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    by Amy Sim Kok Eng

    The night sky does not look promising. The occasional flashes of lightning, however, do not deter hoards of people from Jombang town in East Java and shadow puppet fanatics from further afield from gathering in an open field in the outskirts of town. In the middle of the field, a stage and a gazebo has been set up. Thirty or so musicians sit on the stage, with their gamelan instruments in front of them.  Six female singers, known as Sinden, wearing glittering purple kebaya and thick make up, sit poised in a row.

    The show that is about to start is a Javanese shadow puppet theatre, wayang kulit. Tonight’s story “Tripama Kawedhar” is based on a famous piece of poetry “Tripama” by Prince Mangkunegara IV of Surakarta, written in 1878. In this poem, Prince Mangkunegara IV compares the heroism of three legendary wayang characters, each from a different epic: Sumantri, a man of humble origins with grand aspirations (from the Arjuna Sasrabahu epic); Kumbakarna, the gentle ogre struggling with his loyalties (The Ramayana), and Karna, the tragic prince from The Mahabharata, who is orphaned at birth and whose life is eventually taken by his own brother.

    The puppet master, or dalang, Ki Purbo Asmoro has chosen to perform his new play on this special night. Using the traditional three-part structure of wayang combined with his own artistic innovations, the dalang examines the lives, struggles and moral choices of the three characters as an allegory for the challenges of corruption and greed in present day Indonesia. The puppet performance is the culmination of a series of anti-corruption activities held in Surabaya and Jombang. The “Together against Corruption” event is jointly organized by the Indonesian National Community Empowerment Program (PNPM Mandiri) and the Indonesia Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). 

    By the time the show begins at 9 p.m., around a thousand people have filled the field. On the periphery of the field, a market place has emerged with make-shift stalls selling local snacks, puppets, household goods and other knick knacks. Such is the charm of wayang kulit. Not only does the combination of light, shadows and live music create a magical experience, it is also an opportunity for everyone to get together and enjoy the festivity, not so different from a village fair.

    Despite being a thousand years old, wayang kulit has retained its appeal among the Javanese people. Looking around, I see faces - young, old, male and female – mesmerized by the moral tale of good versus evil.  When the performance ended at four in the early morning, after seven hours of non-stop puppetry, at least 500 audience members remained. 

    In this day and age where people spend more time looking down at their smartphones than looking up at theatre performances, wayang kulit manages to maintain its relevance by using ancient stories and characters to provide timely and often comical commentary on politics and current affairs. Dalangs are not only masters of puppets and sound effects, but also sharp social and political observers who hold a unique status in the community as both information carriers and opinion leaders. The traditional art form has also adopted innovative styles and adapted to new technology. Tonight’s performance was not only broadcast on the radio, but also streamed live on the Internet to wayang aficionados in 45 countries across the world.

    Over the days leading up to the performance, PNPM and the KPK held a number of anti-corruption events in nearby Surabaya as well as in Jombang town. These included workshops with journalists on the investigation of corruption, and with PNPM facilitators and civil society stakeholders on strengthening community networks to tackle corruption.

    KPK also used the occasion to introduce their new Anti-Corruption Clearing House online portal. On the day of the wayang performance, a public forum was held in the morning in Jombang town which was attended by 200 PNPM facilitators, civil society workers, journalists, bloggers and cultural workers. At the forum, three community members shared their experiences of addressing corruption at the grassroots level. This provided a starting point for a lively discussion among five speakers representing the Coordinating Ministry for People’s Welfare and PNPM National Oversight Working Group, the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, the KPK, the Nahdlatul Ulama Islamic Organization, and the cultural sector.

    Although corruption of PNPM funds only accounts for 0.46 percent of the total funds disbursed since 2008, PNPM takes the issue of anti-corruption very seriously.  With the 2014 Indonesia General Election drawing close, a number of PNPM stakeholders and facilitators have shown an interest in joining political parties and running for elections. There is an increasing concern that PNPM funds will be exploited for political interests. The three-day “Together against Corruption” initiative, therefore, aims to raise public awareness of the political neutrality of PNPM and the prohibition of political activities in PNPM. It also aims to motivate community members to take steps to protect public funds from corruption. 

    One of the speakers at the Forum, Sujiwo Tejo, a well-known singer, author and himself also a dalang, emphasized the importance of values and a shared aspiration.

    He said, “We have to fix our aspiration for the country. If we don’t have a shared aspiration, a common goal, what future does this country have?”

    The dalang, Ki Purbo Asmoro, couldn’t agree more.

    “As an artist, I support the efforts to eradicate corruption because corruption is the root cause of depravity. The thing we can take away from these three wayang characters is how they can be our role models for upholding the values of honesty, bravery and perseverance, and we can apply the values in our lives and in nation building,” he said.

    As the dalang places the last puppet back onto the banana tree truck that lies horizontally in front of the screen, the “Together against Corruption” initiative was brought to a close. Members of the audience start to disperse. The call for prayers from the nearby mosque soon begins to fill the air, signaling the start of a new day. 

    Amy Sim Kok Eng

    Social Development Specialist