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Ki Purbo Asmoro: Modern ‘wayang’, without pop

JP/Ganug Nugroho Adi

Purbo Asmoro joined the ranks of prominent wayang kulit (leather puppet) players when he staged a landmark show at the State Palace in August 2009.

It was a first for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. No state-sponsored event of this sort had been held at the palace since then-president Sukarno was ousted more than 40 years ago.

 “It’s appropriate for the presidential palace to return to this tradition of wayang [puppet show]. As one of the superb traditional arts to be preserved, it would be odd to fare without any event arranged under government auspices,” said Purbo in his home in Gebang village, Kadipiro, Solo, Central Java.

Purbo Asmoro’s professional career began to shine in the 1990s, although he was  only invited to perform around the city of Solo, also called Surakarta.

Born into a dalang (puppet player) family, Purbo followed his father, Sumarno, a famous dalang in Pacitan, East Java, wherever the latter performed.

“I used to sit near the trunk [where puppets are kept] so as not to fall asleep. I learned my father’s style of sabetan [puppet manipulation technique] and nembang [poetry chanting],” added Purbo, who is also a puppetry art lecturer at the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI), Surakarta.

As a teenager, Purbo was well versed in wayang stories based on two great Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. His interest in further delving into puppet playing led him to study at the Karawitan (classical Javanese music) High School in Surakarta. At the age of 17, and while still attending school, Purbo performed as a dalang in public.

From then on, the now 48-year-old man born in Dersana, Pacitan, began touring to earn money for his school expenses and daily needs. He later continued studying at the Indonesian Karawitan Academy (ASKI), Surakarta, which became the Indonesian Arts College (STSI) and finally the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI).

“During the toughest college years away from home, and while my parents’ money transfers were often late, I traveled around staging wayang. I wasn’t paid much, but  I made enough money to eat well,” the champion of the 1992 Central Java Dalang Contest said jokingly.

Purbo learned his dalang skills from other puppeteers too, he said, even though they were not well known. According to him, every dalang has a style that can bring about innovation.

The hard days are now over. Purbo now tours around the world. Many of his fans describe his style as a unique blend of classical elements and innovation.

“It’s classical because I stick to conventional stories. But I also innovate by staging episodes,” explained the husband of Sudi Rahayu, a sinden (female vocalist in wayang and gamelan music).

While Purbo remains loyal to the pakem — the dalang’s handbook — he often adapts wayang by taking into account moral and educational considerations. For example, he has excluded Dewi Kunti’s drowning of her baby (Karna) in one of the episodes of Banjaran Karna (Karna’s biography).

“That scene gives the impression Dewi Kunti is a wicked mother who is so heartless she can get rid of her own child. It’s not the right values to teach children.”

In Purbo’s version of the story, Kunti hands her child over to a certain Duwasa, who gets rid of the child, so as not to spoil the essence of the story.

His innovative touch can be felt in the gending (gamelan melodies), dramatization and jokes he uses in his shows.

“But you’ll have to excuse me: I don’t include campursari [a pop version of traditional songs with gamelan and modern instruments]. The music isn’t bad, I just don’t find it suitable.”

But doesn’t campursari lure more sponsorships?

“Let it be the choice of other peers. I prefer to regard wayang as a philosophy, oral literature and food for thought, which can be conveyed in a dramatic and entertaining way.”

Purbo has thus created a new style of wayang by blending classical with modern.

His shows thus draw in wayang connoisseurs as well as people who love entertainment.

“It’s important for me to maintain a balance between entertainment and art. If we are too detached from what the public demands, the wayang tradition will disappear,” said the father of two.

Starting in 2005, Purbo staged shows in America, Europe and Asia. In some countries, Purbo also runs gamelan and puppet playing workshops besides performing.

The recipient of the 1995 Favorite Dalang Award said his students were keen to learn about wayang, gamelan, and the art of narration as well as puppetry.

Thanks to Kitisie Emerson, an interpreter and lover of gamelan and wayang, Purbo communicates the values of his shows to audiences abroad.

“I’m fortunate to have an interpreter like Kitisie. She can remove cultural and language boundaries so the stories can be understood.”

Purbo explained her translations played a crucial role, as overseas audiences wanted to watch wayang in the original language.

Puppet masters narrating stories in English are hard to understand while the poetical aspect of wayang is lost in the process, resulting in rigid and less spontaneous performances.


Purbo Asmoro’s professional career began to shine in the 1990s, although he was  only invited to perform around the city of Solo, also called Surakarta.

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