Traditional artists are fighting a losing battle against the entertainment currently available on radio, film and television.
Multi-genre traditional singer Endah Laras believes the only effective way to keep the traditional arts alive is by embracing the younger generation.
“Foreign culture is always exotic to us, especially to our younger generation, but we should not lose hope,” said the pesinden (traditional singer) who is well-versed in Portuguese-tinged Indonesian keroncong pop music and multi-genre Javanese campursari music.
In general, traditional performances serve a number of roles — ritual, educational, informational and entertainment. Those performed as ritual adhere to a set of traditional laws and guidance.
Near the end of the 19th century, traditional performances — especially those initiated as entertainment for the common people — started to gain popularity in the big cities that started to sprout up across the archipelago during the Dutch colonial era.
As the nation’s urban population grew, especially on Java, demand for entertainment also increased.
Popular traditional theater that incorporated dance, drama and comedy, such as wayang wong, ludruk and ketoprak, reached the height of their popularity in the 1960s.
These forms of theater later faced serious competition in the form of films as movie theaters became more and more accessible.
The ascent of television in the 1980s delivered the hardest-hitting blow to the traditional arts when the magic box stole audiences from the theaters.
The first Indonesia Arts Congress in 1995 said that after private broadcast companies began airing shows, traditional performance groups rapidly declined in number.
For example, by the mid-1990s, none of the 120 ketoprak groups in Central Java that played every night during the 1960s had survived.
Dozens of traditional performance buildings that were always crowded night after night during their heyday were abandoned.
A number of traditional groups made it through, as they were used as attractions when the government began developing tourism in the 1990s. But their past glory never returned.
In Jakarta, the traditional Sundanese theater group Miss Tjitjih, once in the spotlight, is now struggling to survive. The group is known for its horror comedy theatrical productions. Some of them have even been made into films, such as
Beranak dalam Kubur (Giving Birth in the Grave) and Si Manis Jembatan Ancol (The Maiden of Ancol Bridge).
Unlike in the good old days, the Miss Tjitjih theater troupe — named after the legendary actress famous for her dancing, singing and acting in the 1920s — now relies on funding from the city administration to operate.
Another troupe relying on city assistance is Wayang Orang Bharata, which performs at its theater located near Senen bus station in Central Jakarta.
Bharata, however, is proof that the glory of performing arts has not completely faded, as its weekly performances on Saturday nights still manage to bring audiences that fill the venue.
The turn of the last century revived attention to the archipelago’s cultural legacy.
Miss Tjitjih and Bharata now have younger generations training with them.
Miss Tjitjih director Imas Darsih said the group currently had around 20 children regularly training for performances. “Most of them are enthusiastic about our plays because their parents are regulars in the audience,” she said.
“We have to adjust training schedules to school hours. They usually train for one-and-a-half hours, three times a week,” said the 50-year-old.
With a concerted effort, Endah believes the traditional performing arts will never lose their sparks and will continue to thrive.
“I’ve been to many parts of the country and I still see young girls going to traditional dance classes and boys enthusiastically learning traditional musical instruments,” said Endah.
“As long as the younger generation still has an interest in the arts, we still have hope that the arts will continue to live.”