Cornell University, October 2001

Marshall Clark


smallCornell_logoThis article is a study of the ideas, visions, and styles of a number of Indonesia’s writers in the New Order—in particular, the final years of the New Order—who chose to rework and reinterpret the Ramayana epic of the Javanese wayang kulit shadow puppet theatre. The deliberate choice by these writers to use Indonesian as their medium of linguistic communication has proven to be a decision in favor of distancing themselves from their mother-tongue, Javanese, and of targeting a larger „national“ audience, thus signaling their concern for non-Javanese Indonesians. By the same token, the Indonesian language of wayang literary representations was often heavily Javanese in its flavor and style, and the indigenized wayang characters and plots appropriated were also, naturally, very much regional in origin.

Belonging to Indonesia’s small yet influential political class, the target of these writers was, generally, middle-class public opinion, which they attempted to both reflect and shape. However, although the target of these writers was the Indonesian middle class, their allegiance was overwhelmingly with the non-elite and subordinate groups in Indonesian society. Yet, how can an appropriation of the wayang”s feudal world of kings, queens, princes, princesses, demons, and servants possibly express an allegiance with Indonesia’s „non-elite“? The answer to this question lies in the feudal kawula-gusti (servant-lord/master) ethos, one of the most basic assumptions of traditional Javanese society, not to mention the heavily-Javanized New Order regime. A kawula-gusti ideology conceives society in terms of a hierarchy, in which the ruler holds sway over his kingdom unchallenged, and the achievements of his underlings are measured by their unquestioning loyalty and service to the ruler and his kingdom. Furthermore, the kawula-gusti ideology does not just refer to the king, but to all patronclient relations within the social hierarchy. The feudal kawula-gusti ethos was one of the first values to be questioned by many of the writers of the New Order who were reworking wayang narratives and themes. For example, in novels such as Emha Ainun Nadjib’s Gerakan Punakawan atawa Arus Bawah (The Clown-servant Movement or The Undertow) (1994), the menial clown-servants of the wayang hold center stage, and in their literary manifestations they constantly challenge their superiors, measuring their achievement not in terms of service to their ruler but rather in terms of their opposition to his rule and their resourcefulness in undermining it.

In Arus Bawah and other examples of Indonesian literary texts in which wayang themes were transformed—such as Agusta Wibisono’s Balada Narasoma (The Ballad of Narasoma) (1990), Ki Guna Watoncarita’s Wayang Semau Cue (Wayang as I Please)5 (1990), and Pipit Rochijat’s Baratayuda di Negerί Antah Berantah (The Baratayuda in Never-Never Land) (1993)—the rulers themselves are often satirically caricatured as spoilt, nepotistic, corrupt, and power-hungry officials who are socially and politically ill-equipped to negotiate the ever-changing realities of life outside the palace walls.

However, these examples are extreme, and many texts, such as Sindhunata’s Anak Bajang Menggiring Angίn (The Little Runt Herding the Wind) (1983), Putu Wijaya’s Perang (War) (1990), and Seno Gumira Ajidarma’s Wisanggeni Sang Buronan (Wisanggeni the Outlaw) (2000), portrayed both the wayang rulers and their subordinates in somewhat tempered shades of gray. For example, in Wisanggeni Sang Buronan, the renegade ksatria of the Pandawa, Wisanggeni, respects the opinions of authoritative ksatria (knight) figures such as his father Arjuna and the advisor to the Pandawa, Kresna. However, Wisanggeni’s peasant clothes, his unkempt appearance, his taste for arak (rice wine), his allegiance to the common people, and his opposition to the wayang gods can very easily be understood as a focus of an alternative site of values and beliefs, a focus which could also be seen as a rallying point for moral resistance against the hegemonic status quo. Therefore, by treating the wayang seriously, and by broaching issues such as hierarchy and feudalism in a subtle manner, Seno’s novel is as much an interrogation of the kawula-gustί ethos as the seditious satire mentioned above.

For these writers, the most obvious method of questioning the feudal Javanese ideology underpinning the New Order’s cultural hegemony was to modernize and humanize the wayang characters. For example, the wayang characters translated into Indonesian literary form were often depicted as „ordinary“ Indonesians who performed their tasks in a routine manner. Admittedly, their tasks may have appeared glamorous to the average Indonesian. However, the manner in which these tasks were performed was often strikingly contemporary and quite mundane. For example, rather than Gatotkaca flying off completely unaided as he does in the wayang, in one short story by Sapto Aji, Gatotkaca casually dons a jet-fighter helmet and climbs into an F- 16. Elsewhere, on the front cover of Wayang Semau Cue, an airborne Gatotkaca is pictured tangled in a kite. The front cover of Soebadio Sastrosatomo’s Polίtίk Dosomuko Rezim Orde Baru (The Politics of Dosomuko’s New Order Regime) (1998) is distinguished by the striking image of the evil Dasamuka clutching an American dollar and a fifty-thousand rupiah note (characterized by the image of a smiling Suharto), whilst standing in a sea of five-hundred rupiah notes. In a story by Pipit Rochijat, Kama takes to the Kurusetra battlefield in a Toyota jeep, and he is only hit by Arjuna’s arrow when his driver Salya bogs the jeep down in some mud. In contrast to this, Agusta Wibisono’s duel between Arjuna and Kama in Balada Narasoma is highlighted by the two ksatria embracing each other, sharing a cigarette, and entering into a discussion of Kama’s soon-to-be-completed novel.It is precisely because these usually glamorous characters are rendered so „ordinary“ and „contemporary“ that their message is doubly potent.

This article will argue that literary reworkings of the wayang—and, for the purposes of this article, the Ramayana epic in particular—can be read as a means of „shadow-boxing“ in the face of the New Order powers-that-be. „Shadow-boxing“ can be defined as boxing against an imaginary opponent. Extending this metaphor, the writers of wayang-based texts can be regarded as shadow-boxers, their texts the shadows, and their „imaginary“ opponent Suharto and his New Order regime. Just as a boxer only shadow-boxes whilst warming-up or practicing before a fight, Indonesian writers critical of the New Order state were in a sense imagining, foreshadowing, and enacting in their mind’s eye the „real“ fight to come in 1997 and 1998, the fight to overthrow Suharto. Besides emphasizing the ways in which various Indonesian writers modernized and humanized the characters of the Ramayana, I will also try to reveal the various strategies of mediation that allowed the writers to „shadow-box“ in the midst of the New Order, sometimes indirectly provoking or confronting the powers-that-be, and undermining their symbolic authority, while at other times directly insulting them.

By examining various Indonesian literary texts, not necessarily in chronological order, I will try to show a lurching movement among Indonesian writers between „straight“ interpretations of the Ramayana, revealing a desire for the mobilization of the Ramayana’s „monkey masses,“ and satirical interpretations, revealing an ironic identification with the Ramayana’s „evil“ King of Alengka, Rahwana or Dasamuka (literally, „Ten-Faced“). By invoking mythical imagery and comic-book violence, these texts, which on the whole developed the „monkey masses“ as a metaphor for the disenfranchised masses of Indonesia and Rahwana as a metaphor for Suharto, simultaneously interrogated and denounced Suharto and his New Order regime, as well as became acts of social and literary resistance.

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