"Wayang Potehi of Java / by Afterhours Books


IN PRAISE OF PUPPETS
by Duncan Graham, Contributor, Malang, East Java
 

This is true of parents and puppeteers; apart from the means of reproduction there seems to be little difference. It’s a point proved by the work of Ardian Purwoseputro, the author and principal photographer of a splendidly illustrated text on the subject — Wayang Potehi of Java. 

More scholarly research on the glove puppets of Java may eventuate. This year the author won a Nippon Foundation Asian Public Intellectual collaborative grant for further study.

Whatever follows, this book will be the primary source so all credit to the pioneer. As Ardian discovered, there’s been a dearth of information in Indonesia. The best source to date has been in Taiwan. 

The author describes himself as an independent researcher and filmmaker. His interest in a little-known art started with “childhood dissatisfaction […] which suddenly resurfaced when I watched a Potehi puppet show in early 2012”.

The location was a luxury Surabaya hotel, not the back streets of Blitar where the young author-to-be loved the snacks and other treats that accompanied performances. His mother gave him a Potehi doll, but it was a cheap puppet, a little devil, not up to the standards of those bought by his friends’ richer parents.

Nonetheless it excited his imagination and the spark remained.

Future doctoral students will have to be content with analyzing the symbols because Ardian has almost sucked the topic dry of facts, adding a fine glossary, biography and a four-page list of Potehi characters. 

Wayang Potehi — also known as wayang thithi in East Java, where the art remains strongest — is believed to have come from southern China, particularly Fujian province. There’s a quaint myth to explain its origins: Four prisoners condemned to death tried to lift their depression by performing with improvised hand puppets, using a jangle of pots and pans to make music.

They created such a racket that warders investigated. They were astonished by the men’s spirit so took them to the king who, of course, offered pardons with conditions: They had to spread the art and make it popular. Variations of this story also appear in other cultures.

Fujian is the homeland of the ancestors of the Peranakan Chinese of Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula, according to professor Leo Suryadinata.

In his foreword the former director of Chinese heritage studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University writes that Chinese law prohibited the migration of women so the men who went overseas married locally. Their descendants (including the author) became the Peranakan, a distinct ethnic group with its own food and lively hybrid culture. 

Potehi, based on classical Chinese stories, entered Indonesia with the migrants. It spread through parts of the archipelago getting indigenized along the way. The earliest record comes from Batavia (now Jakarta) in the 17th century.

Around the same time another finger-puppet show was appearing in Britain. Punch and Judy originated in Italian culture and was popular entertainment until recently. Critics have condemned the violence in the stories as incompatible with modern values.

 

In 1967, the New Order government introduced Presidential Instruction 14, banning all expressions of Chinese language and culture. This was not because the Potehi dolls were politically incorrect by whacking each other with cudgels as in Europe, but because the Chinese were equated with communism. To the paranoid it mattered not that Potehi predated Mao Zedong by several centuries. Even the lotus flower, a symbol of eternity, was banned.

This wasn’t the first time authorities had interfered in the common people’s fun. In the 1750s the colonial Dutch started taxing performances because the shows were often associated with gambling.

This wasn’t the first time authorities had interfered in the common people’s fun. In the 1750s the colonial Dutch started taxing performances because the shows were often associated with gambling.

Fortunately, folk art rooted in the community is not so easily eradicated by authoritarianism. Potehi didn’t perish, it hibernated.

Potehi were previously seen only in temple courtyards, locations where they still performed. The book includes details. But once Soeharto had quit the stage the puppets came out of their boxes and into shopping malls and hotels, inspiring Ardian to discover more.

The audiences and the dalang (puppet masters) were no longer exclusively Chinese; performances had evolved and ownership had now become shared with the Javanese.

The three-dimensional puppets are still being made and exhibited. Ardian set about finding collections and sometimes the artists (who he calls “sculptors”), getting their stories and photographing their creations. He also found puppets brought from China early last century that stayed hidden from the culture cops. 

Inevitably there are demons and royalty, wise men and knockabout comics, fantasy figures all. The stories contain “heroism, romance and tragedy, strategies and intrigues, loyalty and betrayal, as well as humor”. Each story title is selected after a ritual asking permission from the temple deities.

Performances are accompanied by a small orchestra that includes string, wind and percussion instruments. The box stages are also splendid works of art.

This is an easy book to view, though sadly not to read. The text is tiny and sometimes set against absorbing colors, a serious design error. Try reading blue on white or vice versa and stay sane.

Described by publisher Afterhours Books as “a premium coffee-table book”, it retails a shade under Rp 1 million (US$86). 

Indonesians may blanch at the cost, but it’s a fraction of prices charged for books in Europe, so good value.

For example, art historian Lydia Kieven’s inadequately-illustrated Following the Cap Figure in Majapahit Temple Reliefs (reviewed Aug. 19, 2013), is half the size and is almost entirely monochrome. It was originally listed at $142.