As a primary school student in 1962, Joko Sri Yono learned the art of painting illustrated scrolls for storytelling called wayang beber from a classical painter of the Surakarta sultanate, Raden Ngabei Atmosoepomo.
Unsurprisingly, Joko is now well versed in the art and legends of the princes (panji) of East Java’s kingdoms, notably the romance between Dewi Sekartaji and Panji Asmorobangun.
“At first I simply had to learn wayang beber to survive. My family was so poor that we could scarcely live on our income. By painting the scrolls, I could have a free lunch. Only after high school did I earn more to buy books and other necessities,” said Joko at his home in Kampung Gambuhan in Solo.
Wayang beber are series of paintings depicting semi-historical legends or romances of the Kediri kingdom in East Java. They are known as Panji episodes. The word beber indicates that the dalang or narrator unrolls a painted scroll while speaking and singing to tell the story depicted in the images. “Unlike performing wayang kulit or leather puppets, the dalang needs only to point at the pictures with a small wooden or bamboo stick while narrating,” he said.
For seven years, from fifth grade until he finished high school, Joko apprenticed with Atmosoepomo to learn the art, stories and philosophy of wayang beber.
While wayang kulit is entirely based on the Indian Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, wayang beber episodes are derived from indigenous Indonesian stories. Panji legends arose out of the Kediri kingdom and developed in the Majapahit era before spreading to other kingdoms, including Mataram in Central Java.
In their growth, wayang beber stories were handed down through folklore. “Panji legends constitute a cultural heritage of great value and should thus be preserved,” said the father of two and grandfather of two.
With this obsession since he was a youngster, Joko had to pause his wayang beber making after high school in 1970, again for survival reasons. He worked as a batik designer for a company in Jakarta and five years later started his own batik design business. However, unable to settle in the capital, he returned to Solo and married Sukarti.
He later worked with Batik Semar as a batik designer. Those creations were very important, especially during the heyday of batik printing in the 1980s, with designers of printed products much in demand.
“I had to work to support my family because we couldn’t live on wayang beber. But finally I quit Batik Semar and again opened a batik design service shop,” he said. His business has since made headway, providing uniform material for various state agencies and exporting to the Middle East, including Abu Dhabi.
Yet, Joko has continued to spare his time painting wayang beber. “This may be a manifestation of my deep concern as the tradition is on the brink of extinction. I don’t want wayang beber to vanish due to modernization,” the youngest of seven pointed out.
Therefore, Joko has reproduced masters of complete 24-episode wayang beber paintings of two major legends, Joko Kembang Kuning and the romance of Dewi Sekartaji and Raden Panji Asmorobangun. Made of transparent plastic sheets painted with dark ink, the masters are to be used for painting cloths. “After they have all been transferred to cloth, the results will serve as training modules for those interested in learning about wayang beber,”
Joko, born in Solo on Nov. 7, 1951, said the masters were based on reproduced photos of wayang beber now becoming the historical artifacts of Karangtalun village in Pacitan and Gelaran village in Gunungkidul regency in Yogyakarta. “In Solo, there are several wayang beber painters but they no longer follow the palace models. Their products are more contemporary but it’s only a matter of choice,” he said.
For the stories and number of episodes, Joko fully adheres to the standards of Pacitan. With the episodes totaling 24, each cloth is composed of four episodes so that there are six sheets of cloth. The standard width of the cloth is 50 centimeters while the length depends on the story. “It can be 1 or 2 meters for each episode,” he said.
The standard technique for coloring applies the primary colors of red, yellow, green and blue along with their gradations, but Joko noted the use of pastels or soft colors for today’s wayang beber. He no longer follows the standard of delancang gedog or bark paper from the trees in Ponorogo, which are now very hard to find.
“Soft colors are mostly preferred by foreign tourists and the price per episode is around Rp 1 to 2 million [US$109],” he said. Joko said a full Panji story of Pacitan’s wayang beber was originally composed of 24 episodes. But over the last century the 24th episode or closing scene of Panji legends has never again been played. He claimed he had never seen this episode directly either. In Javanese literature, there is no explanation of the hidden content.
Joko believed the original last-episode pictures had been purposely kept secret to allow narrators and painters of wayang beber to develop the Panji romances according to their creations. “I choose to close the story of Panji Asmorobangun and Dewi Sekartaji with a happy ending, like most tales of bygone times,” said the 61-year-old.
For training purposes, Joko and the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI) Solo have set up the Center for Community Learning in Baluwarti, where wayang beber is one of the workshop subjects along with handmade batik and Javanese classical dances. “I want the present generation to be familiar with wayang beber. Early introduction to children will help preserve this tradition,” said Joko, who taught the subject in Papua for two months at the end of last year.
“So far, Solo, with its long tradition of wayang beber, has had only three craftsmen and narrators. This situation has prevailed since the 1970s,” added Joko, who is also preparing a book on the philosophy of ornaments in wayang beber.