Throughout his artistic journey, particularly in the last decades of his career, Sudjojono often used subjects derived from wayang tales to convey his social observations and political commentaries. First mentioned in historical annals in the first century BC, the Indonesian wayang (the literal translation is 'shadow'), is the most ancient form of puppet theater known today. It was a popular form of entertainment for the masses, especially in Java. The stories were adapted from epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana, but the most crowd-pleasing performances are those that feature the punakawan: Semar, Gareng, Petruk and Bagong. They are characters that do not exist in the Hindu version of Mahabharata and are original characters conceived by the Javanese. As court-jesters and loyal servants of the Pandawas, they possess supernatural powers and their role is to impart wisdom and social commentaries to the princes, often through humour, comedic theatricality and philosophy. As the country moved towards modernization, the wayang tradition waned, particularly in the increasingly urban and cosmopolitan environment of Jakarta in the late seventies. It is a testament to Sudjojono's brilliance that he adapted this ancient art form and made it relevant to his milieu. A few paintings were executed with this approach: Hanuman Obong dari Cerita Ramayana, Punakawan (1971, 1981), Mboyong Putri (1980), Hanoman Berkelana (1975), and Rontok (1978).
Petruk Dadi Ratu (Petruk Becomes King) is one of the finest and most important examples of Sudjojono's dexterity with this oeuvre. Executed in 1979, certain elements of Petruk, such as the costume, are modernized, while some essential characteristics are retained. The Petruk in Sudjojono's version is wearing a tuxedo with an ornamented military jacket – complete with medals and epaulettes – with khaki pants, oxford shoes and ruby and feather-encrusted gold headdress. However, these accoutrements cannot conceal Petruk's rotund belly nor his trademark long nose. Sudjojono cleverly juxtaposed the obvious finery with the absurdity of the overall appearance. This theatrical effect is emphasized by a kaleidoscope of tumbling multi-colored harlequin-patterned floor and Petruk's extremely long shadow reaching into the distant mountainous desert in the background . The falling floor reminds viewers of the Javanese idiom lengser keprabon ("lengser" means "to slide" while "lengser keprabon" means to abdicate, whether forced or otherwise) while the long shadow recalls the Indonesian adage, "Bayang-bayang tidak sepanjang badan" (A shadow longer than the length of the figure, which means, exceeding one's authority).
In the original story, when the Pandawa princes lost their magical relic because they were deceived by someone they trusted, Petruk was the one who successfully retrieved it. In the process, the relic's magical properties gave him superpowers that made him impervious to all weaponry, which enabled him to conquer all the neighboring kingdoms. Power and wealth made him an arrogant, selfish and foolish dictator. The play's finale saw Petruk turning back to his original mind and form in the presence of the Pandawas, Semar, Bagong and Gareng.
"Twelve years into the New Order government, Indonesians started to become dissatisfied with the oppressive regime. Although student protests culminated with a call for Soeharto to resign, he was re-elected for a third term by the Parliamentry Assembly. In 1978, Sudjojono depicted a blazing tower as the setting for an episode of the Ramayana epic in which the white ape Hanoman burns down the capital of Rahwana's kingdom, Alengka [Rontok, 1978]... Disguised as an episode of the Ramayana epic, Sudjojono succeeded in subtly criticizing the New Order government." (Amir Sidharta, Visible Soul, Jakarta, 2006, p. 103). Petruk Dadi Ratu was the ultimate follow up to Rontok. If the latter expressed the dissatisfaction of the oppressed under tyranny and their longing for a hero, Petruk Dadi Ratu speaks about the dictator and his lack of legitimacy to power. A clown as a king would be incongruous indeed. The way the King is depicted in the present work certainly conveyed absurdity - particularly in his costume – but perhaps more importantly, the king's hidden arm also expresses a nuance of deceit. The adage, "lempar batu sembunyi tangan" (throwing a stone, hiding the hand), which means, not taking any responsibility for one's actions, comes to mind.
Like Petruk, parody was Sudjojono's forte. His socio-political commentaries were subtle but undeniably embedded within the story. It is interesting to note that at a military court in 1979, Colonel Abdul Latief, who was imprisoned in solitary confinement for thirteen years under the charges of subversion, launched an attack on the New Order government and its leader's despotism and role in the September 30th movement instead of pleading his case. It is uncertain whether this incident was a trigger for Sudjojono to paint the present work. However, it is not unlikely that the artist, a former Communist, was moved by the injustice expressed by Latief.
As cynical as the painting is, there is always a silver lining. History eventually revealed that as certain as Petruk's reign is transient, truth will, in due course, take place. Sudjojono expresses his brilliance the most when he paints enigmatic works that are equal parts intellect and humour, but it is when he combines them with his mission, vision, and soul, such as in Petruk Dadi Ratu, that he is most indomitable.
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