A dalang or puppet master should not only be versed in the world of wayang (shadow puppet) performances but also have a broad knowledge of current developments in society, not just history.
This is the view of Ki Enthus Susmono, an eccentric dalang from Tegal, Central Java, popularly known as “dalang edan” (crazy puppeteer) because of his departure from the conventional practice in this art.
Enthus Susmono, 46, has gained notoriety for his maverick style of puppetry and is surely familiar among lovers of wayang kulit (leather puppet) shows in Indonesia. His performances have always drawn hundreds of fans, an achievement of spectatorship comparable only to the previous records of his very few seniors.
“It’s all because I’ve explored with my creations and made innovations in puppetry; otherwise today’s youths would not be interested in wayang shows,” Enthus Susmono told The Jakarta Post in Purwokerto recently.
In fact, Enthus likes his nickname because it has added to his popularity, he says.
“My puppetry applies the food-stall philosophy. I just follow the prevailing public trends and what’s selling well, or else I wouldn’t sell at all. And if that happened I wouldn’t be able to convey moral messages through this delicate art,” Enthus said.
The fact that Enthus Susmono’s performances continually gather massive audiences of all ages constitutes a rare phenomenon in contemporary wayang performances in Javanese society. Most dalang who have stuck more closely to traditional wayang almost definitely attract older crowds aged 50 and above.
“Many dalang have forgotten the history of wayang kulit in which Sunan Kalijaga (one of Java’s earliest Islamic preachers) used these puppets as a medium to convey religious messages. Naturally, Sunan Kalijaga spoke the language of Java’s predominant culture,” Enthus said.
It would not be appropriate if the culture and symbols presented in wayang only imitated those from traditional the early stages of wayang performance, because the culture of the current age has changed.
“Modern dalang should utilize aspects of contemporary culture and symbols so as to be communicative and more acceptable to the public, which has now changed considerably,” Enthus said.
For this reason, he has continually worked to innovate in his narration and puppetry. While frequently using informal language in his story telling, Enthus also often slips in topical issues Indonesia is currently facing such as the Bank Century bailout, corruption, HIV/AIDS, global warming and celebrities’ scandals. This is the only way wayang will survive, he said.
Enthus inherits his skill from his father and a distant ancestor. Born on June 21, 1966 in Dampyak, Tegal, he is the only child of Soemarjadihardja, a famous wayang golèk (wooden puppet) player in Tegal, with his third wife Tarminah. One of Enthus’ ancestors, R.M. Singadimedja, was a renowned dalang from Bagelen during the reign of Sunan Amangkurat in the time of the Mataram Kingdom.
His mastery of wayang kulit first emerged when he was in high school. With the demise of Enthus’ father and mentor in his second year, he carried on the puppetry profession by attending school in the morning and performing in the evening to support his family.
His popularity increased further after winning a Central Java junior dalang competition in 1988. Thus the young puppeteer assumed the dalang title Ki Enthus, and became increasingly well known for his creative flair.
Enthus explored not only wayang handbooks and standards, but also the shapes and characters of the leather puppets, which he further expanded by including new names widely known by the public. This unique approach helped Enthus establish his moniker as “crazy dalang”.
Enthus designed contemporary puppets including George Bush, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, a symbolic representation of Aceh’s tsunami, Harry Potter, Batman, alien images, and various political figures. The emergence of completely new characters in his collection made his shows fresh, full of surprises and acceptable to people of different backgrounds.
For these reasons, in 2008 the Indonesian Records Museum (MURI) awarded Enthus with the title of the most creative dalang, for having the largest collection of puppets (1,491). Some of his creations are now among the collections of international museums such as Tropen Museum in the Netherlands, the Museum of International Folk Arts (MOIFA) in New Mexico and Museum Wayang Walter Angts in Germany.
Enthus says he has spent his life working to enhance public appreciation of wayang, and revitalizing wayang kulit in Indonesia.
In January 2009, the works of Ki Enthus were exhibited at a prestigious event in Tropen Museum, the Netherlands, called “Wayang Superstar, The Theatre World of Ki Enthus Susmono”. In June 2009
Ki Enthus also toured several countries including Holland, France and South Korea, with wayang performances featuring the story of Dewa Ruci.