UNESCO and Palembang Puppeteers: Sumatra

UNESCO has played many roles in the preservation of the wilderness on this planet as well as making vast areas heritage sites, but they have also made certain objects like buildings a heritage item. UNESCO is also renowned for their role in the preservation of culture.

Worthy of assistance from UNESCO are the wayang puppets and the puppeteers who perform their old-age art. The body has turned their sights on the Palembang puppeteers and there is an upcoming exhibition in Europe as Khairul Saleh explains:

UNESCO to assist Palembang Puppeteers

The United Nations’ cultural organization is working with Palembang puppeteers to save their art and bring it to a global audience.

Two researchers from UNESCO, Karen Smith of Australia and Yuji Shimizu of Japan, were recently in the South Sumatra city to visit puppet theaters and document Palembang’s rich culture, including puppet shows.

The results of the visit are scheduled to be displayed from April to June in Paris.

“The pictures and writings we get while we’re in Palembang will be presented to the world, taking Palembang’s puppet tradition international,” Shimizu said.

During the trip, the two researchers visited the Sri Wayang Palembang theater, accompanied by Sumari, chairman of the Senawangi Foundation for puppetry and Eko Cipto, chairman of the Indonesian Puppet Masters Association.

Shimizu said they were interested in doing research on Palembang puppetry because it was such a rich cultural tradition that should be preserved.

“There is more to a puppet performance, there are so many things to learn from it,” said the Japanese researcher, who lives in Paris.

Smith raised her concerns over problems faced by Palembang puppet shows, including a lack of teachers and singers.

“The Palembang puppet show is in desperate need of attention from the government and people. I’ll deliver our report to UNESCO to ensure continued assistance for its development,” she said.

During their visit to the puppet theater, the researchers were regaled with a show by puppet master Wirawan Rusdi, a son of one of Palembang’s most noted puppet masters, the late Rusdi Rasyid.

Wirawan said he was grateful for UNESCO’s assistance, since it offered a fresh chance for the struggling traditional art form.
He said he fell in love with puppet shows as a child. While his father did not specifically train him, he said recordings of his father’s shows continued to provide inspiration.

Eko said he welcomed UNESCO’s assistance to ensure that Palembang’s puppet tradition continued to survive. He said few younger people were interested in becoming puppet masters.

“Currently, there are 15 theaters under the supervision of UNESCO,” he said. Each theater receives financial assistance of Rp 500,000 (US$54) a month to help them survive.

Basically, Palembang puppet shows differ little from the more popular Javanese variety, including their gamelan instruments.

According to Ki Agus Amiruddin, the 65-year-old leader of the Sri Wayang Palembang theater, Palembang puppetry is a local adaptation of Javanese puppet shows.

The tradition is thought to have developed around the 19th century when Arya Damar, who was influenced by Javanese culture, ruled Palembang and helped develop a local puppetry tradition.

Just like Javanese puppet shows, Palembang puppet shows take their storylines from the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana.

The difference is that the shows are staged in the Palembang language and there are no strict rules on instruments and characters. The shows are usually given local touches, including stories about the Blambangan and Banter Angin kingdoms.

“There was even a green Hanoman who was born out of leaves, but now the character has gone,” said Ki Agus, referring to a hero from the Ramayana.

Khairul Saleh