Many years ago people from afar would head to Tenggarong, the capital of Kutai Kartanegara regency, just to watch the performances of the Mamanda traditional drama theater, which depicted stories of the good old days.
These days, Mamanda, meaning the mother of all art performances in the Kutai language, has to compete with massive pop culture invasions just to get some attention.
In the past, the Mamanda drama theater's groups were on stage at least once a year with performances lasting between one to three hours, which included 20 to 30 players, during the Erau Folklore and Art festival. However, since 2010, people have not been able to enjoy Mamanda theater productions because of inadequate financial support for its only remaining drama group Panji Berseri.
The group's director Darpi Kenedi, acknowledged that due to the financial difficulties they had not been able to entertain audiences for the last three years. He said certain group members, many of whom are civil servants and farmers, found it difficult to finance the group's activities with the money in their pockets.
To be able to perform well, Darpi said that ideally they should be able to practice at least twice a week for three months before putting on a performance. They must also prepare the costumes and props as well.
'We have been raising the money from our own pockets to finance our own performances. It becomes a burden when you realize that you have the responsibility to preserve a valuable traditional art with minimum support,' he reckons.
He said that usually the group was only paid between Rp 2 ( US$ 180 ) to Rp 2.5 million ( $220 ) for each performance. But, they could never get to enjoy the money because they needed to save the cash for the group.
Darpi admitted that the three-year absence from the public was an obvious indication of their strife.
When asked whether they had discussed this with the local administration, Darpi said the local culture and tourism agency would usually only contact them when it needed them to perform.
'No one from the agency contacts us after the performance,' he said.
However, despite all the gloom, this year, Panji Berseri was finally able to put together a show at an event organized to mark the Kutai Kartanegara Regency's anniversary last week, thanks to a Total Foundation initiative in cooperation with the regency's culture and tourism agency. They performed on an outdoor stage near the city's square in Tenggarong.
Darpi said the preparations were hasty because he had only been provided with a months' notice. This was the first show after their three-year hiatus.
There was a ten minute introduction to open the three-hour show before the main show, about how a rivalry between two ancient kingdoms in Kutai got underway.
So, how was the reception from the audience? Well, Siti Oktaviani, a teacher who watched the show, said the actors were a bit rusty and seemed hesitant.
'Somehow, I would have liked them to throw in more jokes. Just like many comedy shows on television,' she said.
Surono, another member of the audience, shared the same view that the group should be funnier.
Commenting on this, Kutai Kartanegara Regency's culture and tourism agency head Sri Wahyuni recognized that Mamanda needed to adapt to people's current expectations because they were different to what audiences demanded in the past.
'With the donation from the Total Foundation, we are now in the process of producing a comprehensive documentary DVD about Mamanda,' she said.
The Total foundation provides Rp 100 million as initial capital for the Mamanda project.
Sri Wahyuni said that in addition to the DVD, they also intended to publish a book about the entire history of Mamanda. The next step would be to distribute them to schools and all related parties like certain drama groups so they could learn something from Mamanda.
Budi Mulya of the Total Foundation confirmed that the foundation would be helping the Mamanda drama theater to put together another performance this year. He promised that this would be a new beginning for the drama theater as the foundation has future plans for the group.
As part of the oil giant PT Total Oil Indonesia, the Total Foundation reportedly receives more than Rp 8 billion per annum to fund its mission to preserve local cultures throughout the country.
However, a local artist has criticized the local administration's minimal role in this issue, saying that the agency has to take the initiative and not let other parties like private companies do the job for them.
Budi Warga from the Kotaraja Artist Community said he did not want to seem ungrateful but he just could not understand why a government agency, which has access to state funding, had to wait for somebody else to carry out its duty
'It is the culture and tourism agency's main responsibility to preserve local cultural traditions. Why should they wait for others to take the lead?' Budi said.
He shared a similar view with the foundation that the actors would need more practice and also acting workshops in the future. He highlighted the need to organize a series of workshops so the Mamanda actors would gain confidence. He added that he felt the agency would eventually take over the funding of the Mamanda traditional drama theater.
' Photos by JP/Dicky Christanto