A Visit to Tutup Ngisor Community

An interview by Gunawan Maryanto


By the end of 2002, it was Sunday, the 28th of December, I and some actor friends from Teater Garasi visited the hamlet of Tutup Ngisor by the slope of Mount Merapi. In the hamlet that administratively belongs to the village of Sumber in Dukun Sub-district of  Magelang District, Central Java, lives a community called Padepokan Tjipta Boedaja Tutup Ngisor. Visiting them was part of our creative process for Waktu Batu, a repertoire then in the making.


Yoso Sudarmo (1865-1990) founded the center in 1937 in the hamlet populated by 182 people. According to Sitras Anjilin, the seventh child of Yoso Sudarmo now head of the center, wayang orang provides the basis for the group. In a year, they do at least four sacred wayang orang performances, which are on the occasions of Javanese new year celebration, the commemoration of national independence on the 17th of August, the Idul Fitri at the end of the Islamic fasting month, and the commemoration of the Great Prophet Mohammad’s birth. Those performances are sacred in the sense that each of them is intended to be Tjipta Boedaja’s prayer. Performances and traditions remaining alive among Tutup Ngisor community are inherited from Yoso Sudarmo, or Romo Yoso, whom people regard as a spiritual teacher in addition to an acknowledged artist. On the eve of the Javanese New Year, which begins on the first of Suro month, people will be playing the gamelan all night long by Romo Yoso’s tomb and singing his compositions.

For Tutup Ngisor community, practicing art – dancing and playing music – is not detached from growing chili or mining sand; they are assigned equal importance. Among Romo Yoso’s legacy is his saying, ‘in life, don’t ever abandon art’. The obligatory performances mentioned are perceived as the basic education in art provided through generations. Singing to the accompaniment of the gamelan orchestra – called Gamelan Candi – played by people wearing proper Javanese attire is a regular order. Performing a particular dance called Kembar Mayang is obligatory for the community members. That is part of the ways Tjipta Boedaja provides art education in the region.


Rakhmat Murti Waskito, a dancer from Surakarta (or Solo) assigned to accompany us, took us to several main points of the place. First we went to a simple stage where to perform wayang orang dance drama and to practice Javanese music as well as dances. Next we headed for a flat rock that used to be Romo Yoso’s ‘rostrum’ when preaching to the whole community in certain occasions. Across the rostrum rock are the tombs of Mbah Tutup – the founder of the settlement – and Romo Yoso. When we visited the building that functions as a sort of the community’s secretariat, we were received by Bambang Santosa, Romo Yoso’s fourth child. We went around to see the rooms. In one of them, which is called ‘the office’, several books were on a desk by a manual typewriter; on the wall was a calendar full with marks noting down scheduled activities; a telephone was also there.


This is the office?

(They laughed.) Yes, this is our office. No one works regularly at this place. No one writes anything. This office is a kind of storehouse. Well, the telephone bills puzzle us, ‘Are we going to get some money into our fund to pay them?’


May we know the number?

Oh, wait a moment. I’ll have to check it. Ha..ha.. I can’t even memorize it.


Has it been set for long?

Just recently. We received the facility as donation. Of course we cannot afford it ourselves. The other day we were also offered the computer. We didn’t take it because we didn’t need one. Don’t know how to use it. The typewriter there was a gift from a German. Only Mas Sitras uses it.


May we see the masks?

Only few of them are here. The rest are kept in family homes.


The makers of the masks are also from here?

My big brother, Pak Sarwoto, makes masks. But you cannot call him a mask maker in the sense of a profession because he lacks the expected regularity, even reliability. You cannot specify any standard time for him to finish a mask. Sometimes it is just one week, but it can also be over a year. You cannot prescribe the time limit. It depends on his ngeng  – I don’t know the Indonesian word for it. Feelings, deep feelings. Without ngeng, nothing will happen. And it is quite improbable to produce masks made to massive orders. He cannot make masks of identical characters. They always differ from one to another. In short, it can’t be forced. We find a lot of strange things hard to explain. Even if you promise him to pay five hundred thousand rupiah for a single mask, there’ll be no accomplished mask unless the deep feelings prevail. But fifty thousand will do when the ngeng happens to be with him.


What about the dancers? Are there specific requirements to perform mask dances?

Nothing special. Just dancing out the characters. Much the same with wayang orang dance drama. On casting, well, I don’t really know how to describe. I have always been Gatotkaca. It is like baptism. But on occasions when I can’t do it for some reason, some one else may take my place – but only as a stopgap. And it has to be my son doing that. I once broke the rule, letting my grandson do the part. After the performance I was taken ill. My big brother then reprimanded me. He told me I must not bypass my son. The character has to pass down to my children or nieces in the first place. Never go directly to grandchildren. Well, that’s all I know.

Those outside the family will not dance here either. Like Mas Waskito here, even though he is great as Rahwana, he will not dance at our venue. He won’t be capable to take it, we say. We have tried several times, still it didn’t work. There are always stumbling blocks. A sudden illness, fatigue, and so on. That is despite the smooth rehearsals. The point is not dancing techniques. I think the right time is still to come. It is because the descendants of Pakde Darto, who used to play the Rahwana part, are still among us.

So when you see the kids here, you know which among them are prospective Sencakis, Kresnas, and so on.  For instance, among Pakde Darto’s descendants the oldest son is to be Rahwana or an ogre from overseas. The second son will give out the Pandawa lineage and the third the Punakawan characters as well as gamelan players. Pak Sarwoto’s lineage provides mask makers and the Punakawan. Pak Cip’s descendants are to play the characters of Cakil and Sencaki.




What an interesting regeneration process!

This is only natural. For myself, I belong to the lineage of Gatotkaca and Puntadewa parts. In brief, we belong to the refined type known as alusan. Pak Sitras’ part is Kresna. Now his son can already do that too.


Do all the members of Tutup Ngisor community have to be dancers? Are there cases when some one decides not to be a dancer?

Oh, yes. Individuals differ. Some decide not to be dancers, and that’s alright. But here anyone has to take part in a performance, even if it is just for once. That goes for our daughters too, for instance, who moved to other places since marriage. They had to take part in our performance two or three times before getting married. Only after that they got acknowledged as the descendants of my father, Romo Yoso. A number of my children do not live here any longer. They reside in Jakarta and other cities. But everyone of them has had taken part in our performances here. During their occasional visits here, they will always feel like to go on stage again.

Other job divisions are already well set. For example, Pak Sitras handles stage, indoor productions like wayang dance drama and ketoprak drama. I take care of exterior repertoires such as Jatilan and Reog. We may sometimes exchange our posts, though. But it is always clear who coordinates what. Such was also the case with the past generation. Everything is casual here. Up to now, I still don’t know who are going to replace me and Pak Sitras. It depends on calling. I and Pak Sitras suddenly came to hold these positions; it just happened.


So you don’t prepare persons to be the next leaders?

No. We don’t prepare anything. The process is just natural. So many great dancers are here. Yet we don’t know who’s going to take Pak Sitras’ place as leader. We never hold meetings to designate certain persons for certain positions. Other organizations or studios know the terms of office of their personnel, but we don’t. Pak Sitras will always be leader here. Just as long as he is capable to function. In the past, Pakde Darto took Romo Yoso’s place when the latter was no longer able.


Outside: the heavy rain. We were about to leave, but it was so unlikely given the condition. We’d have to walk quite a long way to get public transport. Bambang Santosa and Waskito proceeded with their stories.


Why the hurry. Wait till the rain stops. Feel free. Office hours are simply unknown here. Even if you came at ten in the night, you’d still be welcomed. Mas Sujiwo (Sujiwo Tedjo, a dalang/puppet master) usually comes here at two in the morning. Halim HD (a cultural networker living in Surakarta) often comes here too. And also Mbah Djito (the late Roedjito, a scenographer). They enjoy knocking at the door on coming here.


The architecture here is interesting. Most of the openings form curves. Is that common to the people’s homes in this area?

No. That is a specific feature of this compound. It is supposed to mean something.


Reminding me of the Plengkung Gading tunnel in Yogya.

Yes. Plengkung Gading, Plengkung Wijilan, Pojok Beteng. It may remind of Kraton (sultan’s palace) in Yogya. We also have banyan trees. Used to be many of them, planted at a thirty-meter interval surrounding the area of Tutup. Most is already cut. But any severing has to wait for the order. Only one of the original is left, that one in the corner there. You have visited Romo Yoso’s tomb, haven’t you?


In what year did he pass away?

1990, at the age of 105 years. My granny even died at the age of 140 years and my mother 95. And she kept her good memory. She used to sew dancers’ costumes.


What stories are often performed here?

Currently, my younger brother, Sitras, likes to work on rarely performed, less commonly known stories. They include the Mekukuhan (King Mekukuhan) stories. They provide the story-base for our wayang waton repertoire dubbed as ‘Jejere Wong Urip Golek Neraka’. In fact, the source is the Kunjarakarna story as depicted on the bas-relief of Jago temple. It was performed in Surabaya as a wayang kulit shadow play, and next in Semarang.  Then it became a ballet repertoire performed at Borobudur. I was among the dancers. Now my brother works on it again in a new version of wayang waton. The concern is over the moral teachings and this new work reinterprets the teachings.

The process of its creation was also interesting. For instance, after three month rehearsing, suddenly Sitras developed some new concern. Consequently, the story already rehearsed gave way to another. Even on the day before the performance the story was once again changed. But all of us are already used to do it this way. It has been like that since my parents’ time. Our rehearsals are not for memorizing the script or the choreography. Instead, they are dedicated to discovering the self, the profound feelings. For example, Pak Sitras briefs us a story, then it is our personal duty to locate our selves within the story line. Everything done by all the community members has that same motivation. Whatever we are about to do ought to have the quality of psychological and spiritual emancipation. So it’s not at all the question of doing the leader’s decisions. Even when Pak Sitras as chairperson already decides something, yet I don’t feel good about it, I can still propose alterations. Such is a common practice here. The stories for our wayang performances are random instead of being sequential. They depend on intuition. And it may happen that a story line rehearsed for months unfolds differently during the actual staging. There’s nothing wrong in it. It just has to be that way.


So you don’t have any compulsory repertoire?

There is just one. And there can’t be any argument over this. It has been so since my parents. The repertoire is known as ‘Sri Kembang’. But it involves no rehearsals. We are supposed not to rehearse. Rehearsals are only relevant for entertainments. The sacred has to stay away from rehearsing activity. Even for our Friday eve offering rituals, rehearsals are not permitted.

What’s funny is that the normative and the innovative go together well here. The normative remains intact. Yet for other performance practices, or our performances in other places, creative elements have to prevail. Any kind of performance is welcomed here. Contemporary music was once staged here without any complication. But concerning the use of our main stage, there are certain regulations to obey. For example, musical instruments like guitar, organ, and drum are not allowed to play in the pendopo lobby. Gamelan musical instruments are not to be mounted to the stage. In one occasion, the gamelan instruments were put on there for some time, to result in a fire consuming the stage and the whole gamelan instruments. That was in 1968. At that time, the place that kept the gamelan was being renovated, so we mounted the musical instruments to the stage. My father had already told us to move the instruments down to their place when we were taking a break. We didn’t like the idea of moving them up and down the stage; well, we were young and ignorant then. So, now when the place is being cleaned or fixed, we’ll just move them aside or to the tomb for some time, never again mounting them to the stage.


Any restrictions regarding kinds of performances on the stage?

No. Any performance is okay, but musical instruments are not to mount the stage. A violation of the rule will effect on us here, not the performers. It is already so decreed by our parents. Yes, like in sultan’s palace. There are regulations to observe. Others may violate them, but the consequence befalls us. Say, when entering my parents’ graveyard, I have to wear the surjan Javanese top and put on the blangkon head cover. It is alright for others to wear a sarong and put on the peci cap, but not for members of the clan. At least, I have to wear trousers and a head scarf. The women have to let their hair hang loose. That only applies to Romo Yoso’s descendants. In playing the gamelan, we are not to wear the sarong waist cloth and put on the peci cap. We have to be in the Javanese attire. It goes the same for rehearsals and actual performances. All such occasions are in fact performances. But, again, this is true for the clan members only.  Anyhow, neighbors or visiting outsiders usually sense and adapt themselves to this. I think all this is but a matter of orderliness and propriety. All these rules are but a matter of decency. We have to consult our mind before taking any step. But then it goes beyond the mere question of propriety. This is about the firmness of one’s personality.

Here all elements of the built environment are in one with our daily life. Consider Romo Yoso who can be regarded as a maestro with respect to the arts and cultural matters, but whom the local people here take as an elder, a spiritual teacher. So those rules that he outlined are not only cultural but also spiritual in nature. They are to be believed and implemented. It is not for us to give this belief a name. It is up to other people to dub it. You can call it Islam Kejawen, perhaps. Or, Islam Kraton if you like, or else, Islam Tutup Ngisor, or Abangan. They are all just names, terms. Even if it serves you well to see us as having no religion, it is alright. Some people finger us as heretics. We accept them all. Perhaps they don’t really know me personally. And why on earth should my personality be known to everyone?  So call us what you’d feel like to. Just as long as it’s not us doing the naming. As long as it is not me spelling it. No problem. What’s important is that we maintain our openness. My daughter was converted to Catholicism when she married a Catholic; it’s alright. My parents were also like that. Their children or grandchildren married persons of different religious beliefs; they didn’t make a fuss out of it.  When the Catholic were about to open a junior high school in this area, they consulted Romo Yoso instead of the village head. It was my father deciding the shape and orientation of the Catholic school building. We don’t shut ourselves in narrow-mindedness. Democracy prevails quite remarkably here. You can bring any kind of art in here. Here any performance or show is good. That is also the way the local people here feel when they are part of an audience. No one will be booing you because they find your show terribly bad. If they don’t like what they see, they’ll just leave. That’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? Anyway, what is good, or bad, performance? When it comes to art, what’s wrong and what’s right? People differ. If it is good, it is only good for oneself, not necessarily for others. I was taken aback  when I heard people say that it is not easy for outsiders to perform here in Tutup Ngisor. What is really hard is the journey here. That’s all. The route from Muntilan to Tutup Ngisor is quite trying. You have to go on foot. When it rains, you’ll get wet. But why is that rumor?


There is indeed no public transportation to this place?

No. From Muntilan they only go as far as Talun marketplace or Sumber. Then you have to walk along the way here, unless you have your private vehicle. It is one kilometer walk from Sumber. The roads here were hardened by the people on their own resource. It was not the government doing that.