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1. Matthew Isaac Cohen Suluk Topeng


Matthew Isaac Cohen

Suluk Topeng

Translated by Matthew Isaac Cohen

The poem below is an example of aesthetic theory and lyric theology from Java (Indonesia). It is a meditation on the philosophy of appearance in relation to performance. The text originates from Cirebon, a coastal area of Java’s west coast that is known for its lively folk arts and ancient mystical traditions. The redaction I translate here is from an early nineteenth century manuscript compiled by a mosque official known as ‘Abdul Kahar and Sultan Adiwijaya of the royal house of Kacerbonan.
  The nominal subject of the poem is topeng, the mask theatre or mask dance, a popular daytime entertainment filled with comedy and exciting dancing performed to the accompaniment of gamelan music. Sometimes a series of dances with comic interludes is performed, less often a story is enacted. (The poem refers to the character of Pekik Anom, also known as Jaka Pekik, the eponymous hero of a play titled Jaka Pekik or Jaka Menyawak.) Cognate traditions of topeng exist elsewhere in Java, as well as in the neighbouring islands of Bali and Madura.
Topeng is likened in the poem to the third stage on the mystical path to enlightenment— kakekat, which means Truth or Reality. The poem speaks vividly on an allegorical level – contemplating the theatrical apparatus provides perspective, in Kenneth Burke’s usage, upon relations with the Divine. It is the third of a suite of mystical poems or suluk dealing with performance—the first compares shadow puppetry with Law, the second compares animal dances in full-body costumes to The Path and the fourth compares the female social dancer to Seeing God. The unifying scheme structuring the suite is that the less mediation there is between the animator and the object of performance, the closer one gets to Divine Union.
The suite of poems exists in multiple manuscript copies in major collections, and is well known to scholars of Javanese literature, though it has yet to be translated into English as a whole. I have translated and provided an extensive commentary on the first of the suite (Suluk Wayang) elsewhere. Someday I hope to translate the work as a whole.


Topeng appears at mid-day
though this is but a symbol.
It is actually kakekat
artfully ensconced in the form of topeng.

The performer and the object of performance can be said to be one and the same.
There is nothing else.
But there is still concealment.
On the face, there is a mask as wrana [screen, pretext, substitute, representation]

Kakekat, because it is candid, masquerades as ignorance,
on the face of things.
Genuinely swift motion has yet to occur.
That is the way of kakekat in art.

My creation in the mask art
Is the ability to transform.
The performer is invisible.
It is the mask that attracts attention.

Then the performer returns and changes his mask.
Things get increasingly mixed up.
It’s as if one does not know or has
forgotten that the performer doing the mask dance has bodily substance.

The excellent mask performance I do not attribute to the performer.
Mouth wide open, the neck gets sore from looking
At the masked performer representing Pekik Anom.
I consider this not as the performer.

One recalls that it is a performer doing the mask dance
when one sees
him change his mask to impersonate a woman,
very attractive and eye-pleasing.

Then the performer, that crazed pig, picks up
and changes into another mask
He’s like a ferocious demon and people [watching] make a move,
intending to strike him as they perceive this to be not the performer.

Most of those watching the mask performance go home.
I do not look
at the face. What is visible,
what is given to ponder, is the performer in my own self.

Like when the performer himself does mask dance,
what is then also visible
are not two masks indeed.
I cannot discuss this matter furthermore.

I am unable to run from the mask performance
I am unable to be still
in the movement of my body.
That is why I originate with Allah and go towards Allah.

On reflection, there is no place for me to run to.
A masked dancer impersonating a lion will run
but will return in the end to the same place.
This is recipient of the Lord’s tribulations.

Provide me with ample shelter, Oh Lord.
Protect your humble servant
in all my movements…

Matthew Isaac Cohen ,  Areas of specialization :Art and Culture of Southeast Asia (particularly Indonesia), Asian Theatre, World Puppetry, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Art and Performance, Histories of Popular Culture, Cultural Heritage
Academic employment :2019-present Professor of World Arts and Culture, Department of Dramatic Arts, University of Connecticut, USA
2011-2019 Professor of International Theatre, Department of Drama, Theatre & Dance, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK
2005-2011 Senior Lecturer, Department of Drama & Theatre, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK
2001-2005 Lecturer, Department of Theatre, Film & Television Studies, University of Glasgow, UK
1998-2000  Postdoctoral Research Fellow, International Institute for Asian Studies, the  Netherlands.
Visiting Positions since 2009:
2018-2019 Senior Fellow, Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University, to research the history of wayang
2017 Visiting Senior Fellow, Yale University Art Gallery to research and help curate the Dr. Walter Angst and Sir Henry Angest Collection of Indonesian Puppets
2015-2016 External Curator at the British Museum for the temporary exhibition ‘Shadow Puppet Theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand’
2015 Visiting Research Professor (Spring Term), University of Connecticut, USA
2011-12 Research Fellow, Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Wassenaar, The Netherlands
2009 Visiting Associate Professor, University of Malaya, Malaysia
Degrees awarded
1997 PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology with Departmental Distinction, Yale University (Thesis title: An Inheritance from the Friends of God: The Southern Shadow Puppet Theater of West Java, Indonesia)
1992 MPhil in Sociocultural Anthropology, Yale University
1990 Certificate in Puppetry from the Wonogiri branch of Ganasidi, Indonesia’s National Puppetry Organization
1988 AB Magna cum Laude in Psychology, Harvard College
Mayor awards and distinctions:
2018 Awarded the royal name ‘Ki Dalang Bawana’ (Sir Puppeteer of the World) by Sultan Arief Natadiningrat of the court of Kasepuhan, West Java, Indonesia
2011 Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study Fellowship
2009 Awarded the royal title ‘Ki Ngabehi’ (equivalent to a knighthood) from Sultan Abdul Gani of the royal court of Kacirebonan, West Java, Indonesia
2008 American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship
2008 Harry J. Benda Prize in Southeast Asian studies, awarded by the Association for Asian Studies
2016 Inventing the Performing Arts: Modernity and Tradition in Colonial Indonesia. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press.
2010 Performing Otherness: Java and Bali on International Stages, 1905-1952. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
2010 Contemporary Southeast Asian Performance: Transnational Perspectives/ Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. (Co-editor with Laura Noszlopy)
2010 The Lontar Anthology of Indonesian Drama, Volume 1: Plays for the Popular Stage. Jakarta: Lontar. 
2006. The Komedie Stamboel: Popular Theater in Colonial Indonesia, 1891-1903. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press and Leiden: KITLV Press.
1998 Demon Abduction: A Wayang Ritual Drama from West Java. Jakarta: The Lontar Foundation.
Javanese shadow puppet theatre (Wayang Kulit) performances :
I have performed more than 30 wayang kulit plays as solo puppeteer since 1989. Below are some of the more important performances since 2006.
2016 The Birth of Kangsa and Kangsa’s Cockfight, English-language shadow puppet play performance with Gamelan Kridha Budaya Sari at the Linden-Museum Stuttgart
2015 Arjuna’s Meditation, English-language shadow puppet play performed at the British Museum (with ISBI Bandung, 2 hours), Harvard University’s Arts First Festival (with Gamelan Si Betty, 2 hours) and at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut (1 hour).
2012 Lokananta: The Gamelan of the Gods, performed in English with 150 gamelan musicians from around the United Kingdom at the Roger Kirk Centre, University of York, UK (8 hours).
2011 Anoman, the Envoy, performed in English with Gamelan Madu Sari at Gong! The Vancouver Gamelan Festival, Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, Vancouver, Canada (2 hours).
2011 A Dalang in Search of Wayang. Lecture-performance with Javanese shadow puppets performed at the 1st Asian Theatre Festival, Thessaloniki (Greece); Centre for Creative  Collaboration, London (UK); Puppetry and Post-Dramatic Performance: An International Conference on Performing Objects in the 21st Century, University of Connecticut (USA); Department of Theatre, Speech, and Dance at Brown University (USA); CHIME-APAF International Conference on Traditional Performing Arts in Contemporary Asia (UK); Buxton Puppet Festival (UK); Indonesia Kontemporer Festival (UK); Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study (Netherlands); Fahmina Institute (Cirebon, Indonesia) (50 minutes).
2009 Kresna Denawa. 3-hour English language shadow puppet play performed at Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas (with the Cambridge Gamelan) and at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (with the Southbank Gamelan Players). Previously performed a 5-hour long Javanese version of this play in Cirebon, West Java in 1999.
2009 Arjuna Sasrabau. Shadow puppet play, performed in Javanese with royal heirloom puppets and open-flame oil lamp, Kraton Kacirebonan, Cirebon (6 hours).
2009 Sinta Colong. Shadow puppet play performed in Javanese, Indonesia and English. Sono Budoyo Museum, Yogyakarta (3 hours).
2008 Ramayana. 4 episode shadow puppet Ramayana cycle (The Birth of Ravana, Arjuna Sasrabahu, The Abduction of Sita, The Fall of Alengka), performed in English with the Southbank Gamelan Players. The British Library, London (12 hours).
2006 Palguna. Shadow puppet play, performed in English with Gamelan Puloganti. Picture Gallery, Royal Holloway, University of London (3 hours); performed in Cirebon Javanese on a 10-stop tour of the north coast of Java in 2018 sponsored by Indonesia’s Department of Education and Culture (4 hours).

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