Indonesians in Focus: Sofiah Peni Carito

These days, women can take on roles that were once thought to be the domain of men — be it as the country’s president, a political head, a minister or the leader of a musical group. But in the art of shadow puppetry, women still usually only feature only as a pesinden; a singer who accompanies the live gamelan orchestra. However, some women have broken traditional conventions by taking on the principal position of puppet master — like Sofiah Peni Carito, from Pringtutul village, Rawakele sub-district, in Kebumen Regency, Central Java.

Sofiah, 42, is a multitalented woman in the field of Javanese traditional arts. As well as being a skilled puppet master, she is also a pesinden, a ronggeng (traditional dancer and singer), a dangdut (Malay and Indian-inspired traditional country music) performer and a ketoprak (Javanese stage show) actor.

“My talents have been inherited from both my parents, who were also traditional arts performers. Both my father and mother were shadow-puppet masters. My mother was also a pesinden,” Sofiah said on the sidelines of a recent performance in Cilacap.

Sofiah, who was born into a traditional performance-art family, said she learned performance skills by watching her parents and other people perform according to Agus Maryono.

“If there was something that I didn’t know, I asked them directly. I never went to a special school or a private course. I often consulted senior puppet masters in various regions, including Ki Mantep, if I got the chance,” she said.

Her brothers — Daryanto, 39, Bagong, 35, and Krepto Budoyo, 28 — also inherited the skills of their parents and are seasoned puppet masters.

“My interest and determination to become a puppet master made me quietly pay attention to the step-by-step details required to manipulate the puppets. I was sure that one day I would get the chance to perform as a puppet master.”

And one day she got her chance — at the Women’s Puppet Master Festival celebrating Kartini Day (April 21) at Surakarta Park in 1995, where she was encouraged to enter as the representative from Kebumen Regency.

“At that time, it was actually my first chance to use the shadow puppets in front of an audience.

“Since then, many people have asked me to give shadow puppet performances.”

In 2004, Sofia and three other female traditional arts performers were appointed as national cultural ambassadors to France to promote puppetry as an art form.

“Of the five people who were appointed at that time, three were women. Besides myself, the other two were Mantep Sudarsono (the wife of Ki Mantep) and Hadijah,” said Sofiah.

Sofiah has performed throughout Central Java and in 2006 gave a performance in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, to celebrate the 61st anniversary of the nation’s Independence Day.

In September 2007, together with four other puppet masters from Central Java, she succeeded in achieving a World Record award from the Indonesian Records Museum.

Sofiah said her shows normally last for around 6 hours — usually starting at 10 p.m. and finishing at 4 a.m. She said although she performed regularly in Kebumen, she had never been asked to perform her shadow puppetry at Kebumen Regency Hall.

“I haven’t being asked. Why should I ask? It isn’t polite.
“What I actually want is to perform in Jakarta. I want to show people, through my shadow puppetry, that a woman can be accepted in the traditional arts, not just in the field of modern arts,” Sofiah said.

There are only a handful of women who work as puppet masters in the country. Sofiah said her troupe charged a smaller fee than other puppetry groups, due to the fact interest in female puppet masters was still relatively low.

“If we perform in my district, the average fee is between Rp 8 million and Rp 10 million (US$860 and $1,075), but outside our area we have to consider the distance and come to an agreement, because there is usually the cost of accommodation and transport.

“Outside the regency and in Central Java the fee can go up to around Rp 15 million to Rp 20 million ($1,610 to 2,150),” said Sumardi, 48, Sofiah’s husband. “This covers the performance and travel together with the penayagan (the gamelan players) and the pesinden, making the total number of performers around 15 people.

“It’s different for people like Pak Entus (puppet master Edan Entus Susmono from Tegal) because he is a regular performer and can charge around Rp 50 million ($5,400),” he added.

Sumardi said it was rare for his wife to perform more than two shadow-puppet plays a month. However, he added she was often asked to sing as a pesinden and dance at other events, including the hajatan (a traditional celebration).

According to her husband, Sofiah works as a pesinden on most Sundays, and is in heavy demand during the “party season” in August, when she works almost everyday.

“I look after the children at home when my wife goes to work. I understand my wife’s profession,” he said.

Sofiah said as a female puppet master, she still found many obstacles in society: In Java, where traditional and mystical values are still strongly held, there is a belief that only men are allowed to take on the role of a puppet master, as women menstruate.

“The exception is made for a woman who has been through menopause. She can do the job,” said Sofiah.

“I myself don’t exactly know the reason behind this. Maybe because a puppet master’s profession was once considered holy, almost like a mubaligh (preacher who spread the teachings of Islam), so that person, for example, should be in a holy condition in both body and soul.”

She said since taking up her profession as a puppet master, she no longer performed as a lengger dancer.

“I’m no longer young enough to dance the lengger and I must seriously concentrate on becoming a puppet master,” Sofiah said.

However, she is long remembered for her beautiful lengger

“A long time ago, Sofiah was a very famous lengger dancer here,” said Yati, 38, a woman from the same subdistrict.

“There was not one person in Kebumen who didn’t know the name Sofiah,” Yati said.