I Made Sidja: The Maestro
Nowadays, people may be unfamiliar with I Made Sidja. But the eccentric puppeteer from Bona village in Gianyar regency used to be a very famous artist, one of the Balinese traditional arts maestros. The puppet opera, wayang arja, is one of his creations, along with his teacher, the late masked-dancer and puppeteer Ketut Rindha. The wayang arja, which integrates the dance and drama aesthetic elements of wayang (puppets) and arja (opera), was first performed in 1976 at the Gianyar Palace. Wayang arja was invented after the dramatari arja became less popular due to the presence of drama gong, a contemporary performing art that combined elements of modern theater with Balinese traditional theater.
Sidja, who was born in 1933, also created wayang topeng (masked puppet show) and wayang suling, a puppet show accompanied by suling (flute) music. The father of six is also the founder of Sanggar Seni Paripurna, an art studio for neglected school drop-outs and unemployed graduates. At the studio, Sidja, who himself is a drop-out from elementary school, provides many books, musical instruments, puppets and materials for the art creations, such as cow leather to make puppets. All children are not only taught to perform, but also how to make the art equipment. Sidja is not merely a puppeteer.
He is a multi-talented artist: a dancer, a wood carver, a stone carver, a builder of bade (the tower used in Balinese ngaben cremation rituals), a puppet maker and many other things. For him, a real artist must have all-round artistic abilities. Without any skill in English, or any other foreign languages, in his younger days Sidja, now 79, traveled around the world to perform. He visited many countries, including Australia, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark and Sweden. Among his numerous awards for dedication in preserving Balinese traditional arts are the Bali governor’s Dharma Kusuma Madya arts award, the Wija Kusuma award from the Gianyar regency and the traditional arts maestro award from the President of Indonesia in 2008, as well as an award from the California-based gamelan group Sekar Jaya, and one from the government of Sweden.Below are his interview excerpts with Bali Daily’s Ni Komang Erviani.
Question: What do the arts mean to you?
Answer: Arts are my life. I have been living the arts from the time I was young.
You dropped out of elementary school. Could you share your childhood experiences with us?
I was really excited to study at elementary school. My father fully supported me going to school, because he wanted me to be able to read and do storytelling [mendongeng] just like him. When I was a child, there were no other children in the family that had the ability to read fluently like me. I left school because I was bored. In only four days, I had completed all the subjects that were supposed to be learned in one year. Afterwards, I read all the books for the second, third and fourth grades. My teacher then told me that I had better study at home.
What did you do after leaving school?
I learned many things from my home-school teachers. I had 22 teachers who taught me many things, including reading, stone-carving, wood-carving, drawing, creating ceremonial decorations, building bade and lembu [the white buffalo sarcophagus used in the Balinese ngaben cremation ritual], topeng [masks] dance, puppets and many others. Dropping out of school never discouraged me. In fact, many students who come to learn about Balinese arts from me are professors and doctors.
What motivated you to learn everything there is to know about the craft of Balinese arts?
A real artist must have the ability to perform, as well as to create their own equipment for performances. That’s why in my studio the children who learn to dance should know how to make their own masks. Those who learn puppeteering have to make their own puppets. They must make all the equipment by themselves. In my studio, my students create their masks and puppets and then bring the creations home. I’m happy to see their enthusiasm.
The reasoning is very simple. When a puppeteer is unable to make their own puppets, they will have to buy them from someone else. They will not be carefree in moving their puppets because they will worry too much about damaging their purchase. Puppeteers who make their own puppets never have those worries and thus perform better in their puppet show.
You often go overseas to perform. How do you feel?
I’m proud. Even if I can’t speak English, I have had opportunities to visit countries around the world. I have even visited Sweden six times. When I was abroad, many people praised my wayang performances. While we were staying at hotels we had this peculiar activity of playing music with the cutlery in the dining room. Once we had this breakfast at a hotel and we had an impromptu performance of some Balinese music using our plates, spoons, cups, glasses and the tables. It was very entertaining and delightful for the people there.
Any unforgettable moments overseas?
I have been to Sweden alone. I couldn’t speak English at all, but I was not afraid. I tried to communicate with signs. When I wanted to order some food, I just created some gestures. It work.
Nowadays, how active are you in performing your puppet shows?
Due to my health, I rarely perform lengthy ceremonies. I am not strong enough to perform for hours. I get tired after 30 minutes of performing. A wayang arja performance really takes a lot of energy. But I do hope to perform until the end of my life. I have always enjoyed performing.
What is the difference between wayang performances past and present?
Nowadays, people don’t have as much interest in watching puppet shows like the older generations used to. Young people prefer pop and rock music. I understand, maybe it is because of the use of the ancient Kawi language during performances, which makes the show difficult to understand for common people, especially the youngsters. Amid this modernity, nowadays, people prefer everything that’s instant in nature. There’s a lack of depth. That is a pity. They don’t understand the deep philosophy of life that a puppet performance can give to its audience.
New forms of puppet shows are being invented to attract the interests of youngsters. What do you think of such innovations?
Innovations are good to some extent. But I think puppet shows should not deviate too far from the traditional pattern [pakem]. The original puppet shows feature stories of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. There are hundreds of roles [lakon] in the stories. If puppeteers want to support some sort of modern campaigns, they can do it based on the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics. Many artists nowadays rarely practice, they only wish to perform. I am still practicing. I still have the jitters before performing, because I always hope the audience will like my shows. Modern puppeteers, regretfully, perform too many jokes in their shows. Most of the contents are satirical and often insult people’s feelings. It is not the way the original puppet shows were done in the past.
At your age now, what dreams do you still hope to pursue?
I still have many artistic crafts that my children and my grandchildren have not inherited yet, such as making sarad, lembu, bade and various types of puppets. I hope the younger generations continue my arts. At the moment, I try to teach the younger generation to perform puppet shows by letting them watch me perform.