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'Menara Ingatan': A dark remembrance of violence

Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, June 2, 2017  /  10:23 am
'Menara Ingatan': A dark remembrance of violence

Recollection: A scene in Menara Ingatan (Minaret of Memory), a modern musical drama produced by Teater Garasi and performed at Teater Kecil Taman Ismail Marzuki in Central Jakarta on May 24-25. (Teater Garasi/File)

The woman sat on a chair, singing a dramatic Javanese song accompanied by a bass player, while a masked dancer moved slowly across the stage and excerpts of the lyrics in Indonesian and English were projected on the backdrop.

More musicians stepped onstage, and the dancer was replaced by a group of men who later disappeared behind red-stained curtains emulating hidden violence. Minutes later, three bundles of cloth the size of adults were dropped with a thud on the stage.

This eerie scene was part of the closing act of Menara Ingatan (“Minaret of Memories”). The musical theater was staged by Yogyakarta’s avant-garde Teater Garasi/Garasi Performance Institute from May 24-25 at the Teater Kecil of Taman Ismail Marzuki, Central Jakarta.

It was a unique performance, distinct from the conventions of traditional opera and adapting the sequential acts of the Gandrung Banyuwangi traditional dance form, said digital artist and composer Yennu Ariendra.

“It comes from my personal reflection on the history of violence in Banyuwangi,” he said after the final show on Thursday.

His recollection drew on the story of his grandfather, who was taken from his home in 1968 by two soldiers after a business competitor spread rumors that he was a member of the now-defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) – three years after the failed coup blamed on the party that triggered mass killings. The grandfather was never heard from or seen again.

Belt it: Digital artist and composer Yennu Ariendra (left) performs with singer and sinden Silir Pujiwati (center). Silir was a starring performer in the show.(Teater Garasi/File)

Yennu recalled growing up in fear amid the “mysterious shooters” killing men in the early ‘80s and the “secret witch hunt” of local elders accused of practicing black magic. In his search for an answer, he stumbled upon the East Javan traditional dance of Gandrung, which is closely linked to Banyuwangi’s indigenous Osing, a people whose name literally means “the naysayer”.

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The Osing people, nowadays considered a marginalized community, are the remaining descendants of the last Hindu Javanese kingdom of Blambangan who, from the 14th to the 19th century, resisted their subjugation by the sprawling Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit Empire, the Bali Kingdom, the Mataram Sultanate and lastly, Dutch colonialism.

In 1771, the people of Blambangan fought for over a year against the newest power in a war known as Puputan Bayu, and lost 80 percent of its population to only about 2,000 people.

The first Banyuwangi regent under the Dutch administration, known as Mas Alit, later created the all-male troubadour dance troupe, who performed in exchange for rice that they later distributed to the war-torn Osing hamlets.

“Gandrung is entertainment, but the lyrics also speak about the resistance of the Osing people. I think Gandrung is not merely a form of art, but that it was established as a new way of rebellion. It’s the perfect vehicle to deliver Menara Ingatan,” said Yennu, Teater Garasi’s resident artist and a musician with the Melancholic Bitch experimental rock group.

Last year, Yennu held a musical performance of the same title, but based only on the mythology of the Blambangan Kingdom.

In adopting Gandrung, which traditionally combines music and dance, the musical theater performance was made into three acts: the opening or jejer, the dance act of paju that involves audience participation, and the solemn, closing act of seblang subuh.

The jejer featured a wagon parked onstage to represent the history of Gandrung and the Osing people, followed by actors carrying doorframes to symbolize continuing development and the rise of the community.

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Co-directed by Gunawan Maryanto, the actor awarded for his portrayal of poet Wiji Thukul in the biopic Istirahatlah Kata-kata (Solo, Solitude), the performance combined experimental music — farming hoes and crowbars were used as percussive instruments — with traditional gamelan and dangdut.

Singer and sinden Silir Pujiwati was the central performer of Menara Ingatan, belting out tunes mostly in Javanese.

“The music and the lyrics serve as the script to the play on which we visually construct scenes that intuitively correspond to them,” said Gunawan.

The performance involved a total of 14 artists from various disciplines, including Belkastrelka vocalist Asa Rahmana, sound designer Yossy Herman Susilo, lighting designer Ignatius Sugiarto, visual artist Timoteus Anggawan Kusno and playwright Ugoran Prasad.

Excitement arose during the second act of paju, as the music of dangdut koplo played and actors in dog masks came forward and danced frantically to the dangdut and trance mash-up. Some of the dog masks were distributed to the audience, who put them on and followed suit, dancing on their seats.

“The scene is inspired by the myth of Minak Jinggo, a king of Blambangan, who was said to have a dog’s head and a human body and walked with a limp. He is the pride of the Osing people and the symbol of their resolve and rebelliousness,” explained Gunawan.

A ballad played by Yennu on bass broke the rhythm that marked the seblang subuh closing. Phrases taken from the lyrics as sung by Silir and project on the backdrop included: “Sekali pergi kembalilah segera…” (Once gone, come back soon…); “The roosters are crowing” and “Never stop … before I die”.

Menara Ingatan is a platform on which we can look at the dark history of this nation and [reflect upon it in line with] the recurring pattern of coercion and violence taking place in modern Indonesia,” said Yennu.

“We should keep in mind how great kingdoms can fall under political repression.”