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Heirlooms of the Everyday: The Material Performances of Slamet Gundono1


Javanese actor, puppeteer and musician Slamet Gundono (1966–2014) created performances with everyday objects and materials (mud, dried grass, cooking utensils, condoms and food) in combination with conventions from wayang kulit puppetry. His performances were based on personal, often controversial, interpretations of well-known stories, from the Mahabharata epic to the nineteenth-century literary work Serat Centhini. By analysing three of his performances, I argue that Slamet Gundono's objects become temporarily endowed with the status of heirlooms (pusaka). Each of his performing objects is a non-spiritual pusaka that is used to take attention away from the spiritual quests that dominate traditional wayang. Gundono invokes everyday objects to focus on the more mundane, though urgent, questions of gender inequality, religious intolerance and environmental destruction.

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Research for this article was supported by the Singapore Ministry of Education (Relocating Intercultural Theatre, MOE2008-T2-1-110; and Digital Archiving and Intercultural Performance, MOE2013-T2-1-011).

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2 Like many Javanese people, Slamet Gundono did not have a hereditary family name. In order to address him respectfully people call him Ki (‘the honourable’) Slamet, but he was also referred to as Pak (literally ‘father’, but equivalent to ‘Mister’) or Mas (‘older brother’) Gundono. However, I will refer to him as Gundono, following the practice in international scholarship by, for example, Cohen, Matthew Isaac, ‘Contemporary Wayang in Global Contexts’, Asian Theatre Journal, 24, 7 (2007), pp. 338–69.

3 Ganug Nugroho Adi, ‘Slamet Gundono: Imagination through Grass’, Jakarta Post, 9 April 2010, at, accessed 13 May 2015.

4 Ibid.

5 In the Mahabharata, Dursasana threatenes to rape Drupadi after winning over her freedom in a game of dice with Drupadi's husband, Puntadewa.

6 Williams, Margaret, ‘The Death of “The Puppet”?’, in Posner, Dassia N., Orenstein, Claudia and Bell, John, eds., The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 1829, here p. 21.

7 Ibid., p. 23.

8 Matthew Isaac Cohen, ‘Traditional and Post-traditional Wayang Kulit in Java Today’, in Posner, Orenstein and Bell, The Routledge Companion to Puppetry, pp. 178–191, here p. 180.

9 The range of challenges to the conventions of wayang kulit has been explored by several authors. See, for example, Cohen, ‘Contemporary Wayang in Global Contexts’; Mrázek, Jan, ed., Puppet Theater in Contemporary Indonesia: New Approaches to Performance Events (Ann Arbor, MI: Southeast Asian Studies, 2002); Behrend, Tim, ‘The Millennial Esc(h)atology of Heri Dono: “Semar Farts” First in Auckland, New Zealand’, Indonesia and the Malay Word, 27, 9 (1999), pp. 208–24; Escobar, Miguel, ‘The Intermedial Interrogation of Memory’, Performance Research, 7, 3 (2012), pp. 33–8; Escobar, , ‘Wayang Hip Hop: Java's Oldest Performance Tradition Meets Global Youth Culture’, Asian Theatre Journal, 31, 1 (2014), pp. 481504.

10 Dassia Posner, ‘Introduction’, in Posner, Orenstein and Bell, The Routledge Companion to Puppetry, pp. 1–12, here p. 5 (Material Performance(s)).

11 Kreps, Christina, ‘The Idea of “Pusaka” as an Indigenous Form of Cultural Heritage Preservation’, in Kerlogue, Fiona, ed., Performing Objects: Museums, Material Culture and Performance in Southeast Asia (London: Horniman Museum and Gardens, 2004), pp. 114, here p. 5.

12 The puppets are not actually put to bed each night but rather ‘stored’ in beds. See M. Misbahul Amri, ‘Wayang Mbah Gandrung: A Ritual Wayang From East Java’, trans. Helen Pausacker, in Mrázek, Puppet Theater in Contemporary Indonesia, pp. 242–7.

13 The archive is expected to become publicly available in 2016 at An interactive version of my doctoral dissertation, which includes some video excerpts, is already available at

14 Puntadewa is the eldest of the Pandawa brothers, the protagonists of the Mahabharata, who fight their cousins over the throne of Astina.

15 Italicized words were spoken in English in the performance. The translations for this and all subsequent quotations from Gundono's performances are mine.

16 Traditional wayang kulit shows often include two banana trunks, with one stacked slightly above the other. The characters of higher status are placed on the upper one.

17 See note 1 above for an explanation of Pak as an honorific. Javanese and Indonesian speakers can choose from a long and nuanced list of honorifics when addressing their interlocutors. Therefore I preserve the original terms in the translations. The Kurawa are the antagonists of the Mahabharata.

18 Tahu and tempe are fermented soya bean curds. Sambal is a spicy chili sauce. These are common and inexpensive food items in Java.

19 It is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of this challenge. Feminist readings of wayang, and female dalang themselves, are still rare. Tellingly, the most successful female puppeteer in Indonesia is Maria Tri Sulistyani, known as ‘Ria Papermoon’, who works outside the world of traditional puppetry.

20 For more information see Becker, Alton, Beyond Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), p. 43.

21 Inandiak's novelized version of the literary work first appeared in French with the title Les chants de l’Île à dormir debout: Le livre de Centhini (Songs from an Island Beyond Belief: The Book of Centhini) (Paris: Seuil, 2005), and then in Indonesian as Centhini, Kekasih yang Tersembunyi (Centhini, the Hidden Lover), trans. Laddy Lesmana (Yogyakarta: Babad Alas, 2008).

22 Bennett, Linda Rae and Davies, Sharyn Graham, Sex and Sexualities in Contemporary Indonesia: Sexual Politics, Health, Diversity, and Representations (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), p. 9.

23 Endraswara, Suwardi, Rasa Sejati: Misteri Seks Dunia Kejawen (Real Experiences: The Mystery of Sex in the World of Kejawen) (Yogyakarta: Agromedia Pustaka, 2006), p. 331.

24 Halal refers to meat prepared as prescribed by Muslim law.

25 Rasa could be understood as a combination of feeling, intuition and experience.

26 Cebolang Minggat, trans. Miguel Escobar Varela.

27 In the past the blencong used oil. Currently, even the most traditional performances only use electric lights, but the light bulb is still housed in a blencong structure.

28 Togog is a half-brother of Semar and Batara Guru. In wayang performances he accompanies the antagonists as a servant and adviser. Semar and his sons fulfil a similar role for the protagonists.

29 For a short introduction to ruwatan performances see Victoria Maria Clara van Groenendael, Released from Kala's Grip (Jakarta: Lontar Foundation, 1998), pp. x–xix.

30 Interview with the author on 20 April 2012.

1 Research for this article was supported by the Singapore Ministry of Education (Relocating Intercultural Theatre, MOE2008-T2-1-110; and Digital Archiving and Intercultural Performance, MOE2013-T2-1-011).

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Theatre Research International
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