Kanjeng Raden Tumenggung Sihhanto Dipuro from the Surakarta Sultanate Palace displayed his wayang beber, a hand-painted scroll depicting legendary figures of eastern Javanese kingdoms, at the Hughes Gallery in Adelaide, Australia, from March to April.
Wayang beber was chosen because the story-telling art is very rare and Sihhanto’s scroll is based on an original source, comprising 24 jagong (fragments) of two big epics: one about the warrior Joko Kembang Kuning, the other the romance of Raden Panji Asmorobangun and Dewi Sekartaji.
More than highly skilled in wayang beber making, this abdi dalem (royal servant) of the Surakarta Palace is also a master craftsman of five other types of wayang based on palace standards: wayang purwo (classical leather puppets for Hindu epics), wayang madya (for sequel epics), wayang gedog (for Javanese legends), wayang klithik (flat wooden puppets) and wayang menak (wooden doll puppets).
Wayang purwo is adapted from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata, while wayang madya tells of King Jayabaya, whose reign is linked with the post-Mahabarata era. Wayang gedog and wayang beber in fact share the Panji legends of eastern Javanese kingdoms, but the former takes the form of leather puppets.
“Wayang klithik describes the episodes of Damarwulan-Minak Jinggo in Java’s Majapahit empire, and wayang menak is about the story of Umarmoyo-Umarmadi, known as a religious propagation show formerly used by the wali sanga [nine proselytizers] as a medium of spreading Islam in its early entry,” said Sihhanto.
Born in Klaten on December 30, 1956, Sihhanto was already interested in wayang making while in primary school. Every day after school, he crossed the Bengawan Solo River by boat to learn the art from Kartoyo, a leather puppet crafter in Grogol in Sukoharjo, Surakarta.
His teacher, the famed Surakarta painter Hadi Suwarno, instructed Sihhanto to focus on wayang kulit (leather puppet) crafting. “Pak Hadi said my wayang paintings were better than realist pictures. So I learned brush strokes and color compositions from him,” recalled the man, now a palace antique wayang research team member.
Sihhanto’s father, Soma Dimejo, and mother, Tuminah, were farm workers, so they could not afford to send their children to college. The situation forced Sihhanto to work in Jakarta after finishing junior high with a company producing partitions decorated with wayang paintings.
The company later took him to the residence of then President Soeharto on Jl. Cendana to handle the carving and painting of wayang pictures on whole leather sheets to decorate partitions for display in the living room.
“For three years I designed and crafted the wayang-decorated partitions in the Cendana mansion. It was very valuable experience in my career as a leather puppet maker,” said the man who lives in Kampung Pabelan in Sukoharjo.
Returning to Surakarta, Sihhanto went back to high school but later dropped out because he was too busy making wayang. His high ethos and best work, however, didn’t produce a change in his fate for the better, yet.
As advised by his father, Sihhanto finally accepted a friend’s offer to work as a royal servant with the Surakarta Palace. Part of the Javanese community believes that an abdi dalem will be blessed and live in tranquility.
“By devoting myself to the kraton, I was sure my life would be blessed and peaceful. So I wasn’t surprised when my first salary was only Rp 2,000 [20 US cents] because I was determined to dedicate myself fully,” Sihhanto pointed out.
Owing to his skill, Sihhanto was assigned to Gedong Lembisono, where wayang collections of the palace are kept. He learned a lot about the artistic details and character of the wayang of former times, aside from reading books on the history and types of wayang.
Raden Tumenggung Redi Suto, then head of Gedong Lembisono, provided guidance and introduced Sihhanto to the palace’s most prized wayang pieces like Kyai Jimat, Kyai Kadung, Kyai Kanyut and Kyai Dewa Katong. His dedication eventually earned him the mastery of crafting the six types of wayang.
“The kraton is my true teacher not of only wayang making but also of life. From the palace I’ve learned to be sincere, patient and grateful. Life isn’t merely meant to seek material gain although it’s important,” indicated the father of four.
Sihhanto’s intense involvement in the palace affairs for decades finally established him as one of the Surakarta sultanate’s antique wayang experts. Not only in Surakarta, he has often been invited to the sultanate palaces of Yogyakarta, Cirebon and others outside Java to examine the authenticity of ancient wayang creations.
His expertise later led him to the Surakarta palace’s Bale Agung, the center where he manages the crafting of kraton leather puppets, and his appointment as an empu (master craftsman) of wayang by Pakubuwono XII, king of the Surakarta sultanate.
Outside the kraton world, his great skill is also recognized by famous dalang (puppeteers) who also use his works.
Sihhanto’s puppets are familiar to foreign wayang collectors in America, Canada, Japan, Australia and Germany. In 1998, he had a mobile display in some German cities under the Indonesia-Germany Art Festival.
Now, even with a number of workers at Bale Agung, Sihhanto continues to carve and paint wayang pieces not only for dalang but also for other purposes. One wayang character is usually finished in about a week, which requires great care, patience and accuracy, thus making his products expensive.
Putren or female figures like Srikandi, Kunthi and Drupadi, relatively smaller than male puppets, cost between Rp 25,000 and Rp 400,000 each. Male figures such as Werkudara, Gatotkaca and Arjuna range in price from Rp 500,000 to Rp 800,000, while giant figures are sold at Rp 1-2 million. The most expensive is a gunungan (mountain) worth Rp 3-5 million due to its larger size and intricate design.
“So far, only a few young people are engaged in leather puppet making. Those interested in this art are mostly unprepared to join the kraton for a small salary. There are actually some good students of the puppetry and wayang art department, but they prefer to work outside the palace,” added the only wayang empu of the Surakarta sultanate.