Preserving Javanese Culture

Folk drama, wayang and other forms of performing arts in Java, are not, as many people would think, dying a slow death. On the contrary, the audiences and appreciation of the performing arts is on the increase.

There are many puppetry groups throughout Java and one in particular, Kunti Nalibroto Puppetry Troupe, whose members are all women. One of them, Ratih Subroto, gave an interview to A. Junaidi recently:

Ratih Subroto: Preserving Javanese culture

It’s all about packaging and marketing. Many people, especially youths, might likely refuse if they are asked to watch a puppetry show — even free of charge. “Old fashioned and boring,” they may comment.

The very small audiences that come to watch the leading Bharata puppetry group — which performs regularly at its playhouse in Senen, Central Jakarta — is probably indicative of a lack of public appreciation for Central Javanese culture.

Perhaps this might also apply to traditional culture in general.
But this certainly does not apply to the Kunti Nalibroto puppetry troupe, whose members are all women of diverse social and professional backgrounds. The group specializes in wayang orang, a type of traditional puppetry in which humans act out the role of “puppets” in stylized choreography.

The troupe’s previous performances at the Gedung Kesenian Jakarta (GKJ) and at the Hotel Dharmawangsa were fully booked, including at least 12 foreign ambassadors at their last show.

One of the women behind the success of the group, which was established on June 12, 2005, is Kunti Nalibroto chairwoman Ratih Dardo Subroto.

“We try to make puppetry attractive for many people, including youngsters and foreigners,” Ratih said in an interview at the Bharata puppetry playhouse, where the group was rehearsing for this month’s show.

She said the use of elaborate stage decoration and modern lighting, as well as a high-tech sound system, were part of the group’s efforts to attract spectators.

Kunti Nalibroto will stage Pandawa Obong (Pandawa fired) from the famous Hindu epic, the Mahabarata, at the GKJ on Jan. 30.

In the performance, Ratih will play Kunti, the mother of Pandawa. Pandawa is one of five knights featured in the epic.

“Kunti is a symbol of a good mother who loves her children. Not only her three sons but also her two stepchildren, the twins Nakula and Sadewa,” she said.

Other players in the group’s fourth production are the Ambassador of Thailand Atchara Seriputra and former top model Dhanny Dahlan, who now runs her own business. Their presence certainly adds to the uniqueness of this all-woman, non-profit troupe.

Ratih does not only fulfill the central role of Kunti, but also wears several other caps in managing the performance, including ticketing, set decoration, lighting and sound — of course, with the assistance of other members in the troupe.

In running the group and its performances, the women of Kunti Nalibroto have the advantage of their combined professional experience, and their membership include a lawyer, a medical doctor and a lecturer.

Ratih was born in Surakarta (Solo), Central Java, 60 years ago, and although she grew up in the elite Menteng area of Central Jakarta, traditional puppetry remains part of her cultural heritage.

“Actually, the group was established because we saw that many youths, including our own children, did not know Javanese culture,” she said.

Today, Ratih can smile, as several daughters of Kunti Nalibroto’s members have joined the troupe.

Ratih and several women founded the troupe, concerned about the preservation of traditional culture. Ratih’s husband, former mining and energy minister Soebroto signed on as the group’s trustee.

The group has received support from corporations and respected individuals including oil tycoon Arifin Panigoro, who sponsored Kunti Nalibroto’s latest performance at the Hotel Dharmawangsa.

Although they were raised in the capital, most of the women in Kunti Nalibroto have their roots and extended families in Central Java.

“Many of us, including myself, studied Javanese dance when we were kids. So we actually have a background in traditional dance,” the energetic Ratih said.

The puppetry troupe is not an exclusive Central Javanese group, and its 30 members represent various ethnicities from across the archipelago.

The players rehearse one to three times a week as the performance date draws near, and watching them one cannot but be affected by their relaxed atmosphere amid crowded and hectic Jakarta.

The slow Javanese dance movements and the pentatonic sound of gamelan instruments carry a peaceful nuance that helps minds to unwind, somehow overcoming the cacophony of buses and cars stuck in traffic outside the playhouse.

“Besides preserving Javanese culture, we all enjoy the atmosphere here, the dance and music. We make good friends here,” Ratih said.

A. Junaidi