Kelana Bakti Budaya ‘tobong’ Troupe: Kediri, East Java

The 13 families of the Kelana Bakti Budaya ketoprak tobong traditional theater troupe from Kediri, East Java, lead a nomadic life, traveling from town to town and living in their tobong.

A tobong is a small structure, measuring no more than two-by-three meters, with woven bamboo walls erected around a stage, which also functions as the living quarters, guest room, kitchen and dressing room.

The group, founded in 2000, move from place to place, setting up the tobong, putting on shows and living on the proceeds from the ticket sales.

They are now performing in Cebongan in Sleman regency, Central Java, having arrived from Gamping, also in Sleman.

“Well, this is my home. It moves along with the performance. So, I have many homes,” said a troupe member, Kaminem, 57.

Kaminem has lived the life of a ketoprak tobong performer since she was young. She left her hometown for the road and has never been back.

“I don’t know where to return to because I have no home. The only home that I know is the tobong.”

The troupe relies on ticket sales to be able to afford even the most basic of necessities. A front-row ticket costs Rp 5,000 (about 55 U.S. cents), and for everyone else the price is Rp 4,000.

Proceeds from ticket sales are divided equally among troupe members, after deducting operational expenses.

It is not an easy life. Not many people are still interested in traditional ketoprak performances, which means few ticket sales and very little money for the troupe.

After Rp 50,000 is deducted from the ticket sales proceeds for fuel, each member is left with between Rp 2,000 and Rp 5,000 per day.

“On a slow day, only around 10 to 40 people attend the show. We can earn Rp 10,000 on Sundays, and even Rp 20,000 if we play to a full house,” said group leader and theater director, Sentot, 67.

He said the wet season was a particularly tough time for the group, with performances often having to be canceled because of the rain.

Despite the lack of money and the spartan nature of life in the tobong, the troupe members remain dedicated to the idea of preserving ketoprak theater for future generations.

“I’ve been playing in the ketoprak since 1965. Ketoprak is second nature to me and I will keep performing,” said Sentot.

For most of the group members who are over the age of 40, ketoprak is everything, and the tobong is where they live and where they will likely die.

“We will continue playing in the ketoprak because it’s our world,” said Sentot.

Earning Rp 2,000 to Rp 5,000 daily is not enough to support a family. To supplement their earnings, some group members do side jobs, working as construction laborers or as maids in whatever city they find themselves in.

However, at night, on stage, they dress up and get to at least for a few hours play the role of a nobleman or woman.

Dwi Prayitno, 34, who is younger than most of the rest of the group, often plays the role of kings and officials showered with wealth.

It is the opposite in his real life. Dwi leaves the tobong early in the morning, wearing old clothes and riding a rusty bicycle, to seek work as a construction laborer.

“As it happens Yogyakarta now needs lots of construction workers after the massive earthquake. I can buy milk for my children. We can’t rely on the ketoprak to make a living,” he said.

Because the troupe moves from place to place, most of the children of group members do not attend school.

“My children say they are tired of the nomadic life and feel lonely because they don’t have any friends and are unwilling to make new friends,” said Ningtyas.

She said none of her children completed school. Her youngest, Setiawan Jati, 13, only finished the third grade.

“I’m tired of the frequent moving because I don’t have any friends. But I’d rather learn how to play the gamelan than go to school,” said Setiawan.

Since he was born and raised in the tobong, it is the only world he knows, and he thinks that one day he will join the ketoprak.

“I’ve been living here since I was small and I’ve gotten used to it.
I am learning how to play the gamelan so that I can become a gamelan player and at the same time train to be a ketoprak actor.”

Slamet Susanto