The best known theater and drama in Indonesia is the Javanese and Balinese shadow puppet theater based on the Ramayana epic, with its brilliant puppeteers (dalang) who may manipulate over a hundred puppets in all-night oral performances accompanied by a gamelan orchestra. Bali is best known for the diversity of its performance arts. Despite the fact that Bali draws visitors from around the world, and its troupes perform overseas, most Balinese performers are villagers for whom art complements farming. Randai the traditional folk theatre of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra is performed during ceremonies and festivals. Music, singing, dance, drama and the silat martial art are all incorporated together and are based on the traditional stories and legends.

Strangled by Suharto-era censorship, Indonesian theater as a mode of expressing topical and contemporary issues almost died. After Suharto’s reign, theater in Indonesia experienced a rebirth. Leading the way has been Jakarta's Teater Koma, known for its biting satire and shows like "Constipation Opera." Plays like “Marsinah”, about a slain political activist that landed its writer Ratna Sarumpaet in jail, are now performed openly before enthusiastic audiences.

Contemporary (and partly Western-influenced) theater, dance, and music are most lively in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, but less common elsewhere. Jakarta's Taman Ismail Marzuki, a national center for the arts, has four theaters, a dance studio, an exhibition hall, small studios, and residences for administrators. Contemporary theater (and sometimes traditional theater as well) has a history of political activism, carrying messages about political figures and events that might not circulate in public. [Source:]

Indonesian Theater in the Twentieth Century

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Until the beginning of the twentieth century much of Java’s traditions of classical dance and theatre had been closely guarded treasures of the courts. Dance was mainly intended for court rituals, and its training was basically a means of educating the aristocracy and the court. The early years of the 20th century brought about a number of changes that have come to be called the “democratization of dance”. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

In 1918 the first dance society, Kridha Beka Wirama, was founded in Yogyakarta to teach court dances to all, regardless of class. The idea was launched by the son of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, and the teachers included the best dance masters of the kraton. This marked the beginning of a still-active custom whereby the court traditions of Yogyakarta are taught in private dance societies to all who are interested, often for only a nominal fee. At present, the societies receive part of their income from performances aimed mainly at tourists. The leading dance societies in Yogyakarta that actively stage performances are the kraton-related Dalem Pujokusuman and Dalem Notopraian associations.

The Indonesian nationalistic movement awoke during Dutch colonial rule in the 1920s and during the Japanese Occupation in the mid-1940s. After that, when Indonesia was in the process of gaining independence, even wayang kulit, the most traditional form of theatre, was used to propagate patriotism and new political ideas. In the 1950s, the new nation, constructed of hundreds of ethnic groups, sought its identity, which was naturally also reflected in the arts. In the field of dance the new, nationalistic theatre organisations followed the model of the European socialist countries in transforming old traditions into new, “mass-oriented” variants, such as the peasant’s dance, the tea-picker’s dance, and the dance of the fishermen, as has been the case in many countries from the Soviet Union to China, to Cambodia etc.

Western-Influenced Theatre in Indonesia

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “A drastic step towards Western stage realism and melodrama can recognised in the Central Javanese ketoprak and the East Javanese ludruk, which are forms of popular theatre evolved around the end of the nineteenth century. Their plots are based not only on the traditional stock stories from the Ramayana and the Mababbarata but also on historical or modern topics. The performances are accompanied by music and include dance numbers, although the main emphasis is on a less stylised acting resembling Western spoken theatre. On the whole, stagecraft is similar to wayang orang, although there is even more of an emphasis on realism and even naturalism. Ketoprak and ludruk are still performed on temporary stages and in the theatre halls of amusement parks in various parts of Java. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“Western theatre and dance has begun to interest Indonesians to an increasing degree, and many artists have studied in the West, especially in the United States, since the 1960s. As in many Asian countries, so too in Indonesia the early interest in Western theatre and dramatists was concentrated in academic circles. A student theatre group, called Studiklub Teater (STB), was founded in the university city of Bandung, in West Java, in 1958. Many of the some 60 dramatic works staged by STB were by Western writers, including Chekov, Gogol, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Ionesco, Brecht, and Camus. **

“STB was followed by several theatre groups, which aimed to reflect the rapid change in society and politics. In Jakarta Teguh Karya founded a group called Teater Populer. Teguh had studied in the West, and his work was dominated by realism and political idealism. Realism, often with political overtones, was the trend in several other modern theatre companies. Bengkel Teater, founded by Rendra, was even a target of the government’s censorship in the 1970s. Political criticism was the aim of the Teater Kicil (Little Theatre), founded by Arifin C. Noer in 1968. **

“Some of the pioneers of modernism employed Indonesian styles and aesthetics in their work. One of them is Balinese Putu Wijaya, who founded Teater Mandir (Independent Theatre) in Jakarta. In his work Putu adapted Balinese theatre conventions to his experiments. Yogyakarta, the old cultural and intellectual centre of Central Java, has also had several important early modern theatre groups. They include Teater Alam, Teater Dinasti, Teater Jepik, and Teater Gandrik.” **

Human Wayang Shows

“Wayang” is the Indonesia word for puppet and in Indonesia is used to describe theater both with and without puppets but is most often used as shorthand for wayang kulit (Javanese shadow puppet theater). The various art forms associated with it has been around for at least 1,000 years. Wayang shows are major social occasions. They have traditionally been featured at weddings, circumcision parties and festivals. Vendors are usually on hand, selling roasted peanuts, clove cigarettes and drinks.

Some theater dramas are called “wayang orang” (Wayan wong, see below)—human puppet shows. These are a from of dance drama in which real people perform the roles the puppets play in wyang kulit. Wayang toreng is similar except the performers wear masks (See Dance).

Popular in some parts of Java are all-night dramatic shows performed by elaborately-costumed and garishly-made-up “sandiwara” actors. Typical plots revolve around Hindu-Buddhist kings who converts to Islam or crafty servants who play tricks on their masters. . There is a lot of slapstick comedy and jokes about defecating. During one scene a peasant squats during the middle of a fight and tells the audience "it is a new kind of fertilizer. If you get it from the government, you have to pay. From me, its free." [Source: "The Villagers" by Richard Critchfield, Anchor Books]

Playing the female rolls are “bantjis”, or transvestites, who sometimes move about the stage according to the journalist Richard Critchfield "with swinging hips and exaggeratedly feminine tiny steps" while the orchestra plays "loud, suggestive drumbeats." Sometimes the audiences gets so excited they pelt the villains with stones. When this happens the actors might give a long monologue about crops and insects to put them to sleep. [Ibid]

Wayang Wong, Court Dance-Drama

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “In its grandeur and extreme stylisation, the Javanese wayang wong (wayang: shadow or puppet; wong: man) is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest theatrical traditions. Wayang wong has been closely linked to court ceremonies. Large spectacles were staged, for example, in honour of the sultan’s coronation, or for weddings and birthdays. The performances had a deep symbolic meaning, and the hour of the spectacle and its plots were determined by the fact that the Sultan of Yogyakarta was identified with the Hindu god Vishnu. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“The performance began early in the morning, when the sun, identified with Vishnu, appeared in the sky. The sultan sat on a holy throne, always facing east in the middle of the famous Golden Hall under the highest point of its pyramidical roof, symbolising the axis of the universe. The performance took place on a lower level in a smaller hall annexed to the magnificent Golden Hall, for no one was permitted to stand higher than the divine sultan. **

“The performances, which could last several days, were grandiose events, and the audience included not only members of the court but invited colonial representatives as well. Wayang wong was an exceptionally expensive art form placing heavy demands on the kraton’s treasury. In some cases, the sultan even had to borrow money from the Dutch in order to be able to arrange these spectacles. The last full-scale court performance was staged in 1939.” **

Early History of Wayang Wong

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Several forms of large-scale dance-drama are known from the early periods of Javanese history. A literary source from AD 930 refers to the wayang wwang dance- drama, a kind of wayang kulit performance where the puppets were replaced by human dancers. Its dance style is assumed to have been strongly influenced by India, and the actors were masked or unmasked according to the character portrayed. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“In the East Javanese Majapahit kingdom, the court dance-drama was called raket. The stories were derived from a contemporary East Javanese story cycle known as The Adventures of Prince Panji, and the performances are known to have lasted from evening until noon the next day. The theatrical tradition of Hindu-Buddhist East Java disappeared or a least changed with the spread of Islam to Java in the fifteenth century. It was, however, adopted by the Hindu courts of Bali, where it evolved into the gambuh, the quintessentially classical style of Balinese dance-drama. **

“In Java, the wayang topeng mask theatre discussed above remained the most popular form of dance-drama until the eighteenth century. When the kingdom of Mataram in Central Java split in two in 1755 as a result of Dutch domination, the courts of Yogyakarta and Surakarta became rivals, mainly in the field of arts, as the Dutch had considerably curbed the actual political power of the rulers. The court of Surakarta inherited the highly valued bedhaya dance and the topeng mask theatre from the Mataram kingdom. The Sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwana I (1755–92), therefore began to design a new form of theatre as his pusaka heirloom. In creating the spectacular wayang wong dance-drama, he explicitly strove to revive the dance-drama tradition of the ancient Majapahit dynasty in order to emphasise his role as its true descendant.

Later History of Wayang Wong

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The flourishing period of dance and theatre, which began in the kraton of Yogyakarta and Surakarta in the mid-eighteenth century, continued throughout the following century. It led to new forms of wayang wong-related dance-drama. The best known of these are langen driya and langen mandra wanara. Around the middle of the nineteenth century Mangkunegoro V from the Mangkunegaran kraton in Surakarta created the langen driya, based on the adventures of the hero Darmawula, a story cycle dating back to the East Javanese Majapahit dynasty. It is performed by an all-female cast, who unlike the cast in wayang wong, sing all of their lines.” [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“Langen mandra wanara, also a kind of wayang wong-derived “dance opera”, was created in the late nineteenth century by Prince Danuredio VII of Yogyakarta. Its plot material is based solely on the Ramayana, and its name derives from the epic’s monkey characters (wanara: monkey). The monkeys also lend a special feature to the whole performing technique: langen mandra wanara is performed in a crouching position and the movement patterns are characterised by monkey-like movements and gestures. **

“At present, both langen driya and langen mandra wanara are rarely performed, although the latter experienced a kind of renaissance in the 1980s when a complete performance was recorded by Radio France. The original wayang wong, on the other hand, is still performed actively, and it can be truly regarded as the classical dance-drama of Java. It has evolved into new variants in the twentieth century, which has in many ways been a period of drastic change in the performing arts. **

Wayang Wong Human Puppets and Performances

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Wayang wong has many features in common with the wayang kulit shadow theatre. These include a similar overall aesthetic and the same narrative material, often from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana; even the movements of the actors clearly imitate puppets. The steps and gestures of the actors are basically “two-dimensional”, designed to move to the left and the right like the movements of puppets on the screen. Like wayang kulit, wayang wong is also accompanied by a large-scale court gamelan orchestra. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“In Yogyakarta, all the wayang wong actors were originally men, and included members of the royal family, other members of the court, and bodyguards. In Surakarta, Pangeran Adipati Mangkunegaran I, the contemporary and rival of Hamengkubuwana I, the creator of wayang wong, also began to compose wayang wong plays. This marked the beginning of the Surakartan wayang wong tradition of the Mangkunegaran kraton. The Yogyakartan and Surakartan styles differ in certain respects. In Surakarta women played female roles from the very beginning, and often noble hero characters as well. With its undulating movements, the Surakartan dance style is more subdued than the Yogyakartan style. There are also differences in costume and in the gamelan accompaniment. **

“The main language of the performances is Old Javanese, not the modern language, and the actors recite the lines themselves, while singers sitting among the gamelan perform the more demanding vocal parts. The performance is an intricately complex whole, where the concept of time and the structure is dictated by the gamelan’s soft and elaborate fabric of sound, further elaborated by the recitation, songs, and comments of the chorus. The dancer-actors move slowly, apparently according to their own logic, and from time to time remain frozen, reciting their lines in highly ornamental positions between their elegant dance movements. The chorus and the singers sitting together with the orchestra describe and comment on the events, while the actor-dancers recite their own lines in a stylised manner. **

Wayang Wong Characters and Movements

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Because wayang wong borrowed the characterisation of shadow theatre, the style of dance, costumes, make-up, and vocal technique are all dictated by the stock types portrayed. The characters fall into three major categories: the female type, the refined male alus type, and the strong male gagah type. The dancer’s physique determines his or her role type. The women must be petite and slender, and they should also have beautiful facial features. The noble male characters must also be slender and delicate, whereas the strong male type should be powerful in both body and appearance. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“The movements of the wayang wong dancer-actors are generally fluid and solemn, and recitation is extremely stylised. The slow female dance is restrained and graceful, and its movements are directed at a low level covering only a narrow space. The female dancer rarely lifts her feet from the floor, and the basic position is always an open demi plié bent slightly forward. The movements of the refined male type are also directed at a rather low level, but the dancers are allowed to lift their feet slightly. Their whole dance technique aims at creating an overall impression of withheld strength, so typical of the Southeast Asian ideal of a hero. **

“The strong male type, on the other hand, moves energetically, standing in a very open leg position and lifting his arms and legs horizontally to create the impression of aggressive macho masculinity. All the role types use four basic hand gestures, derived from the shadow puppets. These, in turn, are partly based on the Indian-influenced dance of the Central Javanese period, as shown by preserved reliefs and sculptures. Unlike the Indian mudra, the wayang wong hand gestures do not have, at least not any more, any direct symbolic meaning. They are rather unforced, albeit extremely decorative, gestural extensions of the dance movements. **

“The above three major role types are each divided into a number of subtypes (humble, refined, proud, servant, adviser, etc.). There are a total of twenty-one role types, each with its own style of make-up and dress. The leading types have their characteristic movement patterns revealing their psychological qualities. For example, symmetrical movements indicate strength, stability, and, above all, humility, whereas asymmetry is a sign of proud and powerful energy.” **

Wayang Wong Stories, Costuming, Masks and Makeup

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The costume includes a brownish-black batik sarong with a tight black velvet bodice for women, while the men dance with bare torsos. Also worn are jewelry and a crown or tiara, skilfully cut in gilt leather, with the model of the headdress revealing the rank of the character. The overall aesthetics are familiar to wayang kulit, and in this century the dance costume and head-dress were made to correspond more closely to those of shadow puppets. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“Characterisation is further emphasised by means of facial make-up, as masks are worn only by the demon and monkey figures. The slightly stylised make-up is light for the noble male and female roles, and red for the strong and coarse types. The facial make-up of the punakawan or servant clowns is usually white. Make-up can be divided into seven basic types, including, for example, various models of painted whiskers and beards for the men. The actors paint their whole body with yellowish boreh liquid, giving the skin a soft golden glow. **

“The traditional wayang wong plots or lakons, which in the early nineteenth century finally developed into written “librettos”, are mostly based on the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. In Java, these originally Indian epics are regarded as national literature, even to the extent that their heroes are felt to be the mythical ancestors of the Javanese. It is no wonder then that the heroes have, in a way, begun to live their own lives and have given rise to new and purely Javanese stories, which no longer have much to do with the original epic context. For example, the Lakon Rama Nitis (The Incarnation of Rama) portrays an incarnation of Prince Rama of the Ramayana as the god Krishna of the Mahabharata. **

“One of the earliest fantasies of this kind is the kakawin court poem, Arjuna Vivaha, composed in honour of King Airlangga’s wedding in 1035, whose principal hero is the virtuous Arjuna of the Mahabharata. Although it was originally official court poetry lauding the virtues of a ruler celebrating his marriage, it has survived as one of the most beloved and valued lakon of wayang wong.” **

Wayang Orang in the Twentieth Century

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The gradual popularisation of wayang wong began in Surakarta in the 1890s when a Chinese businessman founded a commercial group adapting the wayang wong tradition of the Mankunegaran kraton. This new style, generally referred to as wayang orang, was aimed at ordinary city audiences. The company, now under the name of Sriwedari, still performs in the amusement park in Surakarta. The Bharata Theatre, founded in the 1940s, has maintained this tradition in Jakarta. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“Wayang orang is usually performed on a Western-type proscenium stage with heavy illusionistic backdrops, and an abundance of various stage effects. Commercial wayang orang groups are also active in the smaller towns, such as Semarang and Malang. Despite modernisation, wayang orang has preserved something of its original stylised dance-drama character. **

Buskers and Street Theater in Indonesia

The end of the Suharto era has meant an outpouring of culture and forms of expression and nowhere is this more evident than on the streets and sidewalks of Jakarta. Traditional dancers, ukelele players and coke bottle orchestras stake out territory in front of busy shopping areas and panhandle for change.

Transvestites and guitar-playing youths sing for cars stopped at traffic lights for small change. Drivers are expected to pay and if they don’t they are at risk of having a stone tossed at their window or their hub caps pulled off.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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