Indonesians in Focus: Ki Purbo Asmoro

The warrior Bima circles his enemy. With a resounding bang of the gamelan, the fighter of ancient Javanese folklore spreads his arms and deals a final blow, vanquishing his opponent to death. On the spread of white cloth, the shadow of only one figure remains. The intensity of this shadow puppet, or wayang, scene being played out seems at first to be at odds with the atmosphere of the room it is being rehearsed in. Some 18 gamelan instruments crowd the practice space, as do the musicians playing them, the singers, dozens of wayang puppets heaped in two piles at the front of the room, and the man responsible for the entire ensembleKi Purbo Asmoro.

When the man sitting before the screen puts down his wayang, turns around to face his troupe of musicians and goes over the myriad of suggested changes, the room fills with the sounds of people eating, laughing and joking as they discuss the shadow play as Khairani Barokka explains.

After some time, however, it is clear that this four-hour practice session in the Central Java town of Surakarta, which is in preparation for the weekend’s performances in Jakarta, is all business. Members of the group jot down notes and revise each scene with furious frequency, and all attention is directed toward their leader.

Despite his casual appearance — dressed in a striped T-shirt and rolled-up slacks –, Purbo is completely in control of the room. In fact, he is considered by many to be a virtuoso dalang, or shadow puppet master, and the brightest star on the wayang scene today.

Purbo is not only the dalang of this shadow puppet play: He is also the conductor, choreographer, composer, director of a crew of 45 to 50 people, commissioner of the all-important props (he even designs some of them), and writer and narrator in two languages — Javanese and Kawi. He also plays two musical instruments.

Covering all of these areas and performing for hours — at times, all night long — is the work of this talented shadow puppet master.

During a meeting at his home, Purbo humbly and thoughtfully discussed his art. He had recently returned from La Paz, Bolivia in South America, where he conducted workshops and performances at the FITAZ international theater festival.

“It is complicated. You have to think about how to make the dialogue touching, effective, but work with the overall composition. Everything must fit with everything else. All elements have to be understood ideally,” he said.

Born in 1961 to a sixth-generation family of dalang, Purbo was educated in Surakarta in the art of wayang, then obtained his master’s degree in performance art from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta.

When Purbo is not traveling the country and the world to perform, he teaches at the Indonesian Institute of Arts (ISI) in Surakarta.
This dalang’s compound in Surakarta depicts a life completely dedicated to his craft: His spacious home displays Javanese decorations and carvings, and memorabilia from shows overseas. Beside the house is a pendopo, or pavilion, with a storage space for his collection of wayang puppets, and a workshop where the shadow puppets are repaired.

Next to the pendopo is a building that he and his troupe use for rehearsals. Purbo lives here with his wife, Sudi Rahayu, a dancer and singer who also performs with him, and his two sons, who are both studying the gamelan.

On rehearsal days, performers cross the courtyard and pile into his house for lunch after a grueling rehearsal session. Some have performed with Purbo for more than 15 years.

“If you’re being led by Pak Purbo, you won’t understand what you’re doing if you’re not clever enough,” said Yatmi, a singer, pointing to her forehead. “You’ve got to be smart.”

“He is amazing in a whole range of aspects,” said Bambang, a gamelan musician. “How he controls the wayang, his ideas, the way he vocalizes, his speech, his directing, making a story better. I think he has the distinction of being brave with his work.”

One example of Purbo’s bravery, Bambang said, was his portrayal of women as leaders.

“Equality of rights, defending gender rights … he slips it in subtly. There’s that subtle communication with the audience.

“His jokes aren’t bad either, he’ll touch on political subjects,” said Bambang.

Purbo’s fans say his appeal lies in his mixing of the modern with ancient tradition.

Purbo acknowledged that he introduced modern forms in both content and style, for both his “flip-flop-wearing” audiences and the middle to upper classes.

“What’s important is the concept of balance between entertainment and art. If you make it bend too much to the market, the tradition of wayang is weakened.

“You don’t need to make everything new. It has to fit the needs of a scene,” he said.

The trick, he said, was sending people a message through wayang. Although he denied affiliation with any political party, Purbo said in order to be a good dalang, one must understand politics.

“The mission of wayang is to present moral messages. The entertainment aspect adds spice to the moral aspect, the main values in life: Loyalty, heroism, messages for good.”

The dissemination of these messages still draws large crowds to wayang performances in Indonesia and overseas, he said. Yet only around 10 people graduate each year with a dalang major from ISI, with many dropping out before graduation due to difficulties in finding performance materials or for financial reasons.
Purbo said he hoped the tradition of wayang would continue.

“Wayang is the only part of Javanese culture that has survived through the Old Order, the New Order … you can’t reject globalization.

“For wayang … the barrier is that fewer people understand the Javanese and Kawi languages. It’s no longer what’s used among young people … but I don’t blame them,” he said.

“I’m just happy to create.”

Khairani Barokka, Contributor, Surakarta