Widjanarko isn’t from Jakarta, but he is one of the most sought-after performers in Java. See, wayang orang is dying. Every year fewer young Indonesians embrace traditional entertainment, opting for bleak air-conditioned malls and movie theaters rather than theater stages. But here in Jakarta performers like Widjanarko, who spends his weekdays with the tourism department in Sragen, Central Java, are enjoying a resurgence of sorts as some well-off Indonesians pour money into traditional dance and music as a way of preserving it for future generations.
Can you explain what wayang orang is exactly?
Wayang orang originated during the Majapahit empire and combines dance, art, drama, singing and gamelan music.
Many of our traditional dances originated in wayang orang. It gave birth to other creative art performances.
Wayang orang stories are also very prolific.
They continually deliver images, characters and stories that are still relevant today.
What made you want to become a wayang orang dancer?
It’s a family tradition. I wanted to continue what my ancestors started. My grandfather and my father were performers.
The story of ‘The Death of Abimanyu’ reminds me of my grandfathers.
Everybody wears batik on Friday. How come there aren’t wayang orang performances every Saturday?
There is a wayang orang theater called Barata that holds performances every Saturday night.
I think they usually have a big turnout.
I don’t know other theaters that have regular performances.
Is there a certain sense of pride that comes with being a wayang orang dancer?
The fact that I know and understand all the stories, from the Mahabrata to the Ramayana, makes me proud.
The Mahabarata tells about the Kuru dynasty.
It is about the strife between two sides of the family, the Pandawa and the Kurawa, which are both vying for domination of the kingdom.
The Ramayana is the story of Rama and Rahwana, who are both competing for a beautiful woman named Shinta, which leads to an 18-year war.
There are so many stories and characters in wayang orang that can be adapted to today.
For example, the difference between how good people and greedy people behave and what they will get in return.
The stories still have a lot of moral value.
Did you go to college to learn traditional theater?
I studied dance at Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia, in Solo. I enrolled in 2000. In my first semester there were 60 students.
By the time we got into the fourth or fifth semester, the number had decreased drastically.
So is performing your job or your passion?
I work with the tourism department in Sragen, Central Java.
I spend most of my time outside the office doing surveys to find the local art forms that are on the verge of disappearing or that have the potential to be developed further.
Do people support your passion or do they think of it as old-fashioned?
People always react positively when they find out that I’m a performer.
They like the fact that I’m both a civil servant and an artist.
This is the way I help preserve the culture.
Young people don’t know anything about the stories: the characters, where they live.
I’m trying to make young people love wayang orang again.
I’m worried that other cultures might try to claim wayang orang as their own tradition.
How often do you perform in Jakarta?
A lot. The wayang orang groups here in the city, like Swargaloka, cover all the transportation to and from Jakarta, and accommodation.
Usually I come one week before the performance to prepare everything. As soon as the performances end, I go home.
Both Jakarta and Solo are good for wayang orang performances. The difference is in the sponsorship.
It is very easy to get someone to back the shows in Jakarta.
Is there any hope for traditional performances in Jakarta?
Wayang orang in Jakarta is slowly gaining popularity. I don’t know why.
Maybe it is because the guest stars, like Indra Bekti, are getting involved.
But honestly, those performers do little for wayang orang development.
It is only for the marketing, to attract the audiences.
The guest stars don’t exactly know the stories and some of them can’t dance.
There are a lot of rich people in Jakarta who sponsor wayang orang performances.
I think they have a deep love for the art.
If you had a chance to perform for the president, what story would you tell?
The story about Puntadewa, a king who wants to unite the world.
Unfortunately, there is another king, a greedy king, who wants to take over the world.
The greedy king doesn’t care about his people, not even his own children.
And he wants to unite his country through a bad way.