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A Personal Journey in Javanese Puppetry: An Interview with Sutrisno Hartana

Growing up on the Indonesian island of Java, the most enticing thing in eight-year-old Sutrisno Hartana’s world was sneaking out at night to watch wayang kulit—Javanese shadow puppet theatre. The performance is a feat of spectacular storytelling that typically lasts for seven hours, going from midnight until dawn.

“I was not the only one who stayed up too late watching the shadow puppets in my village and the surrounding areas,” Hartana recalls. “Many of my friends, relatives and people from other villages also stayed very late, and even stayed all night long at wayang performances.” Hartana would often be scolded by his parents for being tired at school the day after these all-night shows, but he didn’t care—he was hooked.

Wayang kulit is one of the most popular forms of puppetry in Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia. It is an ancient theatrical tradition that arrived in Indonesia from India in the first millennium of the common era, along with the Hindu and Buddhist religions, writing and wet rice farming. The stories are inspired by Indian epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana, but were adapted to local cultures and traditions and included folklore, fables, legends and contemporary ideas.

The tradition of wayang kulit has remained vibrant and popular over thousands of years because of its constant renewal and relevance to current issues. There’s also something for everyone—from philosophical discourse to romance, fight scenes, clowns, beautiful music and elaborate courtly displays. It brings people of all ages together.

As a teenager, Hartana studied karawitan (Javanese traditional performing arts) at the Conservatory of Javanese Traditional Performing Arts. It was the establishment of the conservatory, and eight others like it across the region, by the Indonesian government in 1954 that enabled Haratana to study the arts formally. Before the conservatories, traditional Javanese performing arts were passed down through a dhalang (puppeteer) who taught the art forms to their children or other relatives. According to Hartana, “The complexities and subtleties of Javanese shadow puppet theatre have long been considered an extraordinary vehicle for philosophical and artistic knowledge that could only be learned from the family of dhalang.”

After eight years of studies there was still more training to do before Hartana would be qualified to perform wayang professionally. To reach that level he had to combine all of the technical skills he had learned in school with experience outside the classroom, which included the ability to play all the instruments of gamelan, sing all the songs from the repertoire, manipulate puppets, and memorize dialogues and narrations. To this day, Hartana continues to practice wayang with his teachers, relatives and friends.

Now based in Vancouver, Hartana has been collaborating and performing wayang and gamelan in North American for over 20 years. He is an arts educator and ethnomusicologist who teaches at SFU’s School of Performing Arts. In 2004. the King Paku Alaman of Yogyakarta granted Hartana the title of Mas Lurah Lebda Swara, making him a court musician at the royal palace.

“As a traditional art form, wayang is rooted in community and can be considered what I call ‘Wayang-Gamelan Performance Complex (WGPC).’ The interconnected, interdisciplinary nature of WGPC demands a holistic approach on the part of scholars, artists, audiences (both young and old), teachers and students in the field of performing arts and education,” Hartana explains.

He works hard to create connections and collaborations with artists, musicians, universities, community centres and schools through wayang and gamelan. “I consider collaboration between artists and musicians an extremely important way to sustain and develop mutual understanding,” he adds, “based on cross-cultural perspectives.”

You can see for yourself the exquisite wayang kulit of Java, which UNESCO proclaimed a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage,” in MOA’s exhibition, Shadows, Strings and Other Things: The Enchanting Theatre of Puppets (May 16 – October 14). Hartana’s expertise and knowledge were integral to the development of the exhibition, which highlights dozens of Javanese shadow puppets from MOA’s collection.