Posted on 25/06/2009
Dr Matthew Isaac Cohen, from the Department of Drama and Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London, received the award of a royal title from Sultan Abdul Gani Natadiningrat, sultan of the royal palace of Kraton Kacirebonan in Cirebon, West Java, Indonesia, on 20 June 2009.
Dr Cohen received the title of Ki Ngabehi – the equivalent of a knighthood. It acknowledges his research, performance and promotion of the arts and culture of Cirebon, and specifically the region’s tradition of shadow puppetry (‘wayang kulit’). Dr Cohen has written extensively about shadow puppetry and related arts of Indonesia, while also performing as a puppeteer. He was also given a professional puppeteer name, ‘Kanda Buana’, which means ‘He Who Tells Stories about the World’.
The official citation states that Dr Cohen’s award was offered for ‘great and consistent attention to the culture of Indonesia, particularly in the field of traditional puppetry’. In addition, Dr Cohen is referred to as ‘a cultural ambassador for Cirebon, especially in the field of traditional puppetry, in Indonesia and abroad’.
The award ceremony at the palace of Kraton Kacirebonan was the concluding event of a National Festival of Culture, Art and Film organised by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which took place in the city of Cirebon from15-20 June 2009. Also awarded the title of Ki Ngabehi was Musbar, head of a national association for traditional weapons. The event included a traditional ceremony known as ‘setting foot on the earth’ (‘tedak siti’) for the crown prince of Kraton Kacirebonan, as well as a selection of traditional entertainment performed by arts organisations associated with the royal court.
Following the presentation of the award, Dr Cohen performed an all-night ‘wayang kulit’ play, entitled, ‘Arjuna Sasrabau’, in the local dialect of Javanese, accompanied by a full gamelan musical ensemble. The puppets and gamelan employed were the sacred heirlooms of the royal court, and, as is customary for palace performances, the source of illumination was an open-flame oil lamp. Dr Cohen’s performance was attended by a host of cultural experts and artists from Cirebon, as well as representatives from other royal courts and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
Studying shadow puppetry in Indonesia since 1988, Dr Cohen holds a certificate in puppetry from Indonesia’s national puppetry organisation, Ganasidi. He has conducted extensive research and practical study of Cirebonese ‘wayang kulit’ and is the only non-Indonesian capable of performing in this regional style. He has been on sabbatical in Indonesia during the academic year 2008-9 as a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies and a visiting academic at Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta.
Dr Cohen says, ‘The award of the royal title of Ki Ngabehi is an incredible privilege. I am grateful for the support of my friends, colleagues and teachers from Cirebon over the years, and anticipate conducting much more work on Cirebon arts and culture in the future’.