Meet the master -- Joko Susilo the shadow puppeteer

by Ritika Nandkeolyar | 3/5/01 6:00am

BJoko Susilo pulled his first all-nighter when he was 10. He was forced into an all-night performance after his parents had accidentally double-booked his father, a famous dhalang or Indonesian shadow puppet master. The patron refused to accept a cancellation and demanded a puppeteer from the Susilo family.

As dhalang, Susilo manipulated puppets to create shadows across the back-lit screen, provided the narration, character voices and selected sound effects and directed the musical accompaniment.

Luckily, the performance was a success.

"People were really moved by my performance," Susilo said. "For some movements I had to stand up to reach the top of the screen and they [the audience] could see me and they cried cause I was so small."

With the show, Susilo became the eight-generation of his family to go into the dhalang business -- a highly respected and lucrative profession on the Indonesia island of Java.

His fame eventually surpassed that of his father.

One night, Susilo's father performed two blocks over from where Joko was giving a show.

"Nobody went to his show, they all came to mine," Susilo said. "My father was so angry with me."

However, Susilo has not been content to stay in Indonesia, and has constantly tried to bring walang kulit or shadow puppet theatre to new audiences.

Since 1992, Susilo has lived in New Zealand -- first as a student and then as a drama professor and performer with the Otaku University on the country's South Island.

Susilo has been in residence at Dartmouth for the winter term and has assisted Music and Asian Studies Professor Jody Diamond with a course in performing arts and music of Southeast Asia.

Susilo and the class presented the Hindu epic "The Ramayana" to a Hanover audience at the Top of the Hop on Thursday evening.

In Java, performances of "The Ramayana" would commonly last the entire night with the puppeteer ad-libbing the story of King Rama while the gamelan or orchestra of Javanese instruments improvised music.

In Hanover, however, Susilo adapted the story for a shorter attention-span and narrated the legend in English.

"Joko was really concerned about making the performance accessible to audience members," Diamond said.

This is not the first time that Susilo has adapted the traditional version of a story to make it more relevant to his audience.

"It is a difficult to step out of your culture," he said. "But it is worth it, you reach so many more people."

As a graduate student in the drama department at Otaku, Susilo adapted Shakespeare's "The Tempest" to feature Javanese music and shadows. He also turned the story inside out and added a love affair between Caliban and Miranda.

"Kapahaka" a play that Susilo created in 1997 melds Maori myth with western and gamelan music and shadow puppetry.

"Kapahaka" was a risk for Susilo -- Maori people were very protective of their myths and their own tradition of Karetao puppetry.

However, the show was a success and Susilo was encouraged by Maori people to repeat the performance.

Right now, Susilo is trying to create a love of shadow puppets and gamelan music closer to home -- in his children.

While his five-year-old daughter will sometimes accompany him to performances, his eight-year old son prefers rapper Enimem to traditional Javanese sounds.

"He is always playing 'Who Let the Dogs Out!'" Susilo said.

This is a complete contrast to his own childhood.

"I've always been crazy about puppets," Susilo said.

"And, I was lucky because my father encouraged me to touch and play with the puppets."

His father made him a small box that Susilo used to entertain his friends with daily after-school shows. His parents also took him and his six sisters to their performances (Susilo's mother is a talented musician).

By watching the performances, Susilo was able to absorb and memorize many stories, melodies and movements from an early age.

This informal education was reinforced by a strenuous physical training regime that was designed to protect the young artist against black-magic attacks by jealous rivals.

On Java, puppeteering is associated with many such mystical traditions.

While most plays today are performed for entertainment only. Shadow puppets are also used in ruwatan or religious ritual. Therefore, in earlier times, puppets were considered sacred since they often represent Hindu gods. Non-puppeteers were not allowed to touch the figures and puppet-makers fasted and mediated before beginning work on new puppets.

"I'm a twentieth-century guy," Susilo said, explaining that while he designs puppets in his spare time, he does not observe these rituals.

However, even without the rituals, puppet-making is a long and difficult process, which is why most puppeteers do not make their own puppets.

Susilo begins with drying buffalo hide and dehairing the skin with a small axe. After the hair is removed, he then uses needles to outline the shape of the puppet. Then, he uses 35 different chisels to carve intricate patterns within the shape.

The puppet is then painted using five colors -- red represents anger, black signifies power, yellow is love, white is purity and gilt is used to make the figures attractive.