The University of Indonesia (UI) in Depok, West Java is known for its long-established "Jazz Goes to Campus," shows. But another arts festival draws audience members to campus with traditional performances.
The university held its 13th "Wayang Goes to Campus" festival April 4th and 5th, with an array of performances, featuring wayang kulit (two-dimensional leather puppets), wayang potehi (Chinese puppets), wayang golek (three-dimensional wooden puppets) and wayang orang (classical dance theatre).
"Students come and go every year, but we lecturers are the ones who stay, and we have to keep the tradition alive here," Dwi Woro Retno Mastuti, UI's Javanese culture researcher, said at an April 2nd press conference.
Art that reflects people's lives
Accompanied by live music of the gamelan orchestra (in Java) or the gender wayang ensemble (in Bali), wayang has been performed in the Indonesian archipelago for centuries, a powerful and adaptable form of theatrical storytelling.
The stories are sometimes drawn from the Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, sometimes from local folklore, but almost always with threads of current events and jokes woven in by the dalang or puppet master.
Wayang "portrays both the good and bad of daily life, and its stories convince the audience that good deeds lead to peace and victory," psychology Professor Sarlito Wirawan Sarwono, head of UI's wayang community, told Khabar Southeast Asia.
Sarlito said the art form's main philosophy is that good always triumphs over evil. It also advocates peace and harmony. "Wayang tradition may seem cognitively eroded by contemporary modern culture, but it is actually in our subconscious mind," he said.
Sunan Kalijaga, one of the nine holy men who introduced Islam in Java centuries ago, is said to have used wayang to proselytise Islam on the island. In April, wayang performances were used to spread word in Bali about the dangers of HIV/AIDS.
Selu Margaretha Kushendrawati, who holds a Ph.D in philosophy and heads the festival's steering committee, said wayang reflects people's lives.
"Every wayang performance carries philosophical messages on life that we can apply in our lives," Selu said.
While Sarlito acknowledged the art form may need modern touches to appeal to younger generations, Selu added such changes must be meaningful.
"Modifying traditional puppetry should be contextual with the current situation," Selu said.
In November 2003, UNESCO recognised wayang puppet theatre as one of the world's Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
One of the festival's highlights was a wayang kulit performance with full Javanese orchestra and pesinden (traditional singers) by dalang Ki Joko Santoso.
Joko led the troupe's performance of the Murwakala story, used for ruwatan, a Javanese ritual to expel bad spirits, on April 5th, in UI's lakeside auditorium.
A product of the Indonesian Arts Institute in Solo, Joko manipulated the puppets and voiced each character, seated behind the lighted, white screen on which puppet shadows were cast.
Second-semester UI metallurgy student Albi Erlangga came with an interests in traditional arts. "Even though I am of Javanese descent, I could only understand bits of the performance because it used the high Javanese vernacular," Albi told Khabar. "But that didn't stop me from enjoying the show and the atmosphere of a shadow puppet performance."
His Jakarta-born, 18-year-old Sumatran friend Ahmad Fadli watched it live for the first time. "It was a really interesting show with a full gamelan orchestra," Ahmad said.