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Klithik Puppet Show: Kudus, Central Java

His voice was trembling and shaken, no longer clear like it used to be — but 76-year-old puppet master Ki Sumarlan was doing his best to entertain his audience. The puppet master was playing the fighting scene between Damarwulan, a warrior of the Majapahit kingdom, and Minakjinggo, the ruler of Blambangan. The fierceness of the battle was portrayed through the strong sounds of the Javanese gamelan orchestra — comprised of some 15 players — in the backdrop.

Throughout the show, Sumarlan sat in a cross-legged position on a large couch, while two female singers — Siti Aminah and Sudarsih — sat on either side of the couch, facing
the audience as Suherdjoko writes.

On both sides of the screen, there were rows of flat wooden puppets placed on slanggan (lengths of wood with holes drilled). Above the screen hung selang locan batik cloth, a symbol of a request for safety to God during the puppet show.

The puppet master said the show was a klithik puppet show — in which wooden puppets are flat, not in a three-dimensional form like wayang golek. Klithik puppets are made of kudo wood, which is less than a centimeter thick.

Klithik puppets do not have cempurit handles, which can be put into a banana stem like leather puppets, so they are placed into wooden slots (slanggan).

“The story also differs from that of a leather shadow puppet show, which is usually based on the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics.

“A klithik puppet show is about the figures from the Majapahit Kingdom,” Sumarlman said.

It seems a klithik puppet show is a combination of the leather puppet show and the wayang golek puppet show.

The klithik puppets are carved in a simple way and are modestly colored with oil paint. They represent figures like Princess Suhita Kencana Wungu, one of the queens of Majapahit from the 14th century, Princess Anjasmara, Damarwulan and Minakjinggo.

Klithik puppet shows began to develop sometime in the 17th century and evolved into several styles — the Banyuwangi style, the Tulungagung style and the Yogyakarta style.

The klithik puppet show is one of the many traditional puppet shows in the country. However, while leather puppet and wayang golek shows remain popular, others, including the klithik puppet shows, are dying out.

But Sumarlan, who lives in Wonosoco village, Undaan district, in the Central Java town of Kudus, and his 17 neighbors, have worked hard to preserve the puppet show.

Armed with some 50 puppets, Sumarlan plays out the stories, or carangan, based on the chronicles of the Majapahit Kingdom, including the Minakjinggo Gugur (Death of Minakjinggo) and the Ranggalawe Gugur (Death of Ranggalawe).

Sumarlan recently performed at the Congress for the Indonesian Literary Community at Kudus regency’s legislative building. For the three-hour show, he was paid Rp 4 million.

“I rarely receive an order for a show,” he said.

“Two performances are for an annual ritual held to thank God for giving our village two springs that never get dry, even during a drought,” Sumarlan said.

One of the gamelan players, Riyanto Tirin, 48, said there were no female singers in the past, but added the klithik puppet show had to make adjustments to survive.

“We do this to ensure the audience will stay through until the end of the performance. Then the audience can ask the singers to sing their favorite songs …,” said Riyanto.

Klithik puppet shows, he said, are losing ground and almost face extinction.

In Kudus alone, there is only one puppet master who still has a complete set of puppets. The puppets were bought from a klithik puppet master in Prawoto village, Pati regency, in Central Java.

“I bought the puppets at Rp 7,000 in 1976. It was quite a high price then,” Sumarlan said.

He said the art form did not run in his family. During his childhood, he used to watch klithik puppet shows performed by senior puppet master Mbah Kasmo in Prawoto village and fell in love with them.

His first show was back in 1969, when a neighbor asked him to perform a show to thank God for the birth of his daughter.

“I rented the puppets from a neighboring village. I performed the klithik puppet show for seven days in a row in a rite called melekan (performing without sleep as a token of gratitude to God).”

Since then, he has been asked to perform shows by his fellow villagers.

For the future of klithik, he rests high hopes on Sutikno, one of his seven children, who has shown interest in learning the art form. Sutikno said he wanted to be a puppet master just like his father.

Sumarlan’s troupe acknowledges that klithik puppet shows have lost popularity.

“We once performed in Jakarta at the request of the Kudus tourism board. That was five years ago. Since then, we have only performed in our village.”