Compared to other parts of West Sumatra, Sawahlunto has a unique culture of its own. The small town is a mixture of different cultures which blend together nicely. One example of this is the Javanese cultural influence which is best reflected in Sawahlunto’s unique wayang tradition. The wayang or traditional puppet has its roots in Javanese culture but in the 1900s, it was adopted by the Sawahlunto people. It all started when the Dutch sent Javanese people to work in the coal mines of Sawahlunto. It was these laborers who introduced the wayang tradition to the other workers. And it was in this period that the famous wayang kuli rante or “chained laborers wayang story” was born.
Sawahlunto’s wayang culture is part of Sawahlunto’s dark past. Once known as the black pearl city, Sawahlunto was a coal mine industrial area developed by the Dutch. Prisoners from various parts of Indonesia were forced by the Dutch to work in a small town in West Sumatra to develop a coal mining city, later named Sawahlunto. These people worked with their ankles in chains for long hours and in poor and cruel living condition. During captivity, reminiscing their traditional culture back home, the Javanese inmates created wayang narratives later known as the “chained laborers wayang story.”
In the beginning of the 1900s the Dutch East Indies Government allowed wayang performances by the coal mine workers. These performances were later held at the Workers’ Cultural Center (GPB) which today would be located at the Info Box Coal Mine Gallery.
Today, Sawahlunto’s wayang performance is declared a cultural heritage by the Sawahlunto government. What makes Sawahlunto’s wayang different is the language, costumes, characters, and stories. The puppeteers can use multiple languages, such as Javanese, Indonesian, and Minang while using Javanese puppet characters. On the other hand, special Sawahlunto characters, such as Mbah Soero, have also been created.
The Sawahlunto government holds an annual wayang performance festival, called Festival Wayang Nusantara. The sixth festival was held on April 5–7 this year at the Triangle Park (Lapangan Segitiga), at 8 pm and which lasted all through the night. The festival welcomed a number of famous wayang puppeteers (dalang) from Java, such as from Solo and Wonogiri, as well as from other regions.
Diversity is part of Sawahlunto’s cultural identity. Sawahlunto’s wayang culture in particular connects the new generation with the past and celebrates the diversity the city has long maintained.
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