Amusement Park, Solo, Central Java.
Anybody watching?: Bagong (from left to right), Semar, Petruk, Gareng improvise in a scene from a Mahabharata episode performed at Gedung Wayang Orang (GWO), the Javanese dance-drama theater in Sriwedari Amusement Park, Solo, Central Java.

A performance titled “Permadi-Bratajaya Lair”, part of the Mahabharata epic, was advertised at the entrance of Gedung Wayang Orang (GWO), the Javanese dance-drama theater in Sriwedari Amusement Park, Solo.

But while visitors flocked to the park that evening, the GWO building remained deserted.

Backstage, a number of people were putting on makeup, preparing their wayang costumes and mingling in the intimate atmosphere. Props for the show, headdresses, wigs and different accessories
were still scattered around the dressing room.

When Diwasa Diranagara, the director of the Hindu epic or wayang orang, ordered the troupe members to get ready for the show, all performers quickly slipped into their costumes.

Shortly after 8 p.m., three dancing giants entered the stage and the show began. Sadly, only 20 of the playhouse’s 500 seats were occupied, despite management putting on different shows every evening.

“We have a year-round program with different shows every night,” said Diwasa.

Tickets to the performances only cost Rp 3,000 for a 3-hour traditional dance drama. Ten minutes before the show though, only 13 tickets had been sold.

“Usually, we sell around 20 to 25 tickets. It’s perhaps because of the rain tonight. Over 100 people come to our shows on Saturday nights,” said Puji.

Against all odds: Arjuna fights against giants in a battle scene from the Mahabharata epic. Audience numbers have been steadily declining over the years, as wayang orang now has to compete with many other forms of entertainment.

Against all odds: Arjuna fights against giants in a battle scene from the Mahabharata epic. Audience numbers have been steadily declining over the years, as wayang orang now has to compete with many other forms of entertainment.

The Sriwedari Theater is located 2-kilometers West of the Court of Kasunanan Surakarta, on Jl. Slamet Riyadi. Statues of wayang figures, Gatotkaca and Srikandi, stand in front of the building, from which hangs a banner with the slogan, “Love Our Culture”.

Sadly, the playhouse is not well maintained: The roof is partly damaged, the decoration is quite dull. On a more positive note, the sound system is strong and clear and enables the audience to follow the dialogue with ease.

The 85 members of Sriwedari’s wayang orang troupe are passionate about preserving the cultural heritage of Surakarta court. For these artists, the show that originated in the period of Pakubuwono X, reigning from 1893 to 1939, must be kept alive.

The Javanese theater has indeed survived for more than a century. Formerly, the performing arts of Surakarta court under Pakubuwono X, were intended for the entertainment of the royal family.

From 1921, however, wayang orang has been part of the Sriwedari amusement park, offering the public a chance to enjoy this drama-cum-choreography.

Wayang Orang Sriwedari had its heyday from the 1960s to the mid 1980s, with up to 2,000 visitors per month. Since then, however, the theater has struggled. Apart from its falling popularity, its previous status as a Javanese cultural icon is no longer apparent.

According to Tugimin (56), one of Solo’s cultural observers, visitor numbers to the GWO have dwindled as a result of the multitude of other more entertaining arts on offer in town.

“Young people are also fond of modern leisure activities such as hanging out in cafes or revelling. The wayang orang has, as a result, become less popular.”

Tugimin also admitted the quality of the performances had waned.

“In the past, troupe members were very disciplined and I think the stories adopted were quite original. Each show lasted for 4 hours, while today they only last for two,” he said.

With most of it seats vacant, the wayang orang players look a little bored. At least as much is true for Agus Prasetyo, who has been with the troupe for seven years.

“If there are only 10 people watching us, it’s fine, but these conditions affect the mood of the performers. I am disappointed when no one comes, it feels as though no one appreciates this traditional art,” he said.

As for salaries, 90 percent of the Sriwedari performers are civil servants, so their welfare is still a concern.

GWO circles have attempted to attract more visitors in various ways, including through more publicity.

“In addition to announcements, we also publicize our programs through print and electronic media, but ticket sales have not yet significantly increased,” said Diwasa.

The Solo city administration has also played a role in communicating the GWO agenda to the public, by publishing Sriwedari events in the city’s travel journals and tourist brochures.

GWO executives also invite primary, secondary and high school students in an attempt to introduce this centuries-old art to the younger generation.

Head of the Solo Tourism, Art and Culture Office, Purnomo Subagyo, said that besides campaigning for wayang orang through the media, his office had also distributed tickets to employees of the city administration.

“We give them tickets to increase the number of visitors and familiarize the employees’ families with this art. But whether they go to the theater is their own decision, we can not force them,” he added.

Yet Diwasa once indicated that government attention was now decreasing along with declining public interest in this show. “It’s actually hard to say who left us first, the public or the government.”

According to him, the government should promote the show more actively. It’s his hope that aside from material support, the government will also demonstrate its interest by watching the performances themselves.

It’s not simple to revive GWO programs amid the mushrooming cinemas, cafes and other youth hangouts, but it by no means implies this traditional art has to be forgotten.

— Photos by JP/Ganug Nugroho Adi

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