A festival down in Surakarta is trying to restore ketoprak as a medium of popular entertainment for the locals and not just a spectacle for tourists. Yudasmoro went in search of authentic drama.
Wahyu wipes away beads of sweat. This is a momentous evening for him. Along with some of his friends, this high-school student is about to appear in a ketoprak at Surakarta’s Balekambang Arts Centre as part of the local government’s Ketoprak Festival initiative.
The people of Jakarta are perhaps more familiar with ketoprak being the name of a traditional dish consisting of ketupat (rice cooked in a container made of woven coconut leaves), bean sprouts, glass noodles and peanut sauce. In the realm of the Javanese arts however, a ketoprak is a community theatre performance featuring actors in traditional costumes. It is somewhat similar to the wayang orang, however ketoprak is not related to either the iconic Mahabharata or Ramayana stories. Instead, its themes are real ones that reflect the social issues of the day—although these topics are usually placed within the contexts of the old kingdoms of Java, such as Mataram, Demak and Majapahit.
As for the stories themselves, well they can often be rather unorthodox, although there are a number of standard rules which are usually adhered to. Actors speak their lines in Javanese, for example, and the accompanying music is played on the traditional Javanese gamelan. As with other theatrical styles though, ketoprak comes in many flavours and elements of action, drama, romance, politics and humour all feature. Indeed, it is this broadness of artistic vision that is the reason behind ketoprak being so well loved. A national television station even broadcasts a show entitled “Ketoprak Humor”, which is aired every Saturday night and which attracts huge viewing figures, despite going toe to toe with live football.
Through ketoprak, people from all levels of society and walks of life can talk about issues which have long been dominated by the mass media. It has thus become a discussion forum that remains free of censorship. Moreover, because the language used is that of the “common people”, audiences can digest the dialogues easily. While telling a story about life during the Majapahit era, for example, the artists may insinuate something about the arrogance of those currently in power. Or while reflecting upon the excellence of Patih Gajah Mada, the actors make us realise that the spirit of patriotism has more recently been wilting in this country, insinuating that it has been subverted by corruption.
Ketoprak is an entertainment medium that is nevertheless rich in cultural values and time-honoured wisdom. During the colonial era, ketoprak was even used by freedom fighters as a forum for gathering and sharing information. Many of the guerrillas also masqueraded as artists and used this performing art as a propaganda platform through which they could voice resistance to the imperialists.
Dwi Mustanto, a member of the Ketoprak Festival committee, explains that the etymology of the word ketoprak is unknown. Many, however, are convinced that the term derives from two words: ketuk and keprak, which mean kentongan (a traditional percussion instrument made from bamboo). This is perhaps unsurprising as a kentongan is always sounded at the beginning of a ketoprak show. In many Javanese villages, a kentongan is usually used to gather people when a disaster occurs or if there is some kind of celebration—much like the function of a siren.
Another version of the story claims that ketoprak was born early in the twentieth century as an entertainment staged by batik workers. In between production shifts, the artisans entertained themselves by putting on plays and thus ketoprak doesn’t have any rules pertaining to a performance’s duration. Indeed, plays can be performed at any time and their running times can vary greatly.
In Javanese villages, ketoprak is performed by touring groups of artists and in addition to Surakarta, these dramas can also be found down in Yogyakarta, Semarang, Pati, Tulungagung and other coastal areas.
Ketoprak Lesung is one of the form’s genres and was at one time hugely popular. The accompanying musicians played lesung (large mortars used to pound rice) and kentongan to make a simple music. The rhythm of the kentongan plays a role similar to that of a conductor in an orchestra. If the kentongan is struck once, the gamelan must play a sad song. Twice is the cue for an actor to walk onto the stage. This is why the kentongan player is often referred to as the director.
Another popular genre was the Ketoprak Tobong, which was performed in many places and developed during the 1970s. One of the standard bearers of Ketoprak Tobong was the Sanggar Siswo Budoyo group from Tulungagung. During its heyday, its members received salaries higher than that of modern-day government workers.
Alas the golden age of Sanggar Siswo Budoyo and similar groups ended when commercial television stations started to emerge. Entertainment such as ketoprak could now be broadcast directly into people’s homes. People no longer had to pay for tickets or take the trouble to travel to a venue for their entertainment kicks. Television viewing figures thus skyrocketed ketoprak onto a nationwide stage while ironically threatening the existence of its creators and practitioners.
Facing an increasingly piecemeal livelihood, the artists started to find ways of making a living away from the stage. They removed their traditional Javanese costumes and took jobs as traders or office workers. Consequently, ketoprak became a hobby to be pursued during their leisure time and performances were only staged on request. In several places, such as Kudus, Pati and Rembang, ketoprak is still seen as a symbol of stability and social cohesion however and families with something to celebrate will be viewed with respect if they hire a ketoprak group to perform for their guests.
It is in this context that Surakarta’s Ketoprak Festival deserves to be appreciated. Held annually every February, it may just well become an initial step in efforts to save ketoprak, a cultural asset that has now been all but marginalised by modernity. This year, encouragingly, eleven groups participated in the festival, with the youngest performer being just 16 years of age.
The Balekambang Arts Centre is filled with spectators. The lights go down, the kentongan starts to resonate and the gamelan pierces the air. Wahyu, who wears the outfit of a butcher from the era of an old Javanese kingdom, strides onto the stage with his friends and the art of ketoprak is revived by the youth of Surakarta.
How to get there
Garuda Indonesia serves the Jakarta-Surakarta (Solo) route each way 28 times per week. The Ketoprak Festival is held annually every February. If you want to take in a performance at other times of the year, then head down to the Balekambang Arts Centre, which stages performances every Saturday evening at 8 pm. Tickets cost IDR 5,000.