Cultural performances, particularly traditional dance, have long struggled to be noticed by modern Indonesians, as they face competition from a glut of Hollywood movies and international music acts. Recently, however, it seems there has been something of a resurgence in interest in traditional performing arts, especially musical productions such as “Matah Ati” and “I La Galigo.”
But while these productions have managed to get under Indonesian audiences’ skin, their success was momentary due to their one-off nature and the dilution of their traditional touches to accommodate public tastes and the musical format.
One notable exception is the Opera Jawa trilogy , the brainchild of eminent Indonesian director and playwright Garin Nugroho .
The trilogy’s first two installments, “Ranjang Besi” (“The Iron Bed”) and “Tusuk Konde” (“The Hairpin”), managed to make an impression on foreign and Indonesian audiences alike, as did the film “Opera Jawa,” which was first screened in Austria in 2006 to mark the 250th anniversary of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birth.
Now Garin’s trilogy comes full circle. The third and final installment of Opera Jawa, “Selendang Merah” (“The Red Shawl”), is set to grip Jakarta following its debut in Solo, Central Java, last weekend.
The story recounts the efforts by Master Ledhek (Anggono Kusumo Wibowo) to tame a monkey named Kethek (Heru Purwanto ), after he captures the animal. However, his increasingly savage efforts to tame Kethek alienate his wife, Sri Ledhek (Sruti Respati ).
Sri Ledhek’s pity for Kethek gives way to more profound feelings, particularly after the village elders sanction the animal. For Sri Ledhek, Kethek takes on human attributes and appears to be an incarnation of the monkey god Hanuman, while her husband begins to display bestial characteristics because of his increasing jealousy of the animal and failed attempts to break his will.
Garin pointed out that the theme of “Selendang Merah” is as profound as its predecessors, but differs in its emphasis.
“ ‘Selendang Merah’ shows what happens when the natural order of things is turned upside down,” he said. “We can see this, for instance, in the socio-political upheavals that we observe in the evening news.
“It is a departure from the theme of violence in ‘Ranjang Besi’ or the examination of extremes in ‘Tusuk Konde,’ ” he added.
However, according to Garin, all three operas still share some vital common ground.
“[Opera Jawa] is inspired by the [Hindu epic] Ramayana , though the relationship that develops between Sri Ledhek and Kethek/Hanuman turns this on its head,” Garin explained.
“Hanuman, and monkeys in general, are a symbol of nature’s power and the need to respect it throughout Asia. After all, monkeys are believed to stand halfway between the gods and humans.”
But nothing makes “Selendang Jawa” stand-out more than the performances of its cast. The chemistry between Heru Purwanto’s Kethek/Hanuman and Sruti Respati’s Sri Ledhek, which culminates in her seduction of Kethek, carries the production and is its cornerstone. Heru’s mimicry of monkey grunts and movements are grotesque yet affecting.
On the other hand, Sruti uses her vocal range and experience as a veteran sinden or Javanese gamelan singer, to convey various emotions. They range from graceful Javanese singing representing gentility, to a primal scream to convey agony and despair.
Furthermore, Anggono’s portrayal of Master Ledhek is striking in his bestial brutality. However, he still plays second fiddle to the interaction between Sri Ledhek and Kethek/Hanuman.
Composer Rahayu Supanggah succeeds in combining his musicians’ expertise in songs, ranging from traditional Javanese tunes to dances, wayang songs and religious hymns, into a coherent whole.
Garin added that the symbolism of “Selendang Merah,” which features as a turning point in the musical, also conveys the unpredictability of nature and other elements.
“The dropping of the red shawl can mean good or ill. On one hand, it can mean violence or imposing one’s will on others, unpredictable emotions, and even entrapment,” he said.
“On the other hand, the shawl can symbolize the continuity of life or even the emotional bonds between a mother and child, whether it be the biological mother or Mother Nature.”
Garin added that musicals like “Selendang Merah” will do well despite public preconceptions of the genre and other challenges.
“Indonesian viewers still see musicals as a Western art form, because the only music suited for it are Western instruments instead of their traditional counterparts like the gamelan orchestra,” he explained.
“However, musicals can have a localized, traditional element to them. But what we should emulate from Western musicals are their professionalism.”
To find out whether you agree Garin has succeeded, you can check out “Selendang Merah” performed at Teater Jakarta in Taman Ismail Marzuki in Central Jakarta this weekend.
Just be sure you’re prepared to look at traditional dance in a bright new light.
This Saturday and Sunday Teater Jakarta, Taman Ismail Marzuki Jalan Cikini Raya 73, Central Jakarta Tel. 021 3193 4740 Tickets priced between Rp 100,000 and Rp 500,000 Tickets can be bought at www.rajakarcis.com or via firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 0878 0945 8760