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Sapto Sopawiro: The lone ‘dalang’ in Suriname

Bambang Muryanto

Sapto Sopawiro, 73, is a Javanese living in the Republic of Suriname who continues to preserve Javanese culture amid the prevalence of pop art. The former miner is a Javanese community elder and the lone dalang
wayang kulit (leather puppet player) in Suriname, the only country in the Caribbean with a large Javanese population.

He visited Indonesia at his own expense in an effort to solve the regeneration problem of wayang kulit players in Suriname. During his 28-day stay in Yogyakarta, Sapto met with Javanese cultural figures to obtain firsthand knowledge on how a younger generation of puppeteers is born there.

“Thus far, it has been difficult to find young people ready who are ready to become puppet players,” said Sapto, who was speaking Javanese and dressed in batik with a blangkon [headgear], which is common wear in Yogyakarta.  

Sapto’s life is part of the history of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia and Suriname. In 1930, his father, Ponco Sadidjo, was among the thousands of contract workers sent by the Dutch colonial government to plantations in Suriname, where they later settled and started families.

Sapto was born in Jumal village, Saramacca district, on July 15, 1940. He is one of Suriname’s approximately 84,000 ethnic Javanese descendants. Today, Suriname’s population of 560,000 comprises Hindustanis, Creoles (of African and Dutch descent), Maroons (of African origin), Amerindians, Chinese and Caucasians, besides Javanese.

In his first visit to Indonesia, he reunited with his relatives in Yogyakarta and watched various Javanese art performances such as Ramayana dance drama and ketoprak tobong (history-based Javanese theater) presented by Kelana Bhakti Budaya group in Prambanan. Sitting in the front row, Sapto was accompanied by his nephew, Agus Susilo.

“It’s a very good show. In Suriname, ketoprak tobong can no longer be found,” said the father of three. He said that he hoped wayang kulit would not share the same fate as ketoprak, which is now nowhere to be seen in Suriname.

“Some people are interested in learning puppetry, but then they grow bored after two or three months. I want to find the remedy for such boredom but there haven’t been any ideas yet,” he pointed out.

Charles Chang, a freelance journalist from Suriname who joined Sapto on his trip, shared his sentiment. Chang said he was concerned about the fact that Sapto was the only the puppet master left in Suriname. “It’s very difficult to find new dalang. My government does nothing,” noted Chang.  

Chang was covering Sapto’s activities and Javanese culture in Yogyakarta for Suriname media. He hoped that Sapto’s Yogyakarta cultural tour would prompt the government of Suriname to pay more attention to Javanese culture.

“The youth of Suriname prefer rock and reggae music or learn dances that are Brazilian in origin,” Sapto indicated. But, in fact, many Javanese, Creole and Hindustani people like wayang kulit. The Javanese in Suriname’s villages also observe Thanksgiving traditions with wayang shows.

“In September, I’m fully booked for Thanksgiving rituals in villages,” said Sapto, who has a different way of presenting his scenes in comparison to his counterparts in Java due to his heterogeneous audience. His suluk (sung recitations), for instance, contain old western songs like Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” or Nat King Cole’s “I Love You for
Sentimental Reasons”, rather than Javanese poetry.

“Spectators burst out laughing when I was asked to join in as a dalang in a celebration in Gunungkidul, Yogyakarta,” revealed the man living in Boxel Paraweg 15, Wanica district, Suriname.

In his perspective, wayang kulit, which has already been declared a world cultural heritage by UNESCO, has an important function. With its stories derived from Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, this art imparts moral teachings as a guide to good conduct in life.  

Sadly, when only five puppeteers were left in Suriname, one by one died of old age. The situation pushed the grandfather of one to play wayang kulit. Sapto honed his skills under the instruction of Parjoyo, a Javanese art teacher from Yogyakarta, who went to Suriname in 2000 and 2005. He also flew to Holland to delve into Javanese culture at the Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Amsterdam.

Sapto is indeed a very good Javanese speaker with broad knowledge of Javanese culture. While in Yogyakarta, he was frequently annoyed by Javanese youth who were unable to grasp the meaning of the Javanese words he used.

In his country, Sapto teaches Javanese culture at Anton de Kom University of Suriname in Paramaribo. He also hosts a program called Gumelaring Jagad (The World Miscellany) on Mustika TV, a local station. “A lot of non-Javanese are fond of Javanese culture. A Creole couple once asked for kembar mayang [Javanese decorations] for their wedding,” said Sapto.

In Suriname, Sapto is also a member of Carita Wujud Ngesti Tunggal, an organization of Javanese Kejawen or mysticism, which is considered a religion. “My religion is kejawen and the state has recognized it,” he assured, perhaps alluding to Indonesia, whose Javanese majority is denied this form of belief as a religion. “But the people in Suriname are always peaceful,” he added.

While in Indonesia, Sapto also spoke on pluralism. He reminded the public and the state of the need to appreciate each other’s faiths and accept differences without resorting to violence, which has been a serious issue in Indonesia as of late.

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