One Japanese researcher has taken it upon himself to bring a traditional Indonesian art back from the brink of extinction.
Isamu Sakamoto, 62, a distinguished expert on restoring old documents, is trying to reproduce pictorial scrolls used in the Javanese art of storytelling called “Wayang beber,” whose history is believed to date back to the 12th century.
In a performance of Wayang beber, a narrator unfolds a scrolled sheet of bark paper with pictures depicting each scene while recounting the tale. The art is said to have evolved and given birth to Indonesian’s famous Wayang shadow puppet theater.
The prospects for survival of Wayang beber are precarious now that it is performed in only two places on the island of Java.
“I hope my work will help preserve the vanishing traditional culture,” Sakamoto said.
While researching paper used to draw up documents in former ages across the world, Sakamoto came across bark paper called “daluwang” in Indonesia in 1997. He then watched a Wayang beber performance that used daluwang in central Java’s Pacitan area.
The pictorial scroll used in the show was made from flattened tree bark. It was badly damaged and there were holes in it.
Local Indonesians showed little interest in restoring the aging cultural asset. Some just suggested painting pictures on new sheets of paper or dismissed the idea, while others said there were no longer artisans who could do the job.
Sakamoto managed to find artisans who still made traditional daluwang and commissioned them to produce a new sheet. However, the sheets they produced had an uneven surface, making it difficult to paint pictures on them.
So Sakamoto enlisted his Indonesian artist friends to reproduce pictorial scrolls on their own from scratch.
Five years later, they managed to reproduce one of six scrolls for the tale of Panji set in an old Javanese mythical kingdom. The multicolored scroll measures 70 cm high and 3.5 meters wide and depicts one scene from the story.
Still, Sakamoto believes that his team’s work leaves much to be desired.
“Quality paper is so thin that it is translucent, but we haven’t attained that level of achievement,” he said. “The picture on our scroll also got a harsh critical review from a Wayang expert.”
Undaunted, Sakamoto is determined to forge ahead until all six Panji volumes are completed.
“Local Indonesians think that Wayang beber is dead, but we want to revive their interest (in the culture) by handing down authentic scrolls for posterity,” Sakamoto said.