[Essay] Nanang Ananto Wicaksono

Nanang Ananto Wicaksono

Having lived in Japan for the past five years, although not on a permanent basis, this was the first time that I was able to appreciate the Japanese traditional arts as a whole. On the few occasions that I had seen traditional arts performances such as Bunraku in the past, the tickets were very expensive, and I had a limited budget. The performance lasted about two hours without any information for foreigners perhaps because in Japan, unlike in Indonesia, traditional arts performances do not take the foreign audience into account. Not only did we see performances but we also had the chance to meet and talk to actual performers of the traditional arts, such as Noh, Kabuki, Bunraku, Japanese dance and Kagura. It has been one of the most valuable and unforgettable experiences in my life.

Although I was the youngest among the members of this program, I was never discouraged and made an effort to participate in everything that was offered because I felt that this was a very worthwhile program that enabled us to deepen our knowledge of the Japanese traditional arts. To inspect and learn about the Japanese traditional arts was a very enjoyable experience. By gaining more knowledge through this program, I felt much closer to the traditional arts of Japan.

For me, as a shadow puppet master of wayang kulit, endeavoring to create work that brings together the cultures of Indonesia and Japan, this program was very interesting and highly inspirational. It is not easy to start something new. You cannot embark on this process immediately on your own. The collaborative work of bringing together a number of spiritual elements without losing their essence and artistic value has always been a difficult task for me. I had realized that I needed to spend more time and pursue this process at length. Perseverance, a sense of wholeness and consequence as well as a carefully considered concept are all required in order to create a new work of art that has great value. Although I have a long way to go, and there are many obstacles to overcome on the way, this Japan Foundation program has pushed me toward achieving my goal. Go for it!

In this program, I was moved and impressed by how both performers and enthusiasts of the traditional arts in Japan are extremely passionate about respecting, preserving and maintaining the tradition. Mr. Kinoshita is one of the most notable contemporary artists, who has a very high regard for tradition and tries not to change its essence. Although it is necessary to make changes in line with the times, in the world of the Japanese classical arts, there is no such thing as a complete reform where everything changes. One example is the Kinoshita Kabuki, which is performed in the modern style but does not change the story and the cast. This is very different to Indonesia, especially to the tradition of shadow puppetry in Java. In the world of Javanese shadow puppetry, the Sanggit lakon (interpretation of the story) is different for each puppeteer. This is common in Javanese shadow puppetry. Even the wayang kulit purwa of Java, which tells the story of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, is different to the Indian original version. The reason behind the difference is the fact that in Java, culture tends to be passed down orally whereas in Japan, historically speaking, much of culture has been handed down through written material. This difference in interpretation is considered as part of the creativity and distinct style of the individual puppeteer, who is each required to present a dynamic story or a dramatic effect to attract the audience.

What I admired most was how the audience, which consisted mostly of the elderly (I’m sorry!), was enjoying the traditional arts with such passion, and I wondered why this was the case.

My question was answered by a Noh actor who gave us an explanation during a backstage discussion. The Noh audience is not only enjoying the story of the play but is also watching the performance with the purpose of finding spiritual calmness. The same can be said for the traditional wayang kulit of Java and Bali that teaches us life lessons. Appreciating a Noh performance is different to seeing a Kabuki, Kagura or Bunraku. Even though they belong to the same category of the traditional arts, the dramaturgy of Noh stands out. When you see a Japanese modern play, it appears that its structure is more similar to that of a western play. Having said so, Kinoshita Kabuki was very unique and different. Although Kinoshita Kabuki is performed in the western theater style, I was able to feel the breathing and spirit of Japanese culture. The synopsis of the story and the script followed the classics to the minutest details, but changes had been made to the artistic aspect. Such adaptations are hardly ever made even by traditional artists who are trying to modernize the traditional arts. Here, we see how Japanese modern society has the ability to make good use of foreign culture that has flowed into the country.

Let me return to the subject of Noh. When you look at the history of the origin of Noh, it is not only a form of entertainment but also a ceremonial art which developed among the common people before it became a “palace art”. This is the same as the origin of wayang, especially wayang kulit. Although there are changes that have occurred to Noh during the process of its development, it still maintains a stylistic beauty and a moral standard which do not fit in with life in modern society. This is different to the modern wayang kulit, but why? In the world of the performing arts, the traditional puppeteers of Java in particular consider a modern stage performance to be based on entertainment. Therefore, in order to be seen as following the modern trend, many traditional wayang performances place importance only on the entertainment aspect of the art, which has led to a lower level of stylistic beauty and moral standard in traditional Javanese wayang kulit performances.

Now that there is a decline in the value of traditional wayang performances in Java, I would like to revive the traditional art of wayang from a different perspective. In Indonesia today, there is no need to go to the theater to see a wayang performance. You can see it on television, on the cell phone, on electronic devices such as your laptop or on YouTube or other websites through the internet. For those who want to see wayang performances by their favorite shadow puppet masters, there are also cases where performances are recorded and sold as DVDs or copied without permission from the puppeteer. (Such illegal acts are quite common in Indonesia. Sorry!) Such methods do much harm to the artists who are the performers. Since there is no need to invite people to watch the performance, we can save time. (Poor dalang…) This problem has led me to search for a new method of watching a wayang performance on electronic media without detriment to the dalang or without having to record the performance live. Furthermore, I am thinking of introducing wayang kulit to the wider public by considering the possibility of not only a manual but also a digital performance. I am wondering if wayang kulit could be performed using a digital system like an animation film without losing the traditional wayang techniques. My purpose of creating a digital wayang is not to change the value of traditional arts and cause confusion. Definitely not! All I want to do is to use it as an alternative medium for people who live in the modern world where digital media is a part of their everyday lives. I would like to introduce these people to wayang so that they become more familiar with it, and so that the traditional art of wayang is not forgotten.

Another thing that impressed me and made me envious was the management of the traditional arts in Japan. I believe that the Japanese traditional arts will continue to exist in the future, since they are well managed by private companies and the government and also have great public support. I certainly agree that management is a requisite and a very important factor for the continuous existence of the traditional arts, although I have a slightly different personal belief that artists should first and foremost be practitioners of the art. Unfortunately, art management in Indonesia is nowhere near that of Japan. The government as well as private companies do not have a strong interest in the continuation of the Indonesian traditional arts perhaps because there are so many different kinds of traditional arts in Indonesia.

However, both the Indonesian government and traditional artists have much to learn from Japanese management skills of the traditional arts. Or should I take the initiative?! One thing we do need to remember is that tradition is not merely an item of merchandise. If artists treat art as a product, not only the art will lose its value, but also the artist will lose his pride. As a performer of the arts by profession, I have come to realize that the arts must never be mistaken for merchandise.