Eko Nugroho's Puppet Show 'Semelah' Tells Story of Islam in Java


JULY 19, 2017

Jakarta. After touring the United States, "Semelah" (God Bliss), a shadow puppet play created by Indonesian visual artist Eko Nugroho returned home in a series of performances in Jakarta, the last of which was staged at Teater Kecil in Taman Ismail Marzuki in Cikini, Central Jakarta, on Monday (17/07).

The title of the play, Semelah, is taken from the way Javanese Muslims pronounce the Arabic word "Bismillah," which means "in the name of Allah," used to begin almost all prayers. The plot is loosely based on the history of Islam's spread in Java and how Islamic teachings merged with Javanese traditions.

The one-hour play's story is set in sixteenth century, conflict-torn Java when the powerful Hindu-Buddhist kingdom Majapahit was on it last legs and at war with the new Islamic kingdom Demak. The long, drawn-out conflict resulted in poverty and hunger for the Javanese populace, leaving many homeless or on the run as refugees.

Raden Mas Said, a noble, decided to become a local Robin Hood, taking on a new identity and a new pseudonym, Maling Aguna, or Aguna the Thief. He steals from the rich and gives away all he steals to the poor.

It was when he failed to rob a kyai (Muslim cleric) that the thief with a heart of gold had an epiphany. After losing a fierce fight with the kyai, Aguna decided he would study under him instead. The kyai's first lesson was teaching Aguna how to meditate.

Maling Aguna or Aguna the Thief, right, meets a Muslim cleric in Eko Nugroho's new contemporary 'wayang bocor' shadow puppet play, 'Semelah.' or 'In the Name of God.' (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

During Aguna's meditation, the story changed into Eko's own version of the myth of Wrekudara or Bima, one of the five Pandawa brothers in the Hindu mythology Mahabharata, in particular the story of when the powerful hero met a pint-sized god called Dewa Ruci.

Just like Aguna, Wrekurdara had a hot temper and his personality was not exactly pleasant. However, after much effort, he was finally able to earn the god's blessing and reach enlightenment.

The Bima myth reflects Aguna's story, showing that everyone, even a thief like Aguna or a brute like Bima, still has a chance to repent and reach spiritual enlightenment.

When Aguna finally woke up from his meditation, he felt like he had gone through a rebirth. Upon reuniting with the kyai, he recited the syahadat — Muslim declaration of belief — and said he would spread Islam in Java through peaceful ways, for example by staging wayang performances.

Aguna, as Eko's story has it, is a representation of the legendary figure now better known as Sunan Kalijaga, one of the "wali songo" or nine Islamic saints of Java.

According to Eko, Semelah does not just depict history but also functions as a social commentary that argues religion should be used to create peace instead of conflict, and that Islam is essentially full of kindness, not violence.

Blending It Together

The story was performed in a contemporary style called "wayang bocor," invented by Eko himself in 2008. The word "bocor" means "leaking" and refers to the fact the performance allows a fusion of many different forms of art and music, such as puppetry, live theater, Indonesian pop music dangdut and drawings.

"The reason it's called wayang bocor is because form-wise it's like a bucket with holes in it from which water keeps leaking. This format is a fusion of ketoprak [traditional Javanese drama], wayang, dagelan [comedies], dangdut music and other forms of art. In every performance the story changes, gets more complex, because we keep exploring the themes and other art forms, and add them to the play," Eko told the Jakarta Globe after the performance.

On stage, wayang bocor proved to be more dynamic than a traditional puppet show. There were more white screens and sometimes actors, instead of puppets, would act behind them. The dalang (puppeteer) did not sit in front of the main screen with the gamelan musicians like in traditional wayang shows. In fact, Semelah's score was pre-recorded except for the live singing and rebana (tambourine).

The music of 'Semelah' is a fusion of folk, dangdut and electronic music. Most of the score was pre-recorded except for the live singing and rebana (tambourine). (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Eko's forte is visual art, so he collaborated with other artists to take care of the play's other elements, such as stage actor and poet Gunawan Maryanto who became the director and scriptwriter of Semelah.

"The challenge was to give life to Eko's concepts. Sometimes I took on classic wayang characters and then created a story based on them, but other times I used Eko's comics as a starting point, especially their funny titles," Gunawan said.

Some of Eko's zany comic titles — part of his "Daging Tumbuh" (Metastasizing Flesh) series — include "Tendangan Maut Nanas Muda" (A Raw Pineapple's Deadly Kick), "Berlian Ajaib" (Magic Diamond) and "Di-Miscall Leluhur" (Missed Phone Calls From an Ancestor).

Back before wayang bocor became famous, Eko and his troupe would perform from one village to another and the stories would be localized according to what issues the villagers would most like to hear, usually an argument about money or making fun of local authority figures.

Eko said every performance of wayang bocor, even for the same title, always brings something new. For instance, the religious theme in Semelah was in fact requested by the Asian Society of New York, but the story evolves quickly as each performance brings in more and more of history, mythology and references of current affairs.

The version of Semelah that was performed in the United States in New York, North Carolina and California included some lampooning of Donald Trump, which were popular with the crowd.

Eko said there were four types of crowd during his US tour: university students, the Indonesian diaspora, locals who already knew wayang and locals who did not.

"They took to wayang bocor enthusiastically because they could see how how we infused references to current affairs into our play, [...] but we put our own spin on it," Eko said.

He pointed out the shows in Pekanbaru, Riau, on July 11-12 featured more pantuns (Malay quatrains) because of the predominating Malay culture there, whereas the shows in Yogyakarta on July 7-8 were performed in full Javanese.

Eko has not named his troupe's next stop after Jakarta, but art enthusiasts should expect more of wayang bocor in the near future because the artist-cum-director has no plan to stop anytime soon. He also hopes to inspire other artists to get interested in wayang, showing them it does not have to be so complicated as traditions have it.

"Making art is fun. It should be easy. If you like wayang, then write a story, and perform it. Hopefully, young artists stop being 'terrorized' by the pakem [traditional rules] of wayang or by the notion that wayang performances have to be long and boring," Eko said.