[Essay] Catur Kuncoro

Catur Kuncoro

It is impossible to talk about Indonesia without referring to the diversity of its culture. There are many different ethnic groups with a wide variety of tradition and culture. From popular to palace culture, there is so much to talk about. The Japan Foundation invited me to visit Japan as a puppeteer of wayang kulit, so I would like to explain a little about the development of the Javanese wayang kulit. Wayang kulit is a form of traditional performing arts, which is presented in an eight hour performance in the evening, using shadow puppets made of buffalo hide and accompanied by gamelan music in the slendro and pelog scales.

Before talking about the Javanese wayang kulit in more detail, let me explain that it is divided into two categories, the classical school and the creative school. The two schools have different artistic and performance styles. An obvious difference is that one is performed inside the kraton (palace), while the other is performed outside. The classical school performs in the classical style, which uses the pakem (storyline) that has been inherited from ancestors both orally and through written material. On the other hand, the creative/modern school may use either the old or the new style, but it performs in a style that has been adapted to the needs of society in a certain age. The situation therefore becomes more complex because the two styles aim for different “goals”. However, what is interesting is that in some cases, both the traditional and creative styles are performed by the same shadow puppet master. While he plays the role of preserving and maintaining his ancestral culture in the world of traditional arts, outside the palace, he works as an artist that goes along with the changing times. The positive side of this is that even when he steps away from the classical school, he can still model the traditional style to develop the piece in a more appealing way that is suitable to the changes of society.

Catur Kuncoro, alias Benyek, was born as the fourth child of seven siblings between a shadow puppet master named Ki Supardi and a singer called Sri Yatinah. The family made its living from a form of art that was performed from stage to stage. The family’s existence depended on the gamelan and a set of wayang kulit, which had been passed on by Ki Cermo Bancak, the father of Ki Supardi. When the family was not performing the wayang kulit, the instruments were lent to other puppeteers, gamelan concerts and traditional music recordings. The message that Ki Supardi passed on to his children with great passion was the importance of paying respect to their lifeline, the gamelan and wayang kulit, even if they were only objects. Of the seven siblings, only Catur Kunchoro inherited the shadow puppetry skills of his parents, while the others chose careers in traditional music. For Catur, who had been familiar with wayang kulit from a young age, it was not difficult to become a traditional shadow puppet master. While accompanying his parents, uncle and cousin on their performances, he studied shadow puppetry at one of the high school of Indonesian traditional music in Yogyakarta. When he had studied at high school for two years, his father passed away. When he graduated from high school, he decided to become a professional shadow puppet master after his father. However, success as a puppeteer did not come easily, and he had to start his career from zero in order to be accepted by the people. The basic traditional skills that he had acquired were not enough to make his name widely known. In order to become a famous artist, he needed some “creative work”. This is when he began searching for different wayang performances. From collaborative pieces to pieces that came from original ideas, he created work such as Wayang Ringkes, Wayang Pixel, Wayang Dual Core, Wayangmu Wayangku and Wayang Republik. Finally, his passion led to the birth of Wayang Hip Hop, which attracted the younger audience.

Why should we target the young?

We should target the young, firstly because young people are the inheritors of the next generation, and secondly because it is always the youth that is criticized for “not knowing the traditional arts”. When we talk about tradition, we are inevitably involved in the past, but the ideas that young people have are more innovative and modern. Therefore, the traditional arts need to be introduced to the younger generation using more modern and attractive methods as well as media. As far as technique is concerned, it is not difficult to pass on the “old” ways to young people and still attract their attention. If you take cooking as an example, the traditional arts would be the main dish to which you might add newer tastes and make it into either a conventional or a more modern dish. Furthermore, what is important when we introduce tradition to young people is to involve them in the process. This is how I would make innovative changes to the traditional arts.

Out of all my overseas visits as an artist (to Thailand, Korea, Singapore, Australia, Belgium, Lima in Peru and several cities in the U.S.), my recent visit to Japan was the most interesting and impressive. This is because in Japan, we were able to take a closer look at the traditional arts and their performers as well as exchange opinions about various issues that the traditional arts face today. We were experiencing the same problem of conflict occurring between traditional artists and modern artists. Whereas leaders of the traditional arts do not wish to change their style, modern artists would like to see the traditional arts adapt to the changing times. I actually believe that neither is wrong. Both have the common objective of preserving the traditional arts, albeit in different ways. Ideally, it is the government that should provide the opportunity for both sides to work together in order to preserve and revitalize the arts. Unfortunately, during my 17 day visit in Japan, I was unable to meet a single Japanese youngster who knew nothing about the traditional arts. However, even if I had met such a person, due to my lack of Japanese speaking skills, I would not have been able to find out why. I think that in Japan and in Indonesia, there are common reasons why young people do not like the traditional arts. In the case of the Javanese wayang kulit in Indonesia, there are issues regarding the difficulty of the story, characters and language as well as the length of the performance. The problem here is very simple. As the saying goes, “You can never like something without knowing about it”. Who is to blame for this? Is it those who choose not to know about the traditional arts or those who do not make them known? The “old people” actually perform the traditional arts in a very complicated style, making them unapproachable to the “young people”, who as a result do not feel motivated to learn. Consequently, the younger generation becomes familiar with the easier and more enjoyable modern arts without ever learning about the fundamentals of tradition.

After my visit to Japan, what should I do in my own country?

With regard to tradition and modernism, I would like to emphasize that what already exists influences what follows and becomes its model. The two concepts differ only through style and way of expression. In other words, the old is more mature than the new.

Given the many common factors that are evident between the two countries, the basic difference is that in Japan, the traditional arts have a stronger image than the modern arts. This is probably based on the belief that the arts and culture are “teachings” rather than something that is viewed for pleasure. Although in Indonesia, there is also a trend of arts and culture that is transmitted through spirituality, many shadow puppet masters still believe and adhere to the rule that the “performing arts” exist to “entertain the people”.

 Now that my visit to Japan is over, I feel as though I truly understand the meaning of “empan nggo papan”. It means to adapt yourself to the circumstances, to preserve and make good use of the arts and culture wherever you may be. As a performer that cherishes the arts and culture which have been handed down by past generations, I must always endeavor to maintain and reinvigorate the arts and culture. Given this situation, “Manjing Ajur-Ajer”; my aim is to stay calm, avoid conflicts and continue to communicate the “Power of Tradition”.