Focus on a Master Puppeteer

Patrick Vanden Berghe

Of all the traditional art forms in Indonesia wayang kulit (shadow theatre) is possibly the most famous. Still, it is an art form that is magical, mysterious and elusive at the same time. It has retained its age-old set up: a screen, a lamp, a puppeteer, finely carved puppets and musical accompaniment. But wayang kulit has been forced to adjust to modern times with audiences that do not know any longer the original stories and are more accustomed to fast-changing images. But is this a problem? Watching a wayang performance recently, I could not help but compare the swift movements on the screen with the swiping I had done to browse through his puppeteer’s biography just before the performance started.

Halfway through Innovation, Style and Spectacle in Wayang, author Kathryn Emerson quotes the late Indonesian composer Rahayu Supanggah: “It is a shame that something with such potential, done at such a great financial cost, would produce a product that is not of a serious nature and has such little artistic value – something that can even be said to deteriorate the meaning of an art form that was once intended to develop spiritual values but now has moved into the arena of cheap entertainment” (p. 103). Supanggah was referring to the appropriation of wayang performances by the New Order regime of former president Suharto. From the late 1980s on, this authoritarian political force saw great potential in the power of wayang. Wayang performances were considered the ideal vehicles for the dissemination of the new state ideology. The New Order proposed that wayang could be a tool for informing and – more importantly – controlling the masses. Wayang performances were reshaped and became more spectacular, through the integration of comedians and clowns; of popular music, such as dangdut, kroncong, campusari or even rock bands; and the excessive use of lights or dry ice. There would be ample time for speeches, and the puppeteer (dalang) was expected to elaborate on the sponsor’s (always some high politician or army man) rewards. Everything in and around the performance would be immersed in some kind of gold-yellow, referring to the leading party’s main colour.

Most dalang at the time felt forced to redirect their own style towards this New Order wayang. A majority was reluctant, as they were thoroughly formed in classical wayang. Meanwhile others embraced these new wayang performances creating the so-called Wayang Spektakulèr, in which, for example, one screen and one dalang would no longer suffice. 

It was in this confusing period that a young Javanese dalang with the name Purbo Asmoro started his own career. Born in East Java in 1961 to Dalang Sumarno, Ki Purbo Asmoro’s[1] lineage includes at least six known generations of dalang and reportedly many more. He attended ISI (High School of Performing Arts) in Surakarta and performed wayang to earn money while studying. He continued at ASKI (Academy of Music) in Surakarta and eventually earned a MA in Performance Art from University of Gajah Mada in Yogyakarta. Purbo Asmoro was lucky to enter ASKI when it was going through a period of high quality.

Besides his formal education at ASKI, Purbo Asmoro learned a lot from watching and listening to famous puppeteers such as Ki Nartosabdho and Ki Anom Soeroto. His own fame started when he was invited to perform at one of the legendary Rebo Legen nights, a monthly event where only the best puppeteers were allowed to showcase.

As happened with most dalang at the time, Purbo Asmoro could not avoid being part of the new style of wayang, as it was imposed by the government. But once the regime had faded away in 1998, Purbo Asmoro returned to a style of wayang which he had made himself familiar with during his ASKI years. This style had transformed classical wayang with its long, sometimes unfunctional digressions and predictable narration line, in a much more condensed style, called PADAT. As a result, PADAT performances had become shorter, more to the point, but – according to Purbo Asmoro – also less spiritual. So he started working on his own style, where he used concepts from PADAT and integrated them in what he would call the “All-Night Interpretive” (or Garapan) style.

In order for the reader to understand what exactly is understood by this new style, Katrhyn Emerson does not look at a single effort. In the second part of the publication, she meticulously describes every element that plays a role, from the gamelan accompaniment, the different parts of the wayang performance and the dramatic choices. To make this understandable, she even describes how visitors to a classical and a All-Night Interpretive performance would sit through them. Additionally, for each item, she compares both styles by presenting tables and charts in which she includes the amount of time, number of items or story nature devoted by Purbo Asmoro compared to other puppeteers. It must be said that the author has put a lot of time and devotion in this study as she attended or watched hundreds of wayang performances all over Java in a period of around 20 years. The result is a fascinating book that shows a light in how one of Java’s best and most renowned dalang found his own style.


A third rail

None of course knows what would have happened to Purbo Asmoro’s career or to wayang in general if things had run on smoothly. But somewhere in March 2020, the world came to a kind of standstill. During the period just before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Purbo Asmoro had felt extremely uncertain about his own path.

Having debuted his all-night interpretive style at the end of the 1980s and having made it his trademark style, it seemed logical that he would continue to work in this way and become one of the most popular dalang. But having reached his fiftieth birthday, Purbo Asmoro felt uneasy. Other dalang had taken wayang into a state of frenzy with technological effects that seemed more important than the art form itself. As many other dalang, he was active on the internet, broadcasting the so-called ‘virtualan’ (virtual performances) through YouTube. But suddenly Purbo no longer liked the idea of his shows being available for eternity. Around 2015 he had all his channels closed down, and he went into a more private existence. His live shows were also no longer advertised in advance just like it had been the case with wayang for centuries. Together with his son, he looked for a way to have more control over his life and performances. He finally got convinced that in the 21st century wayang would not only take advantage of online performances, but that if this art form was to find connection with the young generation this new audience had to be informed and instructed on wayang. This made him more prepared for the way wayang had to be directed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By the time live performances and public gatherings were prohibited, Purbo Asmoro had a clear view on how to present wayang virtually. He was about the first dalang who was able to bring full-scale and complete all-night interpretive style wayang. In the months before, and of course not knowing what would happen in March 2020, he had invested time, money and energy in setting up a studio with cameras, sound equipment, and lights, and he had gathered people that would help. Already on 25 March, he disseminated his first COVID-19 performance, soon to be followed by more than 150 entries on his YouTube channel. Soon other dalang would follow. Performers, sponsors and audiences were thrown into a highly modified relationship. But while most dalang only used the internet to keep in touch with their audience and showcase classical performances, Purbo Asmoro considered the virtualan as a Third Rail. He adjusted his performances to this new situation and inserted new presentation models, preserving substance and changing structure.

While this publication was finished when the pandemic was not completely over in Indonesia – and thus it was not clear in which direction these virtualan would go – Emerson is convinced that future generations will see Purbo Asmoro as the “pioneer of modern wayang” (p. 292). She does not shy away from big comparisons, setting him on a par with Stravinsky, Frank Lloyd Wright or Picasso. It is undoubtedly the only flaw in this book. In her personal life Emerson has been very close to Purbo Asmoro as she is married to one of his musicians. This proximity prevents an objective view.

It is clear from this book and from his popularity that Purbo Asmoro is indeed a very gifted puppeteer, but this book sometimes takes the form of a veneration. Nevertheless, it is a must-read for anyone interested in the modern state of an ancient – and, at the same time, very dynamic – art form. Emerson has a natural aptitude for simple writing, and she knows how to hold the reader’s attention.

It befits to end this review with the master’s own words: “Wayang is not like an artefact that simply needs to be taken out and delicately dusted off or occasionally mended here and there. It needs to be developed, and it requires innovation to keep it alive and relevant” (p. 294). Exactly what Purbo Asmoro has been doing now for decades.


[1] Ki is an epithet of respect accorded to a senior dalang