Miss Tjitjih Keeps Sundanese Theater Alive
Members of the traditional Sundanese theater troupe Miss Tjitjih still take pride in being associated with the group, even if its glory days are in the past.
The troupe has been plagued with financial struggles the past couple of years, which has meant that the members can now only give the rare performance.
Formed in 1928 in Jakarta under the name Opera Valencia, the troupe’s heyday stretched over decades. It used to sell out theaters, with hundreds of people sitting rapt for hours as the troupe performed its trademark mix of comedy and horror. Later the troupe changed its name to Miss Tjitjih, a moniker inspired by the “prima donna” character of the group.
During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in the 1940s, Miss Tjitjih was one of the many theater troupes used to disseminate propaganda. The Japanese believed that theater had the power to influence people.
Through it all, Miss Tjitjih has managed to stand the test of time, even after it temporarily lost its home theater to a fire in 1997. But the troupe persevered and took its show on the road.
“From 1998 to 2000 we would still get around 150 people, mostly lower-class people like becak [rickshaw] drivers, coming out and enjoying our shows,” said Dadan “Ude” Supriyatna, who plays gamelan for Miss Tjitjih.
But as television stations started to offer more contemporary programming in the early 2000s, the troupe’s audiences decreased significantly.
“There were just so many choices of entertainment on TV, including soap operas,” said Kokom Kusnadi, who has been a member of Miss Tjitjih for 20 years. “Whenever there is a football match on TV, we only have about 20 people coming to our show.”
And where once they would perform nightly, they cut back to twice a week and then once a week. Now they perform whenever they can.
“We have a show on Saturday night but it depends on when the subsidy from the local administration is available,” Ude said. “We only had 10 shows in 2011.”
He said the group posted fliers to let people know when they were holding a performance. “But if you were to ask when we’ll have our next show, I couldn’t really answer because it depends on the availability of subsidy money,” he said.
Through its tourism and cultural agency, the Jakarta administration allocates about Rp 1.8 million ($200) for each Miss Tjitjih performance. That translates to the more than 50 performers receive between Rp 35,000 and Rp 75,000 each for a show.
“It depends on how long you’ve been with the group,” said Ude, who receives Rp 35,000 a show. “The longer you are with the group, the more you receive.”
Each show normally runs for two hours.
“Ideally, the government would allocate Rp 5 million for each production. I’d say Rp 150,000 for each performer per show would be worth all the hard work,” Kokom said.
The Theater Committee of the Jakarta Arts Council recently organized an event meant to put the spotlight back on Miss Tjitjih.
“This is to remind all of us that the legendary Miss Tjitjih is still around. It is the only traditional Sundanese theater troupe in Jakarta and it cannot do much about the decreasing number of shows because the [Jakarta city] government is unable to allocate it money on a regular basis,” said Dewi Noviami, the committee head.
“It is important for us to help keep Miss Tjitjih alive,” she added. “We want to encourage people to go see Miss Tjitjih whenever they hold a show.”
Given that there may be large gaps between performances, most, if not all, Miss Tjitjih members have jobs outside the theater.
“We are allowed to do whatever work we can get outside our theater duties,” Kokom said. “You can work to earn some extra cash, but you have to be available anytime Miss Tjitjih is scheduled to perform.”
Another group member, Irma Citra Nurani, said it was necessary that members be allowed to do outside work because “there is no way we can live on the payments we receive and with the unpredictable number of shows.”
The 27-year-old mother of one has been with the group as a dancer and actor for as long as she can remember, and both of her parents and her husband are also members.
“My parents met at Miss Tjitjih in 1975. Both my parents are actors here while my husband is in the technical division, decorating the set,” said Irma, who also gives traditional dance lessons for groups and private students.
“For each show, I earn Rp 50,000, while my father and mother each earn Rp 60,000. We got a raise of about Rp 10,000 a while back, but that only happens once every several years. Of course it is not a lot of money, but we try to be grateful for what we have.”
A big incentive for staying with Miss Tjitjih is the free housing that the government provides members.
Just behind the group’s theater in Cempaka Putih, Central Jakarta is a two-story dormitory that houses about 44 families.
“There are 10 units downstairs and 10 upstairs. Two or more families can live in one unit,” Irma said, adding that the size of each unit was no bigger than 36 square meters. “Me and my husband and our child live with my parents and my brother’s family. So there are eight people in our unit.”
Each unit only has one bedroom so for families who share, they have to add partitions to create more rooms, she said.
“But it’s good for us because we don’t have to pay rent like most people n Jakarta. I can’t imagine how we could possibly afford it with the money we earn,” she said. “There have been some members who decided to leave Miss Tjitjih, but then returned. Somehow we find security in the life we have here with Miss Tjitjih.”
Irma said loyalty also helped Miss Tjitjih survive. “Most members who left were older performers who decided it was time for them to retire. Here in Miss Tjitjih, you can stay for as long as you like with the group,” she said. “Members have never been kicked out of the group because they were too old.”
Despite the financial hurdles that have left the group in limbo, Irma said she was optimistic that Miss Tjitjih would be able to experience glory once again.
“We have managed to survive for decades. That’s not something all theater groups can do,” she said.