The changes in wayang kulit purwa, shadow puppetry of Central Java, have been significant since independence was declared in 1945. Ki Nartosabdho was one of the most important performers in the last quarter of the twentieth century. This article explores Nartosabdho's impact and, by examining Sugino, a dalang who has followed Nartosabdho's lead, the author gives a sense of the debate of tradition versus modernity that rages in the world of wayang.
Since Indonesia gained independence in 1945, one of the most influential performers in both traditional theatre and music was Ki Nartosabdho (1925-1985), who transformed the way the Javanese understand gamelan music and wayang puppetry. This article explores the impact of this important performer and shows his effect on Ki Sugino Siswocarito (Sugino), one of the major dalang (puppet masters) of Banyumas, a rural area in southwestern Central Java. As we shall see, Nartosabdho's influence has resulted in the traditional composition of stories being superseded by a new pattern.
Ki Nartosabdho: Innovator and Iconoclast
Nartosabdho was a tireless innovator with a highly cultivated taste for a variety of regional traditions and Western styles, which he mixed and matched to create a pan-Javanese musical style. He also began many new trends in wayang by discarding traditional practices in lieu of more humor and innovation in the way stories are told. Nartosabdho's narrative innovations can be classified as lakon karangan (composed stories). The development of these newly created stories has fundamentally altered the configuration of traditional stories, and the dalang who creates them has much in common with a modern playwright.
In the rural region of Banyumas where I did fieldwork in 1997, the impact on the tradition is unmistakable as younger, innovative dalang rise and older performers sink into obscurity. In the past it was considered very difficult to be accepted as a dalang if one was not born into a family tradition.  In the last decade, however, none of the major puppeteers in Banyumas have come from families of performers. This transition, too, can be credited to the precedent of Ki Nartosabdho, who was a self-declared autodidact, learning from books and by watching performers (Sutton 1992, 301). His remarkable life led him to reinvent not only wayang, but also himself: transforming an impoverished street urchin into one of the wealthiest and most influential performers in Java.
Nartosabdho grew up in a small rural area between Yogyakarta and Surakarta where, before the turmoil of World War II, he was exposed to traditional Javanese and Western arts. After the death of his father, he struggled to pay even for primary school. As a teenager, he wandered about as a homeless street person (Sutton 1992, 298). In 1945, he moved to the north coast city of Semarang, where he was hired to drum in the gamelan orchestra of touring kethoprak, popular theatre troupes (Sutton 1991, 219).
A few years later the director of a wayang orang (dance drama) troupe, Ngesthi Pandhawa, made Nartosabdho the troupe's drummer and music director. He had mastered the predominant Central Javanese styles of drumming (Surakarta and Yogyakarta) and began to experiment with the flashy dance rhythms of West Java, as well as incorporating Western styles, such as three-four waltz time, into gamelan compositions (Sutton 1991, 220; Sutton 1992, 299). By 1958 Nartosabdho had begun acting as the dalang in the wayang orang, speaking the narration and singing mood songs. His tremendous success in this role led to an opportunity to perform wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre) for the radio. In the 1960s Nartosabdho started his own music group, Condong Raos, and began his career as a dalang. By 1979, he had become both the most famous and the most controversial dalang in Java--a man rumored to have been paid 800,000 rupiah for a performance when other top performers could only command fees of 150,000 to 500,000 (Keeler 198 7, 173). …