Garin Nugroho, the director of the feature film “Opera Jawa” says that for him it is “not only a film, but a library”, meaning that it is a valuable historical record of Javanese culture, both ancient and modern. It is Garin’s fourteenth film, and he is probably the best-known film director of Indonesia.
It is a re-telling of a section of the Ramayana Story, (The Abduction of Sinta) – the same story that you can see performed at Prambanan, Yogyakarta. In the film it is told through traditional Javanese dance, song and Gamelan music, composed by musician Rahayu Supanggah, of Surakarta, Java. It’s an opera, and has no spoken dialog. It also features a singing storyteller, Slamet Gundono, who helps to move the story along. And there is a quartet of men in a roadside food stall talking (in song) about political and social matters, who also serve that purpose.
The dances include the sacred Bedoyo, performed by nine female dancers which depicts the encounter of Senopati, with Kanjeng Ratu Kidul, the Queen of the South Sea. Tradition says that if you watch very carefully you can sometimes see a tenth dancer, when the Queen herself joins the dancers.
“Opera Jawa” uses spectacular sets of art installations, designed by some of Indonesia’s leading contemporary artists, Agus Suwage, Nindityo Adipurnomo, S.Teddy D, Hendro Suseno, Titarubi, Sunaryo, and Entang Wiharso.
The story has been translated to a setting around 1997/98 as the nation of Indonesia arose in popular demonstration against the Suharto dictatorship after the financial crisis.
Sinta is now Siti, and Rama is now Setyo, a couple who earn their living as potters. However in the past they have both been performers in the Ramayana Ballet. It is customary that when a Javanese female dancer marries, she retires from performing, out of respect to her husband.
The fiery Ludiro represents Rahwana, the abductor. He too once danced with them in the role of Rahwana, and has always desired the lovely Siti. Now he pulls out all stops to seduce her. Meantime her husband’s fortunes are sinking and so are his spirits, as he loses his money, his business fails, and he realizes that he’s losing his wife’s heart as well.
No wonder Siti is tempted by the exciting, dangerous Ludiro, since he’s wealthy and powerful and her husband is moping and seems to be at the end of his tether. The confident Ludiro insults her, caressing her face with his foot and flicking his endless lengths of red cloth in her face, yet still she is fascinated. Eko Supriyanto (Ludiro) is one hell of a dancer, and steals the show with his dance scene in the abattoir, several sequences featuring the stunning art installations, and dancing on the table in the food stall).
Eventually Setyo has nothing left to lose, and joins the angry demonstrators leading troops of his own, mounted on a symbolic stallion emblazoned “Viva la Muerte”. The troops are angrily chanting about being tired of being taken for granted, treated like oxen under the dictatorship which had prevailed for so long.
The costumes and locations are stunning, and the re-telling of this tale uses many metaphors taken from ancient Javanese tradition. Siti represents the earth itself, as she is fought over, and torn by the conflicts of men. She sings, ” I am the earth, tilled by the plow, I am replete with blessings. I, Siti, am praised. In me grow flowers and crops….”
In Java the Kraton’s traditions endure and provide emotional/spiritual security in a rapidly changing world. While all the political turmoil outside unfolds, in the ancient Sultan’s Palace stillness is maintained, the singers chant, in rhythm with a beating heart – “When comes the time of fallow earth, of death and dust and barren land, Just as it was for Rama and Sinta, who no longer recognized their world, what remains is fidelity. Praises and prayers, woven with life. And yet one may as well wait for stones to float on water. Only God is almighty.”
At the real Ramayana performance at Prambanan, Yogyakarta, there is a happy ending, with Rahwana killed and the lovers reunited, Sinta’s purity proved. However, here Siti’s final ‘test of fidelity’ is a fatal revenge and Setyo sings, as he is led away, “In my heart lies justice. You are the setting of a dispute, an object without boundaries, Oh heart, heart, scream, speak”. Rice sprouts in the sand on the beach where Siti’s blood was spilled, confirming her status as Dewi (Goddess) Sri, a symbol of the fecundity of the earth. There is a shrine for Dewi Sri in most rice fields of Bali.
The final scene shows a Labuhan procession on the beach south of Yogyakarta, as is still seen twice a yearto this day, when the Sultan and the people give thanks and elaborate offerings to Ratu Kidul, the Queen of the South Sea, guardian of the city. The traditions portrayed in this film, are not past, but alive and current, in Java today.
Funding to make this gorgeous film came as part of The Vienna Mozart Year 2006, the 250th anniversary of Mozart, who was Austrian. Part of this massive celebration was The New Crowned Hope Festival, and the artistic director Peter Sellars decided to commission entirely new works from contemporary international artists, in the fields of music, theater, dance, architecture, visual arts and film. All that was required was to use Mozart’s themes as both inspiration and a springboard.
“Opera Jawa” is like nothing you’ve ever seen on screen before – a tremendous visual feast. Garin Nugroho has indeed created a valuable document of Javanese traditional story, music and dance and blended it with modern Indonesia’s period of social reform, and with her contemporary arts, in a wonderful way. It’s a must-see movie for art and music, and film lovers and if you know and love Yogyakarta, you will lose yourself in it and never want to come out.
It certainly helps to come to it with prior knowledge of Javanese culture.