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Wayang Wong in the Court of Yogyakarta: The Enduring Significance of Javanese Dance Drama

Author(s): Garrett Kam

Source: Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 29-51
Published by: University of Hawai'i Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1124435
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WayangWongin the Court of Yogyakarta:
The EnduringSignificanceof Javanese
Dance Drama
Garrett Kam

Aesthetically, the palace dances of Java concern them-

selves with the passive and the active, and the contrast
between the two states is the seed of the drama within
them.Juxtaposition of the two opposite kinds of movement
impels the dance and gives it its form.... Each dance is
full of pauses,silences,motions arrestedin space, meditative
poses, and passagesof immobility (Bowers 1975, 210-211).
Wayang wong1 dance drama in the central Javanese kraton (royal
court) of Yogyakarta represents the epitome of Javanese aesthetic unity.
It is total theatre involving dance, drama, music, visual arts, language,
and literature. A highly cultured sense of formality permeates every aspect
of its presentation. The variety of wayang wong most commonly seen in
Java today, however, is the popular, commercialized version known in
Indonesia as wayang orang. This is not surprising, for the elaborate court
dance drama was rarely performed even during its golden age from 1921
to 1939. With its grand scale and great expense, wayang wong fell into
decline rather quickly in the 1940s due to the situation in Java during
World War II and the ensuing revolution for Indonesian independence.
The form never disappeared entirely, however, for it was nurtured in
several private dance schools established after the end of World War I.2
In the 1980s, large-scale productions are being staged once again. Although
these productions do not match the rare performances of the golden age,
they are a significant attempt to revive this sophisticated dance theatre.
Here I want to discuss the history, development, and performance aspects
of wayang wong in the palace and take a look at the current revival.

Garrett Kam is a Hawaii-based teacher and performer of Javanese dance. This article is based on
research undertaken during a 1979-1981 residency in Yogyakarta. The author wishes to thank the
following individuals for their invaluable support: R. W. Sasminta Mardawa, Fred Wibowo, K.R.T.
SutamboJogobroto, R. W. Sudarman Pangarsobroto, R. Sunartomo, and Ben Suharto.

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30 Kam


Claire Holt writes that dance dramas "may have developed from
pantomimic war dances or chanted recitals of myths which were accom-
panied by illustrative dance mime" (1967, 151). However far back in
antiquity its origins may go, the earliest written account of wayang wong,
other than an inscription dated A.D. 930,3 is found in the Sumanasantaka,
a literary work of the twelfth-century East Javanese Kedhiri kingdom.
This wayang wwang,4 as it was called, was a masked-play form in which
stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata epics were presented.
Unfortunately, nothing was recorded concerning the dance style, costumes,
music, staging, or length of performance.
The epic poem JVdgarakertdgama, written in the fourteenth century
in the Majapahit kingdom in-East Java, describes what may have been
another masked-play form, called raket.5Once again details are lacking,
and there is no mention of the story presented. The form was probably
different from that described in the Sumanasdntaka,however, since a dif-
ferent name was used in the later work. The terms raket, sori tekes, tapuk,
tapel, and igel had all appeared by the fourteenth century. That the name
wayang wwang was not used is significant, because in present-day Java
wayangwong and wayangtopeng(masked-dance drama) are separate genres.6
In the mid-eighteenth century the dance drama called wayang wong
was described in detail for the first time. The Treaty of Giyanti in 1755
ended a dynastic dispute for control of the kingdom of Mataram and
divided it into Surakarta and Yogyakarta. The new sultan of Yogyakarta,
Hamengkubuwana I (1755-1792), conceptualized the ideas behind the
classicalJavanese dance and the dance masters then created the form. The
first wayang wong performed in this new dance style was an episode from
the Mahabharata presented by unmasked dancers who spoke in prose
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, movement,
dialogue, costume, expression, and musical accompaniment began to be
standardized (Soedarsono 1969, 500). Although certain elements of the
present style were initiated in the past eighty or ninety years (Holt
1967, 151), most developments have occurred since the 1920s. During
the reign of Sultan Hamengkubuwana VIII (1921 -1939), the repertoire
was expanded, dance techniques refined, innovations introduced, and
costumes enriched. Wayang wong was cultivated and perfected because the
Dutch deprived the sultans of political power. The sultans, who perhaps
needed a compensation for this loss and still possessed considerable wealth,
were "able to display the glory of their courts mainly on ceremonial
occasions that included elaborate spectacles" (Holt 1967, 151).7 Such
occasions included the sultan's birthday, his coronation, and royal wed-

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dings.8 Until the beginning of World War II, the Javanese still saw
the kraton as a model of culture and a repository of traditional values
and customs (Koentjaraningrat 1959, 6). With the social and economic
changes brought by the war and its aftermath, wayang wong entered a
period of decline. In 1981, with support from the court, the Indonesian
government, and private enterprise, it experienced a renaissance.

The Court Setting

In the center of the Yogyakarta kratonis the Plataran Kedhaton,
the peaceful innermost courtyard. The magnificent Bangsal Kencana
(Golden Pavilion) is located here and is reserved for state functions. This
open-sided structure (pendhapa) has a high peaked roof supported by
numerous carved red and gold pillars which are reflected in the elevated
white marble floors by the light of crystal chandeliers. An open area
adjacent to this structure once was the stage for wayang wong. It was a
large rectangle, bordered by bricks six inches high, which was filled with
dirt and covered by a thin layer of sand (Soedarsono 1980, 30-31).9 In
1921 a permanent roofed structure adjoining the Bangsal Kencana was
constructed for the performances. This Tratag Wetan (Eastern Veranda)
runs along the entire eastern side of the pavilion, forming a long stage 133
feet by 27 feet. The proportion of these measurements is reminiscent of the
kelir screen of the wayangkulit puppet theatre; in this case, dancers take the
place of the flat leather puppets.
At the back center of the Tratag Wetan is the Kuncung (Extended
Veranda), measuring 50 feet by 12 feet. This roofed structure housed the
gamelanmusicians during performances. Directly behind the Tratag Wetan
are two smaller roofed pavilions used as waiting rooms by the dancers.
Called Bangsal Kothak after the wooden chest in which wayang kulit
puppets are stored, they measure 13 feet by 30 feet. Only the side facing
away from the stage was open for performances; the other three sides were
covered by temporary woven bamboo walls. The dancers assembled here
a half-hour before going on stage, exiting and entering the Bangsal Kothak
in choreographic formation. When they stepped onto the Tratag Wetan,
they immediately sank into a squatting walk to reach their places.
A performance, which could last up to four days, began at five in
the morning with a one-hour musical overture (talu). The first scene began
at six o'clock, but it was not important for an audience to be present
because "a dancer ... who begins dancing at six o'clock in the morning
with nobody watching him will apply the same amount of dedication and
concentration as the dancer who dances in front of thousands of admirers
... to dance as best he can as a member of the community of dancers"
(Suryobrongto 1970, 8). The sultan might have observed the start of

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32 Kam

_ t

Temporary fence

I Path of dancers
,I I


r-- I
n n WITAN u0z To dressing rooms --
Sultan's throne


Ia I

I t Path of dancers ^ I
Temporary fence

i I

FIGURE6. Diagram showing the Plataran Kedhaton of the Yogyakarta kratonwith

the arrangements for wayang wong.

the performance from his adjoining residence, but officially he made his
appearance by eight o'clock, sitting on the throne in the center of the
Bangsal Kencana. From that time until the end of the performance at
eleven o'clock or midnight he never left. Thus his uninterrupted presence
gave rise to the idea that the sultan was the dhalang (puppeteer) of the
performance. His constant presence was required, much like that of the
dhalangin a wayang puppet theatre (Suryobrongto 1981c, 45-46; Suharto
1981, 121). Although the sultan may not officially have been present from
the start, his identification with the sun perhaps indicated his symbolic

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presence, because the performances began at sunrise. The throne itself was
so sacred that the sultan's physical presence was not required (Soedarsono
1984, 179). Another feature supported the idea that the sultan was the
dhalang-during the meeting scenes (jejer), the kings were on stage left
(the sultan's right side), as were the protagonists during confrontations.
Furthermore, the sultan selected the stories to be performed and collabo-
rated with his court literati in writing them.10 His dance ideas were then
choreographed by the dance masters and music was composed. Many
dancers were selected by the sultan himself. On one level his role as dhalang
can be seen as purely symbolic because he was ruler of the kingdom and
its people. Yet his actual contributions to the performance clearly support
the idea of the sultan as dhalang.
No admission was charged for these performances, but formal
invitations were sent to special guests. Elaborate programs were printed
in Dutch and in Javanese script, complete with photographs and scene-
by-scene descriptions of events, music, and dramatis personae. Most guests
arrived by ten in the morning and were free to leave and return at will.
Special guests sat in the Bangsal Kencana with the sultan, and female
relatives watched from their residence on the west side of the pavilion.
Other guests and court officials sat to the sides of the gamelan or watched
from the surrounding courtyard, separated from the Tratag Wetan and
the dancers' paths by a temporary fence.

The Mahabharataprobably was favored as the source for dramatic
material (lakon) for wayang wong because the divided Mataram kingdom
of Yogyakarta-Surakarta was like that of the Pandhawas and Korawas
in the epic (Soedarsono 1974, 82). Newly created episodes (carangan)
that departed from the major story but retained only the proper names
were usually performed." A later attempt to include the Ramayana cul-
minated in a three-day performance in 1934 which linked this epic to the
Dramatic structure in wayang wong followed that of wayang kulit,
with long palace scenes, confrontations, humorous interludes, battles, and
denouement.13 The opening jejer (meeting scene) lasted from one to two
hours or more. Thejejer was formal, with long speeches and dialogues, and
emphasized dance exhibition and technical artistry. The dancers formed
a tableau which was static, linear, and precise. During this time, depending
on the story, a solo love dance could take place. Such a dance illustrated
anticipation, fantasy, and joy. Love dances between characters involved
very little physical contact and relied instead on the play of tension and
subtle teasing.

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34 Kam

Battles, on the other hand, were quite dynamic and increased in

frequency as the dramatic climax approached. There were up to a dozen
or more individual fights, and the major duel lasted more than an hour.
In this ritualized combat, the opponents advanced, identified themselves,
scrutinized each other, proposed a challenge, fought, spoke once more
(if no one was killed), and then retreated. Nevertheless, Suryobrongto
emphasizes that even these violent and coarse scenes were "well controlled
and the tension [was] conducted into the plasticity of graceful movement"
(1970, 5).
Wayang wong is more than mere entertainment, for it "has grown
from the people as a social expression to fill a social need. It springs
from the inner spirit, from emotions and ideals.... [It] forms its people's
characters as it was formed by them in the past" (Zarina 1967, 117).
Koentjaraningrat notes that "the court culture has served as a model for
the Javanese culture in general and was considered as an ideal pattern for
other groupings and classes in Javanese society" (1959, 7). Wayang wong
promotes education in literature, poetry, language, history, and ethics by
using the emotional impact of the theatre. Traditions and morality are
ideally portrayed so that the philosophical and sociological content creates
in the spectators "the whole gamut of human emotions together, [and the
spectators] unconsciously create among themselves a great social unity"
(Zarina 1967, 117).

Selection and Training of Dancers

The most important criteria in selecting a wayang wong dancer were
his character, disposition, facial features, and overall appearance. It was
essential that these qualities were in accordance with the needs of the
roles. Only those who met the proper requirements were given attention.
Training in the court for wayang wong was strict, but Pringgobroto (1959,
17-18) has noted the following advantages of the system: trainees were
enthusiastic and inspired by working with experienced dancers; serious
dancers were carefully selected for the roles; dancers were more diligent
because of direct attention from the dance masters and the chance of
receiving a court position; and the specifications required by fixed roles
produced specialized dancers proficient in a certain style.
A person selected for the great wayang wong performances in the
past started training at the age often or eleven years. One to two hours of
exercises were held each day for three years, except on Fridays and during
the Islamic fasting month. Rehearsals for a wayang wong performance
started twelve to eighteen months before the event, and lasted from five
to six hours each. When the performance was several months away, dress
rehearsals (gladhi resik)14 using semiformal dress were held to test the

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performers' mental, physical, and spiritual readiness (Suryobrongto 1976,

13). On the night before a performance, all performers arrived and
remained in a special section of the palace for the duration of the event.
Hundreds of dancers were involved in these grand productions.
Their numbers depended on the story being performed and the length
of time it took. In general, between three and four hundred dancers
performed in each wayangwongduring the reign of the eighth sultan (1921-
1939) (Kats 1923, 2; Soedarsono 1980, 20-21, 179; Soedarsono 1984,
176-177; Suryobrongto 1970, 16; Suryobrongto 1976, 13; Suryobrongto
1981c, 52).15 Nearly a hundred musicians played in three shifts (Soedarsono
1980, 20-21; Suryobrongto 1976, 13; Suryobrongto 1981c, 53),16 and a
large number of people assisted in makeup, costuming, staging, and other
technical matters.

Dance Style
In her general remarks about Indonesian dance, Holt (1967, 97)
describes how the body is kept close to the ground, with the knees often
held in a bent position. Measured steps are used to advance in space, and
there is no quick spinning about. The torso is treated as a single unit
without sinuous undulations or acrobatic features. The hands and feet are
equally important, and finger positions are very articulated. Movements
do not always coincide with musical accents; tempos are slow or moderate.
There is a tendency to move in one place or in a limited space, and
formations are usually in rows. All these observations apply to both court
and contemporary wayangwong. Strict rules govern every movement of the
legs, feet, arms, wrists, hands, fingers, and neck. Each character follows
dance modes that dictate gaze, stance, posture, gesture, movement quality,
and speech. Javanese dance movements do not have any particular story-
telling content, but in the context of wayang wong the gestures take on a
wide range of meanings.
Suryobrongto notes that the first sultan "created the dance in an
atmosphere of war. Therefore, the discipline of the dance is very rigid, like
military discipline. The principles and rules of the dance are also very
strict.... [The dance is] very exacting and difficult" (1970, 10). Influence
from the wayang kulit puppet theatre is particularly strong, and there is
an emphasis on profile positions in relation to the main spectators-the
limbs and torso are held in a relatively flat plane, as well. Gesture,
vocal expression, costume, makeup, and physical appearance are made to
accord with those of the puppets. To a certain extent "wayang wong is a
personification of theJavanese shadow play" (Soedarsono 1969, 498), but
many elements derive strictly from dance aesthetics. These include the
nonpuppet movements which emphasize the neck, forearms, wrists, lower

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36 Kam

legs, and feet, the single-leg balancing, the lifting of the legs, and the varied
manipulations of the dance scarf.

The abstract and symbolic nature of Javanese dance lends itself
very well to a wide range of expression. Even today the relationship
between movement and facial expression must be clear at all times. The
dramatic context of wayang wong determines what this relationship of
movement and expression should be, but the dancer's role must not be
played down because the soul "determines the intensity of the expression.
Without the soul, the dance will be less alive ... empty and shallow, lacking
depth, character and style" (Suryobrongto 1970, 10). Emotions in wayang
wongare shown with restraint; the face hardly changes. This does not mean
that the dance is expressionless, however. Holt explains that

because of the compelling unity that the rules of a dance mode impose
on a dancer's expressions, he cannot [step] out of his framework [to]
externalize in gestures [any] conflicting emotions, [such as] a change from
self-possessionto abandonment, or the alternation of lyrical and strident
mood.... [He] retains a relatively homogeneous temperament, and in
every situation acts "in character." Inner conflicts [are indicated in the]
chanted recital (1967, 165-166).

With regard to facial expression, Suryobrongto states that "it would

be very odd indeed if a realistic [facial] element were allowed to enter ...
because the classic Javanese dance is no copy of realism.... [The dancer]
should be careful to keep within bounds under the control of [his] own soul.
He may not get out of control" (1970, 9-10). In wayang wong, the simplest
level of facial expression is a penetrating and prolonged gaze (pandengan).
The next level uses a general facial expression (polatan) which is capable
of conveying any mood. Finally, the face shows the soul of the character
without any physical expression of it (pasemon)1.7 The dance thus expresses
meanings that words alone are incapable of conveying. There is no eye
contact with the audience or facial response to it at any time.
The purpose of wayangwongis not the display of the dancer. Rather,

the kinesthetic typology of dance drama is systematically elaborated to

render various shades of temperament or spiritual qualities.... It is the
principal function of the dance in wayangwongto externalize a hero's inner
qualities. Even the expressions of emotion or mood are governed by the
particular mode of the dance and thus remain "in character" (Holt 1967,

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To achieve his purpose, the dancer must empty himself of his own human-
ness and fill that void with the characteristics of the role being played
(Wibowo 1981, 81). As a former court dancer, Suryobrongto relates that

a dancer has to train himself so that his soul can receive and absorb all
impulses from outside which are related to his role and his dance, so that
his soul can fill the expressionof the movements with those impulses. The
impulses are brought about by the sounds of the gamelanmusic, the
narration, the melody, the song, the dialogue, and the story (1970, 10).

There is "a gathering of the dancer's spirit into a kind of mystic state....
When technique has been transcended by a full mastery a certain state is
achieved in the dancer and a mood evoked in the spectator" (Holt 1967,
103). This is the ultimate goal of the dancer's expression in wayang wong.

Javanese dance for wayang wong is divided into three basic styles:
putri (female), alus (refined male), and gagah (robust male). As noted
earlier, body type and physical appearance are key factors in determining
a person's suitability for a specific role. There are five basic character
divisions: putri, female characters danced in putri style; impur,male charac-
ters danced in alus style; and kalang kinantang,kambeng,and bapang, male
characters danced in gagah style. These categories are further subdivided
to form a total of twenty-one character types.18 Variations within each
character division give rise to dozens of specific roles that can be identi-
fied on stage. Many additional character dances (monkeys, servants,
and gods) were created between 1921 and 1939, during the reign of
Hamengkubuwana VIII.
A putri dancer appears restrained, stately, and controlled. Her
movements are legato in quality, and the upper arms are held close to the
body with emphasis on the lower arms and hands. The torso is carried
from side to side on subtly shifting hips. The head and neck move softly
and the gaze is downcast. The feet are kept close together and rarely lifted
off the floor. The knees are usually bent and turned out. Physically, putri
dancers should have delicate features and a small, slender build. Until
World War II, young boys danced the female roles in the court dance
A dancer of impurroles exhibits emotional calm, self-control, and
collected inwardness. Like putri dance, the alus style is sustained, steady,
and deliberate. The gestures are slow and evolving, accompanied by
smooth neck movements and a lowered gaze. The upper arms are held at
a forty-five-degree angle from the torso. The knees are bent and turned

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38 Kam

out to the sides. The feet are held apart and lifted only a few inches off the
floor. Only men perform this style of dance in the kraton.They are of small
to average height, slender, and handsome.
The gagah-style dancer has a wide range of expression showing
strong and vigorous qualities. Movements make use of expansive and
forceful gestures, and the limbs are held at right angles to the body or
parallel to the ground. The neck and head move abruptly. The feet are
kept wide apart. The dance of kambengcharacters is powerful but has a
certain humbleness, whereas that of kalang kinantangcharacters is dynamic
and proud. Bapang dance is boastful, menacing, and aggressive. Tall,
heavyset men or men with a strong build perform these roles.
Character roles include the kethek(monkey), which exhibits excite-
ment, commotion, and rapid movements, and the young apprentice
(cantrik)and comic servant (punakawan),which are humorously portrayed.
Ogre, giant, evil spirit, and a wide range of animal roles are also portrayed.
The last include deer, wild buffalo, rhinoceros, tiger, elephant, dwarf deer,
serpent, bird, and boar. Dancers of animal roles wear fairly realistic
costumes and imitate animal movements.

Costume, Makeup, and Props

Except for the pillars of the pendhapa, the wayang wong stage is
virtually bare and thus emphasizes the visual richness of the costumes.
The most distinctive part of the present costume is the headdress, which
identifies the specific character. Prior to 1921, headdresses consisted of
various styles of headcloths and crowns which identified characters by
general type only. The present irah-irahanheaddresses, modeled after those
of wayang kulit puppets, were created during the eighth sultan's reign
(1921-1939).20 Each is a papier-mache shell onto which is attached a
golden crown and other pieces of filigree leather representing hair and
signs of rank. Similar pieces of gilded leather decorate the ears (sumping),
chest (sangsangan), and upper arms (kelatbahu). Female characters wear
jeweled bracelets (gelang). Full face masks are worn only by demons, giants,
ogres, monkeys, and animals. Most characters other than gods, hermits,
and females are bare-chested. Many wear a strip of decorative material,
either around the neck and down across the chest (kaweng), or across the
chest diagonally from shoulder to waist like a shoulder band (sebe). The
gods, most kings, and several special characters wear a large wing-shaped
ornament on the back (praba).
All male characters and all female warriors are dressed in close-
fitting knee-length pants (celana panji-panji) under a pleated skirt-cloth
(nyamping)made ofbathik (wax-resist dyed cloth) -the pattern on the cloth
further identifies each character. The skirt-cloth is held in place by a long
waistband (lontong,stagen). For male characters, two pieces offringed cloth

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(bara) are attached to the waistband and hang down over the thighs.
Women wear a gilded leather belt (pending), and men wear a cloth belt
(kamus) with a buckle (timang); a robust male dancer hangs a long multi-
colored paper garland (buntal) from his belt. A dagger (keris) with a leather
blade is inserted into the waistband. It is lighter than a metal dagger,
which makes it easier to manipulate for longer periods and allows for
more realistic fighting movements. Leather blades are also less dangerous.
Tassels (oncen)hang from the handle of the dagger.21
The dance scarf (sampur, sondher, udhet) is the most important
accessory. Women tie it around the waist, and men hang it from the belt
or around the neck. The ends of the scarf are manipulated in a variety of
ways (flicking, catching, throwing) which enhance and accentuate the
dancers' movements and give them additional grace and extension in
All dancers are barefooted except for monkeys and giants, who
wear socklike coverings over the lower legs and feet. Krincing (ankle bells)
are worn by gaints, monkeys, and young apprentices. Exposed skin is
covered by a yellow herbal paste (boreh). Before modern cosmetics, facial
makeup consisted of paraffin wax mixed with soot and was used for
darkening the eyebrows, outlining the eyes, and drawing the mustache
and sideburns.22 Costuming and makeup in the past were long and
complex processes; a dancer appearing in the first scene at six in the
morning would start getting dressed at three (Suryobrongto 1981c, 52).23
There are very few props in wayang wong. The most interesting
and important prop was the gunungan or kayon (stylized mountain or
tree), which measured about eight feet high. This gununganappeared on
the dance floor before the play started and at its conclusion.24 It was
constructed of two flat wooden panels intersecting at right angles to form
four wings and was shaped and painted like the gununganor kayonfigure of
the wayang kulit puppet theatre. Backless stools are still used by kings and
important officials during meeting scenes. A great variety of weapons
(daggers, spears, bows and arrows, swords, shields, and clubs) are skillfully
manipulated in battles. Scenery is not generally used now, but artificial
trees, rocks, grottoes, and caves sometimes served as set pieces during the
late 1920s and early 1930s.

Vocal Usage
All dialogue in court wayang wong was memorized, a practice still
followed today. Characters speak in Javanese prose; the language is pre-
dominantly modern Javanese but includes many words and expressions
usually found in poetry and literature.25 Voices are kept in tune with the
gamelan; refined roles use a lower pitch and speak in a monotone, while
dynamic characters use a higher pitch and a more melodious voice.26

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40 Kam

Syllables beginning with the consonants b, d, dh, g, j, andy use a lowered

pitch modulation, as do the ends of phrases and sentences. The chest voice
is used, and when a performer is speaking the right hand is extended
forward at chest level.
Narration (maca kandha, maos kandha) is provided by a narrator
(pemacakandha,pemaos kandha) who sits with one or two assistants in front
of the gamelan. He reads in a slow and highly stylized chest voice directly
from a text that was initially written during the reign of the fifth sultan
(1823-1855). This book was later perfected into the present Serat Kandha
during the time of Hamengkubuwana VII (1877-1921). It contains com-
plete scenes for entire performances, including all dialogue and important
verbal items.

In addition to accompanying dances and fighting, music in wayang
wong contributes to the creation of dramatic atmosphere. Music inspires
the dancers to interpret the drama correctly through their movements.
A complete gamelan has been used since the reign of the eighth sultan
( 1921 -1939), but most pieces are played in the slendrorather than the pelog
tuning (Suryobrongto 1970, 28; Soedarsono 1984, 248). The keprak (a
wooden box with a slit on its top) is rhythmically struck with a wooden
mallet to direct and accompany the dancers, give dialogue cues, signal for
narration, heighten the dramatic mood, and indicate musical transitions
and tempo changes. Musical cues are also given verbally by the narrator,
who includes the name of the musical pieces or references to their titles in
his narration.27
There are no musical pieces which are exclusively used in wayang
wong, although several new melodies were composed during the reign of
Hamengkubuwana VIII from 1921 to 1939 (Suryobrongto 1970, 28).
During pure dance exhibitions, pieces in regular structural forms (lancaran,
bubaranor bibaran, ketawang, ladrang, and gendhing alit) are used, and the
dancers closely follow the musical structure. Irregular musical forms (ayak-
ayakan, playon, srepegan, and sampak or plajaran) accompany battles and
mood and plot developments, and dance movements are not bound to
musical structure. Soft background music (lagon, pathetan, suluk, and ada-
ada) is played for entrances, exits, scene and character descriptions, during
static scenes, and with dialogue and narration.28

Modern Concerns
Until recently, interest in wayang wong had been steadily declining
in Java. Perhaps the most important reason for this decline was the lack

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of integration of classical dance drama in the general public's idea of

artistic expression. It must be remembered that wayangwong performances
in the past were infrequent and not open to ordinary citizens. Several court
members also had the notion that frequent performances outside the
palace would lower the value of the art (Wibowo 1981, 185). The resultant
lack of general familiarity with the art, plus the difficulties of the dance
itself, confined wayangwong to small circles for many years. The segregation
of the dancers also kept them aloof, sometimes even among themselves.
Young people in particular were far removed from the court, whose
influence they had not experienced; Western culture was more appealing
and accessible.
Concern for the future ofJavanese youth and the need to develop
a national identity based on indigenous culture led to the formation of
the Arts Council of the Special Region of Yogyakarta (Dewan Kesenian
Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta) in September 1979. The council was estab-
lished by order of Yogyakarta's governor, the ninth sultan himself. Its
stated purpose was to revitalize the traditional arts-not for nostalgic
reasons but rather as a response to the new challenges posed by a modern,
changing society (Wibowo 1981, 16). A little more than a year later this
arts council, in cooperation with several other government agencies,29
formed the Committee for Yogyakarta-Style Classical Dance Presentation
(Panitya Pagelaran Langen Beksa Gagrag Ngayogyakarta). This commit-
tee hoped to accomplish the following goals (Wibowo 1981, 12): to continue
analyzing, creating, developing, and elevating wayang wong; to provide
appreciation of wayang wong, especially among the young; to use wayang
wong as a source of information, study, and comparative materials; and to
have both young and old perform together and mutually benefit from their
knowledge and experience.
All of these points emphasized the need to preserve and nurture
wayang wong and to integrate it with people's lives. Appreciation was to be
achieved by raising its quality and regularly exposing the general public
to it. Moreover, wayang wong was perceived as having great potential for
tourism. The committee wanted to avoid the theoretical approach through
seminars and discussions; they favored direct performance practice as the
means for raising appreciation and broadening understanding of wayang
wong (Wibowo 1981, 187).

The Revival
After the Committee for Yogyakarta-Style Classical Dance Pre-
sentation was formed, the play Bisma Mahawira (The great warrior Bisma)
from the Mahabharatawas chosen by its members for the initial performance
of the wayang wong revival to be held in early 1981. Nearly seventy dancers

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42 Kam

and more than thirty musicians were selected from all over Yogyakarta
for the production. In keeping with the committee's goals, performers from
three generations were chosen: older performers who had been trained
primarily in the palace or who had performed in court wayang wong more
than forty years ago; adults in their mid-thirties to late forties who had
had some exposure to the court; and young performers in their late teens
or twenties who had studied dance and music mainly in private organiza-
tions or government schools. Dancers were matched to the relative ages of
the characters in the dance drama and represented various levels of skill
and physical condition.
Rehearsals began in January for the March performance and
were held at Nataprajan, site of the high-school-level Indonesian Dance
Conservatory. Evening practices lasting up to four hours took place two
or three times a week. I was able to attend nearly every session and watched
the process of putting together this major dance drama. I sat with the
dancers on the veranda and often questioned them-or simply listened in
on their conversations-about the story and their own involvement in this
production. It was fascinating to see the social mixture of people-from
members of royalty to ordinary citizens. The age spread was also quite
remarkable, as were the many levels ofJavanese spoken by such a varied
group. Everyone related very well, and enthusiasm was strong at all times.
Individuals often helped, each other, and it was common to see several
groups of dancers rehearsing simultaneously. The pendhapawas used for
major scenes; those not involved observed from the sides. Order prevailed
and time was used effectively because the total preparation time was less
than three months. Not all the performers were present until the final two
weeks. Dancers rehearsed in semiformal court dress, although the men
always wore T-shirts instead of dancing bare-chested. Music was live, but
the gamelan was played from the living quarters section of the structure
instead of from the pendhapabehind the dancers. This remained the case
until the final dress rehearsal-held the night before the performance at
Kepatihan, the grand residence of the sultan's prime minister which is now
used for government offices and was the original performance site for
Bisma Mahawira.
I sensed the growing excitement of the performers as the date drew
near. Their dedication was admirable, especially since nearly all of them
had jobs or school to attend after the long rehearsals. A few days before
the performance, free tickets were made available to the public-the
tickets had to be obtained in person from the committee's office. The
performance was given on Tuesday, March 31, at 7:30 P.M. Hundreds of
chairs were set up for the audience on three sides of the raised floor of the
pendhapa.The program opened with about fifteen minutes of instrumental
music played on the gamelan, which occupied the rear of the dance floor.

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FIGURE7. The Heavenly Maidens performa dance as a preludeto BismaMahawira.

The dancers left to right are: Sutanti Pringgobroto,B. R. Ay. Poeger, B. R. Ay.
Retno Martani Kusumonegoro, R. Ay. Donatirin Siswadi, Yuwanti Setiawan,
and Sunarti Sutrisno. (Photo: Garrett Kam.)

After a number of speeches by the heads of the sponsoring organizations,

the performance itself began at eight o'clock.
Accompanied by rhythmic knocks on the keprak and a solemn
chant, a group of nine women portraying heavenly maidens entered from
stage left. They performed a slow dance similar to a bedhaya30as a prelude
to the first meeting scene. After progressing across the pendhapa,they exited
and then reappeared again on stage left with the god Shiva (Syiwa,
Bathara Guru), while twelve other gods danced on stage right. Shiva's
costume was unusual: two artificial arms were folded across his chest,
because the deity has four arms. Since his throne also included a sacred
cow on which he rested his feet, these props and other stools were brought
out by several stage assistants. The messenger of the gods informed this
heavenly assemblage that negotiations with the Korawas concerning the
return of half the kingdom of Astina to the Pandhawas had failed and
preparations for the great Bratayuda War had therefore begun. The gods
departed to witness the start of the battle.
In the next scene a group of eight Korawa soldiers sent to spy on

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44 Kam

FIGURE 8. The gods (left to right) Rama Parasu (played by R. M. Ibnu Titi
Murhadi), Bayu (R. Danis Subroto), Indra (R. Riyo Dipurodanatro), and
Narada (R. M. Kuswadji Kawendro Susanto) report to the supreme god Guru
or Shiva (R. W. Sasminta Mardawa) on the start of the Bratayuda war. (Photo:
Garrett Kam.)

the Pandhawas performed an energetic, crude-style dance. The appear-

ance of a wild boar provided some humor, especially when a comical and
rather cowardly figure tried to kill the beast. Soon after this, three members
of the Pandhawas appeared seeking additional help in the war. A series of
fights then erupted. The Korawas were defeated and fled back to their
camp, where they interrupted a meeting of King Suyudana (Duryadana)
and eight of his officials. After they reported on their battle with the
Pandhawas, the warrior-priest Bisma was chosen to lead the Korawas in
the war. A garland of jasmine flowers was placed around his neck, and
everyone departed for the battlefield.
Meanwhile the Pandhawa advance party had met with the power-
ful warrior Seta, who along with his two brothers agreed to help fight the
Korawas. They were joined by three other Pandhawa warriors on the
battleground, where they encountered Bisma and five Korawa soldiers. In
the ensuing battle Seta's brothers were killed. Seta angrily fought with
Bisma and nearly defeated him, but Bisma's heavenly mother came to his

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FIGURE9. The clown servants Gareng (played by Suwariyun) and Bagong

(Hartono). (Photo: Garrett Kam.)

rescue and gave him a powerful weapon to kill Seta. To show this death
on stage, the god of the underworld appeared at the moment Seta was
killed and slowly escorted him off stage left while the nine heavenly
maidens circled around them. It was a very effective portrayal and a
poignant moment in the drama.
In contrast, the next scene featured the clown servants Gareng,

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46 Kam

FIGURE10. The Pandhawa heroes, (left to right) Nakula (played by Sarjiwa),

Dresthajumena (Bambing Pujaswara), Arjuna (Ben Suharto), and Sadewa
(Sutarno) dance during the meeting scene. (Photo: Garrett Kam.)

Petruk, and Bagong and their humorous movements. They told jokes,
discussed the start of the war, and imitated the army commanders in battle.
Finally their father Semar came and all four of them left to find the
Pandhawas. They arrived to find King Matswapati meeting with twelve
of the Pandhawas. The group that had sought Seta's help came next to
report on his death. This news brought much sadness, which the music
emphasized as the dancers remained motionless with their heads bowed.
The female warrior Srikandhi was chosen as commander-in-chief, and a
jasmine garland was placed around her neck. Everyone then cleared the
The next scene depicted the Bratayuda War. Fifteen Pandhawas
on stage left arranged themselves in the battle formation garudhanglayang
(soaring eagle) and fifteen Korawas on stage right in the sapit urang(prawn
claws).31 Everyone danced in place to loud and lively music, and then
the two sides clashed violently. For several minutes there appeared to be
pandemonium and at least a dozen simultaneous fights. Eventually the
floor was cleared, and a fifteen-minute series of individual fights between
two or more characters began. In the final crucial battle, Srikandhi fought
against Bisma. When she was momentarily defeated, the spirit of Amba32

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entered the scene and revived the woman warrior. Realizing that his time
had come, Bisma willingly accepted his death by Srikandhi's arrow as
guided by Amba's spirit. The Pandhawas then stopped to honor the fallen
hero. After Bisma's spirit departed, they slowly danced to stage left and
exited. A solemn chant by the male singers closed the performance, which
had lasted nearly four hours.
This wayangwongperformance followed the court tradition in almost
every aspect-it differed only in its use of female dancers for female roles,
its location, its shorter running time, and its smaller cast. Costuming was
exquisite and traditional in every detail. The dramatic progression was
slow and yet built to a high intensity that was resolved very well. Dancing
in general was quite good; most problems were experienced by the second-
generation dancers. The music was beautifully played and, although
amplified, was well integrated with and supportive of the entire drama.
On the other hand, the dialogue was sometimes difficult to hear, par-
ticularly over the audience's constant chatter. This performance was
nonetheless a resounding success. Before seeing it I could only imagine
what court wayang wong of the past must have been like-but with this
experience I feel as though I have relived the magnificent grandeur of a
once-endangered dance theatre of unparalleled artistry.33.

Wayang Wong Today

Wayangwonghas evolved through its thousand-year recorded history
into a sophisticated dramatic form that has survived into the twentieth
century. In the court ofYogyakarta it became a complex and formal art,
although performances were rarely held. Wayang wong represents some of
the highest artistic achievements inJavanese dance, music, literature, and
visual arts. Even though the influence of the court has declined in recent
decades, these artistic expressions are more than just memories to many
contemporary Javanese. In light of the increasing alienation of today's
youth from traditional culture, the government has been motivated to
support wayang wong. It is valued not only for its cultural richness but also
as a source of creativity and Javanese identity. As a result, wayang wong
has recently been revived in spite of the many social changes that have
occurred in Yogyakarta. Although certain performance elements have
been modified to reflect these changes, wayang wong still retains many of
the special features which make it so significant and enduring.


1. Wayangwongis the term in Low Javanese (Ngoko); it is ringgittiyang

in Refined Javanese (Krama). The Indonesian term wayangorangusually refers
to Surakarta-styledance drama performed on a proscenium stage.

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48 Kam

2. The first dance school outside the palace was Kridha Beksa Wirama,
founded in 1918. Other private dance groups still active in Yogyakarta are Siswa
Among Beksa, Mardawa Budaya, and Pamulangan Beksa Ngayogyakarta. The
court's Kridha Mardawa, the government-run Konservatori Tari Indonesia
(KONRI), and to a lesser extent Akademi Seni Tari Indonesia (ASTI) are also
maintaining Yogyakarta-style wayangwong.
3. The term wayangwwangis found in the Wimalasramainscription. For
details, see Hadimulyo (1978, 126). A briefdiscussionof this and other inscriptions
can be found in Soedarsono (1984, 3-4).
4. Wwangis the Old Javanese (Kawi) word for "human." The modern
equivalent is wong.
5. For details of this dance see Pigeaud (1960-63).
6. In Java, the repertoireof wayangtopengis based primarily on the Panji
stories. In Bali, wayangtopenguses stories of legendary figuresfrom ancient history.
Wayangwongin Bali performs Ramayanastories only; thus the wayangwwangof
the Sumanasdntaka is probably related to present-day Balinese and perhaps even
Javanese wayangwong.No definite connection can yet be established between the
raketof the Ndgarakertdgama and either wayangwongor wayangtopeng.
7. For details on the ritual function of wayangwongsee Soedarsono (1984,
8. Performanceswere even held onJanuary 16 and 17, 1937, to celebrate
the royal marriageof PrincessJuliana and Prince Bernhardvan Lippen-Biesterfeld
of the Netherlands (Soedarsono 1984, 172-173, 177).
9. No other linear measurementsof this early stage are given.
10. For a description of this collaborative process during the reign of the
eighth sultan see Soedarsono (1984, 215-216).
11. A complete list of performancedates of the caranganstories performed
as wayangwong in the court can be found in Suryobrongto (1981c, 46-47).
Synopses of these stories are in Soedarsono (1984, 432-486).
12. The three plays performedin three days are SemarBoyong,RamaJNitik,
and RamaJitis. A dress rehearsal was also held in 1933. For synopses of these
three plays see Soedarsono (1984, 470-482).
13. For further information on wayangkulitand its dramatic structuresee
Brandon (1970).
14. Details on dance instruction in the palace can be found in Suryo-
brongto (1981a, 94-109). For descriptions and photographs of a gladhiresik,see
Zarina (1967, 103-105).
15. Sometimes four or five hundred dancers could be involved (Suryo-
brongto 1976, 13; Soedarsono 1980, 20-21). The highest figure quoted is eight
hundred for an unnamed and undated four-day performance, but this probably
includes musicians and other personnel (Soedarsono 1980, 1, 6, 201).
16. Suryobrongto mentions that sometimes there were four shifts of
musicians (1970, 16).
17. For more discussionof these three facial expressionssee Suryobrongto
(1970, 10) and Soedarsono (1980, 115-117, 176-177, and 181-182).
18. For details and a complete list of the twenty-one types see Wibowo

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(1981, 83-86). Labanotation scores and descriptions of each of these identifying

dances can be found in Soedarsono (1984, 374-401).
19. Personal communication from Sasminta Mardawa.
20. Drawings of wayangkulitheaddressescan be found in Sulardi (1953,
21. Similar but smaller tasselsare worn from the sumping(ear ornaments).
The current trend, adapted from Surakarta-stylecostume, is to use tassels made
of tiny beads for female and refined male roles;robust males still use thread tassels.
22. For makeup diagrams see Soedarsono (1984, 353-354).
23. Detailed information on costumes and makeup can be found in
Kawendrasusanta (1981, 164-176), Suryobrongto (1981b, 177-181), and
Soedarsono (1984, 326-357).
24. The gununganor kayonis no longer used in performances.
25. For details and examples of language use, see Soedarsono (1984,
26. Details on vocal pitch in speaking can be found in Soedarsono (1984,
374-378, 401).
27. Examples of verbal musical cues can be found in Soedarsono (1984,
28. For more information on the gamelan,its music, and its structural
forms, see Kunst (1973).
29. The other coordinating government agencies were the Projectfor the
ArtisticDevelopment of the Special Region ofYogyakarta (ProyekPengembangan
Kesenian Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta), the Department of Education and
Culture (Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan), the Arts Branch of the
Department of Education and Culture of the Special Region of Yogyakarta
(Bidang Kesenian Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan Daerah Istimewa
Yogyakarta), and the Local Government of the Special Region of Yogyakarta
(Pemerintah Daerah Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta).
30. The bedhaya dance is a court dance usually performedby nine women.
It is long, slow, and solemn, with numerous formations that have symbolic
meanings. Several compositions also have a sacred nature. Dancers are all dressed
alike, but in this particular wayangwongperformance the headdresses differed
slightly because this dance was in a dramatic context.
31. These formationsare so named because the garudhanglayangresembles
a bird with outstretched wings, while the sapit uranglooks like a prawn with its
claws extended. For diagrams see Wibowo (1981, 204); for detailed information
see Hardjowirogo (1965).
32. Amba was one of three sisters who Bisma won in a contest for their
hands in marriage. The other two sisterswere wed to his half-brothers,but Bisma
refusedto marryAmba because he had taken a vow of celibacy to assurehis father
that the children of these half-brotherswould inherit the kingdom. Amba persisted
in wanting Bisma as her husband because he had defeated her actual lover in the
competition. Bismajokingly threatened her with his bow and arrow, but his finger
accidentally slipped and the arrow killed Amba. Her spirit swore vengeance and
prophesied that Bisma would die by the hands of a female warrior.

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50 Kam

33. The following performances have since been staged as part of the
revival of wayangwong:RamaNitis (1981), Gathotkaca Lahir (1983), Jaya Pusaka
(1984), Jaya Semadi (1985), and Srikandhi Tandhing(1986). Like BismaMahawira,
RamaNitis was presented at Kepatihan. The others were staged in the Pagelaran,
a large open-sided hall at the entrance to the kraton.Traditionally it was not used
for wayangwongperformances.


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