“What are you going to do now that UNESCO has recognized wayang as intangible cultural heritage?”
This question intrigued Prof. Andrik Purwasito, a lecturer in communications at Sebelas Maret State University (UNS) Surakarta.
“Are Indonesians proud of this?” asked Andrik’s peer, a journalist of the French newspaper Le Monde.
As an Indonesian who loves wayang and learned the art as a child, Andrik felt compelled to respond.
“I’m going to use wayang as a teaching medium,” he replied.
From Trenggalek, East Java, Andrik earned his history and civilization doctorate from Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales in Paris in 1992, but he has researched wayang since 1985, formulating the theory of “message engineering”, after studying how the Walisongo (nine Islamic proselytizers in Java) utilized wayang as a medium for conveying Islamic teachings to Javanese.
“In order to change the attitude and behavior of a community, communicators should be able to package their messages. So I came up with message engineering,” explained Andrik.
Andrik has practiced his theory in lectures by staging wayang shows complete with gamelan players and sinden (female traditional singers). However, in this setting he reduces the duration of a performance from the conventional 12 hours to 3.
Unlike most wayang shows, the lecturer speaks Indonesian instead of Javanese.
“I can also present it in foreign languages like English or French, depending on the audience,” he said.
His first wayang lecture on political geography was delivered on March 6, 2012 at Pesanggrahan Mayangkara, a resort owned by Surakarta’s famous dalang (puppet master) Ki Purba Asmara.
Later on he talked politics by means of wayang at the School of Social and Political Sciences, UNS Solo.
The bespectacled professor also changes wayang episodes according to the subjects being dealt with. For example, in his recent performance, Andrik changed the story “Semar Mbangun Kahyangan” (Semar Reforms Heaven) into “Reformasi Moral di Amartapura” (Moral Reform in Amartapura).
As narrated, the state of Amartapura is marked by moral decadence due to corruption, hedonism and drug abuse, with widespread injustice and weak law enforcement. Separatists and provinces are trying to break away from the unitary state of Amartapura. Dissatisfaction, apathy, declining public confidence in national leadership, foreign intervention in political sovereignty and economic independence, and cultural identity confusion make matters worse.
A moral reform movement eventually appears in Amartapura to create order.
His modifications, according to Andrik, do not violate the dramatic standards of wayang, which he describes as developing dynamically in line with prevailing progress.
What he does today in terms of language is like the Walisongo’s experiment with the Javanese.
“The language spoken has in fact been changing, from old Javanese, middle Javanese, present-day Javanese, to Indonesian or even foreign languages,” Andrik pointed out.
As to using a shorter time, instead of the traditional dusk-to-dawn time period, he said Surakarta’s classical art figure, the late Gendon Humardani, had popularized this idea in the 1980s. The point is to package wayang shows according to current trends.
“In modern times, the conventional version is too long and will only bring boredom,” he continued.
Modified stories are also legitimate. “A dalang is allowed to make lakon carangan as offshoots of the main stories without changing their core themes,” he said.
In presenting his fragments, Andrik keeps using original wayang themes, which are the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics.
The other aspects of wayang that must remain unchanged are the names of characters, the division of scenes, antawacana (dialogue styles reflecting personality) and udagara (manners). “Srikandi, for instance, has a high-pitched voice, which must never be changed,” he said.
His wayang lecture method has unexpectedly received a positive response from his students and peers. The resident of Sukoharjo, Central Java, believes wayang is an effective way of lecturing on politics.
“Nearly all wayang stories are laden with politics, so it’s easy to use them to elucidate on political theories,” he said, without ruling out the possibility of lecturing on other subjects by the same means.
Andrik is now studying ways of using wayang as a medium of diplomacy. “It’s not impossible for wayang to be staged in various countries in relevant languages through a cultural approach,” he said.
He hoped wayang would not just be known as Indonesia’s cultural heritage, but would also keep developing so that it was introduced to the international community, instead of just remaining a part of Indonesia’s national pride.
“I want to prove that wayang can serve diverse purposes rather than be mere entertainment. Wayang can experience unlimited growth,” he concluded.
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