Barbara Hatley

During the New Order period, performance was a site of significant propagation and contestation of alternate visions of  the Indonesian nation. The state used traditional, regional performances to instill its view of a culturally diverse but hierarchically-ordered, centrally-controlled society. Regional art forms were inventorised and monitored and performers organised and ‘upgraded’. Performers could nevertheless  convey subtle critique through the contradictions of particular historical narratives and in the interstices of performances. In Western-influenced modern drama, meanwhile, resistance to the state vision of the nation was direct and blatant. Indeed, in modern theatre, opposition to the state in defence of ‘the nation’, hazily envisaged in terms of liberal, democratic, populist values, constituted a shared discourse, with commonly-practised idioms of expression.

From its beginnings, theatre, like other forms of modern, national culture, had at times conveyed alternate perspectives to state ideology. Michael Bodden shows how, reflecting ideological differences among the political elite, ‘modern national culture often took an antagonistic stance towards the state and its political leadership’ (Bodden, 2010 p.3) In the New Order period, with the imposition of strict control of the mass media and the virtual silencing of critical opinion, modern theatre took on an explicit discourse of resistance. Theatre practitioners allied themselves with students, social activists and other disaffected social groups. Some worked with farmers and urban workers. Although censorship was strict, subtle resistance to state ideology could be conveyed on stage, often through satirical reinterpretations of traditional symbols of control. Occasional bannings highlighted the significance of performance in conveying critical opinions that could not be voiced through other channels.

Today there is no central, authoritarian body prescribing national identity through its arts policies and funding. Instead the regional autonomy system and democratising ideology focus attention on the regional and local; commercial media and new technologies spread global cultural influence. With no common enemy to confront, theater practitioners celebrate diverse local selves. In parades and festivals, performers blend regional traditions with global influences to create hybrid ‘local’ forms; actors stage plays about local issues in neighbourhood sites and work with community groups while publicising their activities on websites and facebook. Participation and inclusiveness is cultivated through deconstructing the boundaries between performer and audience, the stage and the spaces of everyday life. A focus on the experience of ordinary people and a bringing together of performers and audience members were principles cultivated by the teater rakyat movement of earlier decades. But the larger ideological goals of conscientisation and social transformation which motivated theatre activities in the past are no longer mentioned. Instead the emphasis is on locality, community and  expression of identity for their own sake.

What room is there in this context for engagement with the nation? What reflections on contemporary Indonesian identity are being expressed, through what kind of theatrical approaches?  In this paper I first briefly review some general patterns through which theatre in the New Order period critiqued the state and conveyed  alternate understandings of the nation. Then I look at several productions by the contemporary theatre group Garasi which contrast markedly with these patterns,  engaging with current performance trends to portray Indonesia as experienced and imagined in these new times.


New Order Resistance

In very broad terms, critique and resistance in modern theatre in the Suharto period  can be seen have taken two main forms, critical engagement with traditional, regional theatrical forms, and abstract, disjunctive, non-linear reflections on urban dehumanisation and alienation. The first pattern generally predominated in the regions, in performance activities shaped by the theatrical idioms and cultural politics; the second arose out of an eclectic blending of indigenous and international cultural influences and political discourses characteristic of big urban centres, particularly the capital, Jakarta. There are notable exceptions to and variations on these patterns – the wayang-inspired comic musicals  performed by Teater Koma in Jakarta; the surreal, innnovative engagements with ‘tradition’ of Arifin C Noer and Putu Wijaya; the abstract physical theatre of regional groups such as Gidag-Gidig  and Teater Ruang in Solo.  Yet critical, satirical renditions of traditional theatrical narratives and scenes developed into a common idiom, a kind of shared movement among modern theatre groups in cities and towns across the regions, particularly in Java. Abstract, post-modern representations of the brutality of contemporary life constituted an alternate mode of critique attracting smaller, well-educated urban-based audiences.

Reference to political power is arguably inherent in the conventions of traditional theatre forms such wayang, encoded through the process of their development within a hierarchical, court-dominated society. Modern theatre unambiguously interpreted such elements so as to critique the celebration of court-centred “tradition” by representatives of the state. Kings were portrayed as ruthlessly ambitious or troubled and ineffectual, their palaces sites of internal conflict rather than harmony and beneficence. Like New Order officials, these plays associated past royal power with contemporary political authority. Yet here continuity between past and present was suggested not by invoking courtly grandeur, but by depicting the age-old, on-going greed and corruption of  powerholders.

Some might see this sustained focus on traditional theatrical imagery  in modern theatre  as evidence of  its entrapment in state discourse, its  domination by “socio-cultural patterns modelled by the state” (Bodden, 2007: 83-4). But at that time, for those directly involved, modern theatre constituted a very real expression of combative resistance to state authority. The majority of actors were drawn from precisely that social group, young men in their late teens and early twenties, who are generally the most committed of political activists, who had comprised the vigorous youth movements associated with the political parties in the fifties and early sixties. In the New Order era, when government policy proscribed popular political involvement, theatre provided an outlet for some of the energies and aspirations which might otherwise have fuelled political activities.  Additionally, critical engagement with traditional theatre forms gave expression to the experiential sense of living between regional and national cultures with its tensions, strains and contradictions.

The acknowledged instigator and leader of this theatrical movement was Rendra, working with his Bengkel Teater in Yogya in the 1970s. The physicality and energy of Bengkel Teater’s performance practice, the organisation of the group and the invocation and questioning of Javanese cultural ‘tradition’, first in adaptations of Western plays then in Rendra’s original works, all made a powerful impact on the theatre scene and served as models for the groups that followed. Rendra’s work gave expression to and connected with a mood of unrest and dissatisfaction among young people at this time, the disillusionment with the New Order regime that fuelled the campus protests of 1977-1978. When Rendra himself became a victim of government repression of voices of opposition, when he was gaoled briefly in 1978 and then banned from performing for 8 years, the group Teater Dinasti took on the mantle of Teater Bengkel in Yogya and followed much of its theatre practice. Like Rendra’s plays, Dinasti performances, too, were big epic dramas set in fictional historical kingdoms; they shifted from serious  critical engagement with Javanese tradition in the late 1970s to savagely satirical portrayals of powerholders by the mid 1980s. Their productions were styled as occasions for discussion of social problems and theories, with rehearsals held in the open and performances followed by public discussions. After the dramatic banning of one of their plays in 1987, and internal dissent with the group, Dinasti became less active, and a new group, Gandrik, comprising a number of Dinasti actors along with some new members , came to the fore.

Gandrik’s ‘ascension’ also coincided with the emergence of a theatrical mode  termed  sampakan, and an associated social movement, teater rakyat . Sampakan theatre involved simple stories set among contemporary figures rather than epic court dramas, with straightforward dialogue, joking humour and simple musical accompaniment. Gandrik cultivated this style in highly-successful, popular performances, attracting large audiences from social groups who would not normally watch modern theatre. Other groups such as Teater Arena developed it into teater rakyat, a populist theatre approach used with villagers and NGO workers in programs of social transformation.

At the national level the group Teater Koma achieved great popularity, again attracting audiences not usually drawn to theatre – middle class professionals, business people, family groups –  with its spectacular, socially-critical, wayang-inspired musicals. The  banning in 1991 of its bold satire on the theme of presidential succession, Suksesi, attracted a great deal of media and societal attention. Meanwhile groups such as Teater Sae and Teater Kubur in Jakarta and Payung Hitam in Bandung were developing a new theatrical style, disjunctive, fragmented, highly physical, sometimes aggressively violent, to express themes of  alienation from commercialised, routinised urban life, the breakdown of social bonds, the emptiness of official rhetoric and the pain of social repression.  The audiences of theatre workers, intellectuals, students, journalists and NGO members who watched these performances were smaller in number than the audiences for Koma’s grand spectacles, but their views were respected and influential.

From this sketchy outline, a picture emerges of theatre in the New Order period giving expression to politically critical views, alienated social experience and activist agendas for a range of different social groups. As political disaffection widened in the last months of the regime, the resistant role of theatre and its links with societal opposition strengthened  further. Enthusiastic student audiences packed out critical performances and actors staged street theatre in protest marches and at key city sites. After the euphoria of Reformasi, however, as new the political conditions and structures of the regional autonomy era became entrenched, these former social connections dissipated.

A number of the major groups from the 1980s and 1990s still perform, with agendas of response to and critique of contemporary political conditions. Teater Koma staged the play Kunjungan Cinta in 2007, in critical reflection on the impact of Indonesia’s  crippling foreign debt. Gandrik has performed plays resisting and critiquing the anti-pornography laws and exposing the absurdities of ubiquitous corruption. Their productions still attract enthusiastic audiences. Yet the sense of ‘organic’ connection with contemporary conditions and the links with oppositionist social groups is missing.  Instead the kind of theatre expressive of these new times appears to be that referred to earlier –  diverse, blending performance genres, celebrating local identity, participatory, globally-wired. Where social critique is expressed, the issues and settings are local – narratives of local figures, protests at local environmental problems.

Yet in this context one theatre group both engages with these new theatrical modes and maintains an explicit commitment to addressing the concept of the nation. What follows is an attempt to analyse within that frame their three major post New Order productions, Waktu Batu, and Tubuh Ketiga.


Exorcising the Historical Stain

In the period 2002-2004 members of the group Garasi immersed themselves in the research, writing, rehearsal, performance and discussion of three separate productions of the play Waktu Batu (Stone Time), drawing on ancient Javanese myths and history. This was a radical departure from the group’s earlier productions. In place of the Javanese narratives and stage imagery which formed the main focus of Yogyakarta theatre groups in Suharto times, Garasi had specialised in abstract, avant garde, experimental productions, eclectically blending Indonesian and global cultural influences. The actors explained such hybridity as reflective of their own identity. Several had come from areas of Indonesia other than Java; the director, Yudi Tajuddin, although ethnically Javanese, had grown up in Jakarta. The fact that the group now directed their theatrical energies so intently, and over such a long period, to Javanese myth and history, surprised many, and the results did not gain immediate, enthusiastic acceptance in Yogyakarta theatre circles. The first production of the play, staged in 2002, was widely attacked by critics for its disjointed, unfinished qualities, leaving audiences confused and dissatisfied. Yet Garasi continued with two further productions, adding further “confusing” layers of meaning, along with dazzlingly sophisticated technical effects. They presented the third production of Waktu Batu at the prestigious Jakarta Arts Summit in September-October 2004, to great acclaim. Invitations to perform overseas followed. The group travelled to Singapore in 2004, Germany in 2005 and Japan in 2006, taking their startling new, avant garde interpretation of Javanese/ Indonesian history and identity onto the world stage.

The director and other group members reported that the Waktu Batu project  had originated in 1999-2000, out of a shared sense among them of disorientation, a confusion about their  own history, identity  and future direction. These feelings may well have been shaped , too, by a widespread questioning of Javanese culture at that time, in its implication in the authoritarianism and repression of the Suharto period. The texts drawn on for the production were the myths Murwakala, Sudamala and Watu Gunung, embodying the concepts of sukerta (spiritual pollution) and ruwat (ritual exorcism) The project itself represents a kind of an exorcism, a ruwatan of the condition the Garasi actors were experiencing at the time and of the shared sense of  cultural disorientation of the nation.

The group travelled to temple monuments throughout Java where these legends are depicted in statues and reliefs, seeking to locate the essence of Javanese culture. But finding Hindu elements present in even the most ancient sites, they acknowledged the false logic of seeking pure, authentic culture. Instead they focused on the distinctive sensibility of Javanese culture, its syncretism. They saw Java, because of its geographical position, as open throughout history to influence from different directions, different cultural flows. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with the almost simultaneous arrival of Islam and the Europeans, changes came too rapidly to be absorbed. The Javanese fled inland, or metaphorically retreated inwards, in escape and denial. Each new political leader destroyed the legacy of his predecessor, creating his own myths. The Javanese, in Garasi’s view, came to be plagued by “short term memory”. Events of the past which conflict with the narratives of current rulers, like the Communist massacres of 1965-1966 for the New Order state, are “forgotten”, untellable. People are disconnected, unable to interpret their past or imagine their future.

The narratives and images developed from these observations and experiences were worked on in intensive, highly-disciplined rehearsals for many months before each of the productions. The resulting stage imagery is abstract, complex and multi-layered, the accompanying dialogue oblique and poetic. Central concepts of the performances are fragmentation and layering — the experience of time as fragmented and discontinuous, the sense of history lived by individuals as a wash of simultaneous layers rather than a linear series of events.

Three main narratives form the basis of the production. The Murwakala legend tells of the birth of the monster-god Kala after attempted forced sex between the god Siva and his wife Uma, and Siva’s transformation of Uma into the witchlike Durga. The second tale is that of Watugunung, a legendary Javanese king seen as the originator of the Javanese and Balinese calendars, while the third relates the coming of the Europeans to Java. Key events are the birth of Kala; Watu Gunung as a child asking for food from his mother Sinta, but receiving in return a blow to the head with a giant rice spoon, and running away; Watu Gunung as king unknowingly marrying his mother who discovers as he sleeps the wound she had inflicted on his head; the arrival on a boat of the first Europeans, bringing a plague of physical illnesses and a dread disease of the mind, amnesia; a battle between Watu Gunung and the god  of time, Kala, which Watu Gunung loses and is turned to stone. A long genealogy of Javanese kings is read out, at the conclusion of the first production and the beginning of the later ones, while a simultaneous voiceover in Dutch cites the two key developments in the history of the Indonesian archipelago — the decline of the Hindu/Buddhist kingdoms with the rise of Islamic states, and their eclipse in turn by the sea-power of the West.

Duplication, repetition and other devices create a sense of shared involvement in these experiences, and weave threads of connection between them. As a multitude of young Watu Gunungs, banging their plates on the ground, demand food from two angry mother figures who tell them to find their food out on the road, a sense of mother-son friction and rejection as the heritage of Everyman is conveyed. In the second production the two actors playing the mother, Sinta, chat together between rebuffs to their sons, discussing what “they”, are doing — writing, using machines, producing goods like soap, toothpaste and bread. The Europeans, the “they” of the ship scene, have invaded the everyday realm of the home, filling it with goods. “What shall we do?” one Sinta asks the other, now that they no longer have to cook. In the third production the women sit in illuminated glass boxes, one using a mix-master, the other having her hair dried in a salon, as they talk of the new opportunities for leisure and consumption “their” arrival has brought. The distractions of foreign-derived modern technology and affluence connect with and reinforce the rejection of one’s own.

In a scene entitled Ruang Tunggu Sinta (Sinta’s waiting room), the two manifestations of Sinta and Durga each recount their experiences of waiting endlessly and searching vainly for their absent man. Sinta describes taking a male form borrowed from the gods to roam the world, looking for her son. Durga/Kali tells of her monstrous body being torn apart by thorns in the forest, banished there by Siva’s curse. Yet every night she waits for Siva, seeing his image in the darkness and rain, calling to him with frenetic desire. “Hey, aren’t you bored yet with my body? Come on, make my body tremble! Don’t stop! Smash me! Curse me!” In the first production the setting is abstract, timeless. Durga and Kali attired in witches robes and the two Sintas in white dresses seem like mythical figures. In the third production they are modern women, sitting on couches, in their nightwear, late at night, smoking as they talk intimately about their past. The familiarity of this contemporary scene, the recognisable, normal tones of their reminiscences leading up to Durga’s passionate cry, create a powerful sense that these experiences are those of Everywoman. Male-female frictions as ancient as time are very much part of the present-day world.

Images recalling the Sinta/Durga/Watu Gunung motif recur throughout the performances: Sinta with rice spoon striking a ceramic head, huge rice ladles, a figure with a rice pot for a head. They feature simultaneously with a myriad of other signs: turtles — huge, unmoving, world-sustaining or frenetically attacking — hospital beds, corridors, ships, visual projections of aeroplanes. Together the profusion of signs and aesthetic of multiple layering creates a sense of confusion and complexity which both supporters and critics of the play have identified as the main experiential effect of the production. Beyond confusion, the play’s meaning has been interpreted in various ways. One commentator saw in its fragmented, discontinuous form a resistance to essentialism, refuting the notion of a pure traditional culture and of a fixed contemporary identity. Another perceived reference was the fragmentation of the Indonesian nation (Bain, 2005: 80-81). To assist with or to make fun of this process of intellectual interpretation, or perhaps both, at the 2004 International Arts Festival performance of Waktu Batu in Jakarta, the Yogya literary academic Faruk was invited to address the audience between acts of the play. He drew attention to the liberating concept that identity is a matter of choice, rather than something fixed, and spoke of positive and negative aspects of the Javanese trait of adaptability.

What of the reception of the play on its home ground, among audiences in Yogyakarta? In what sense might it be seen to connect with a sense of local Javanese/Indonesian identity? An interesting article in the theatre journal Lèbur strongly challenges assumptions by journalists and cultural observers that audiences were  confused and dissatisfied. The author reports on her own reactions and those of her fellow audience members at a performance of Waktu Batu II in 2004 (Swastika, 2005). Although familiar with Javanese mythology, the author found the stage imagery alien, impenetrable. However the performance sparked memories of wayang performances and high school history lessons, and caused her to think about the meaning of being Javanese. Meanwhile, the young viewers around her commented admiringly on the sophistication of the production and on the attractiveness of performers. Over 80 per cent reported that they enjoyed the performance, although only slightly more than half said that they understood it.  They appreciated the visual effects, the multi-layered stories and characters of the performance and its experimentation with theatre conventions and history texts.  Unlike audiences of the past, the author argues, who came to the theatre with the ‘burden’ of trying to understand the play, these young people come to enjoy. Having grown up in an atmosphere of confusion and constant stimulation, steeped in the global culture of television, they are able to enjoy and appreciate many things happening at once, to experience their totality as a happening, to celebrate the moment.

This article suggests that one segment of the audience at Waktu Batu performances, knowledgeable about and connected with Javanese culture, may have been stimulated by the experience of watching the play to re-think their understandings of Javanese history and personal identity. The majority audience of younger people, meanwhile, experienced the performance at a more visual and sensual level. Neither group would have been able to identify with familiar stage action and imagery as had audiences of Java-based modern theatre between the 1970s and the 1990s. There were no wayang-style clowns to laugh with, no blustering kings to mock, no Javanese/ Indonesian language slippages to enjoy. The familiar traditional figures had been made strange. It was their very strangeness and incongruous mixing which provoked thought about Javanese/ Indonesian identity.

In Waktu Batu Garasi engages with Javanese tradition through fragmented, distorted images and complex, intellectual reference. In a style reminiscent of  groups such as Teater Sae rather the  populist activism of Dinasti, Teater Arena etc they picture contemporary Indonesia as shadowed by a complex, hybrid, conflicted Javanese past. Yet their dramatic imagery is also colourful and exciting in its blending of acrobatic bodies, filmic projections, rich soundscapes and contemporary music, exhilarating in its complex multiplicity. In a sense it might be seen to tap into the celebratory mode of much contemporary performance. Indeed the third production ends on an explicit note of celebration, as band music plays and the actors mill about on stage along with the director. Within the dark portrayal of Indonesia’s hybridity, confusion and lack of direction are there also hints of the multiple realities and opportunities of such hybridity?


Staging the Indonesian Street

Garasi’s next production , turns  from the broad sweep of history to the here-and-now, to the life of a contemporary street. And here the contradictions of  Indonesia’s hybrid identity, the rich diversity and chaotic conflict, take centre stage.  Described as an exploration of the ‘chaos and creativity’ of contemporary Indonesian streets, the production began with observations by Garasi members of life on the streets of Yogyakarta and Jakarta. Improvisations of interactions they observed,   statements they overheard, press items and their own reflections were combined and developed to make up the show.

Audience members enter a theatre set up as a public space; they mill about and are offered drinks as various figures go about their business. Workmen erect a street lamp; a singing busker and a Islamic official in sarong and skull cap collecting donations for the local mosque compete for crowd attention.  Then the noise of drums announces the start of an Independence Day parade. A group of court soldiers play drums and flute, led by a girl in short skirt and boots, aggressively twirling a baton, in an iconic  combination of court soldiery and military marching band.  The crowd parts to let the little procession pass. The actor who earlier played the Islamic official, now in a jacket, requests that audience members move aside to leave the ‘street’ free, apologises for the lack of seating, explains the presence, nevertheless, of some tables for special guests – that’s how it has to be, dignitaries must naturally be accommodated. The coming performance, he reports, represents observations Garasi members have made in the streets. These experiences have led them to the feeling that things are getting too complicated, that our environment forces or encourages us to move too fast. ‘Can’t we slow the pace?’ he asks, while a variety of figures –a woman in evening dress, a man swathed  in a Middle-Eastern style headcloth – whizz by, lying on skateboard trolleys, and background music plays the song ‘Slow Down’.

The audience might feel that Garasi members are just wallowing in romanticism, says the actor. But one fundamental question is becoming more and more important. Mau kemana? ‘Where are we going?’ The lights dim, menacing music sounds. A woman with a mat held over her head like a Muslim headscarf drops the mat, revealing black pants and singlet top. She dances frenetically, then clashes with the man in Middle Eastern headcloth. ‘We’ve made many roads’ says the speaker ‘For what? To where?’

In the following performance, described in publicity material as ‘dance theatre’ (teater tari), diverse figures from the Indonesian streets appear and re-appear. They dance energetically and perform contorted movements, often independently of, seemingly oblivious to one another, sometimes in formation, then at times clash abrasively. An account of an attack on the shop and home of a Chinese girl in the 1998 Jakarta riots is read out, while the man with swathed head and the haji figure from the opening of the play perform jerky movements, slither along the ground and confront one another. This time it is the haji who struggles with the figure in the headcloth, and both men strike angrily at a corrugated iron sheet. The true story from the magazine Tempo of a small trader, Slamet, who suicided in despair when his business was ruined by a huge rise in the international price of soybeans, is  illustrated by a spotlighted figure, writhing in agony and desperately grasping at the air. Throwing himself on the ground, the man twice accidentally touches the shoe of a posturing figure, a wealthy businessman type, standing nearby, who simply brushes off the contamination and moves away. As the voiceover lists the forces which have combined to bring about Slamet’s fate – officials of the Department of Agriculture, planting and harvesting policies in the USA, pertubations of the world market, growth in demand from China and India – the man beats his head against a corrugated iron sheet with the mention of each new item. A group of figures, dressed in fine suits and glamorous gowns, dance together, oblivious, as the narrator describes Slamet’s fate as ‘a death which went unheard, but was like a scream’.

An impromptu badminton game starts up in the street between a man with a vertical tube of corrugated iron on his head and racket in hand, and a woman in an apron. The roll of corrugated iron becomes the net. Other sheets of iron are set up as shelters, But soon a girl on a bike appears, fights the woman, seizes her racket and takes her place in the game. Someone else removes the iron ‘net’. A microphone-carrying trader selling sandals and a busker each attempt to drown out the other. A man urinating behind a corrugated iron sheet is fiercely attacked by a woman; bystanders shout out commentary in the manner of a sports match.  Then military figures or security guards appear, blowing whistles, seizing iron sheets from people who attempt to use them as shields.

In a following scene the rolled iron sheets function as shelters or homes, People stand behind the vertical sheets, then come out to greet one another, each shaking the hand of all the others,. Two women, sitting down to chat, notice behind another screen a couple in intimate embrace, and react with sour disapproval. Security guards/military figures again arrive, seizing iron sheets, chasing people away, pushing them to the ground. When the scene clears a number of bodies lie on the ground, covered by iron sheets or mats. The sandal-seller, sprawled alongside them, comes to, groans and again starts desperately spruiking his wares.

Stages are set up at each end of the street space, marking a local celebration, a family wedding. A man in a sarong, fez hat and necklace of flowers, father of the family, stands on one of the stages, with a brightly-coloured sign above it proclaiming ironically Harta dan Sorga ‘Wealth and Heaven’. The man shakes hands with guests as they file past. On the other stage, a dangdut popular music band performs. Three women in simple shifts with plastic bags over their head sway to a soulful tune. The father steps forward, holding a microphone and speaks about family relations, mentioning connections with Malaysia. The women and the father walk forward with hands outstretched in a seeming gesture of reconciliation. A young man appears, dressed in jeans with bare torso and cloth-covered head, the familiar image of an Islamic extremist. The father, the senior Muslim figure, and the young man approach one another with arms outstretched, ready to shake hands, But at the last moment a sharp burst of sound like gunfire rings out and they stagger backwards in retreat. Again they extend hands but move past one another rather than connecting. The scene reverberates with association with Malaysian-trained extremists and their Javanese village wives, perhaps also with suggestion of the gap between established, orthodox Islam and newer militant groups.

Later, upbeat dangdut music spurs urban residents to gyrate their hips in sexy movements as they go about their daily routines – working girls undressing, housewives reading the newspaper – as we hear a street kid’s account of his choice to return to the freedom of life on the streets in Jakarta, rather than take up his parents’ offer of a settled life on their village land. Donning a yellow bathing suit with two hands attached suggestively to its bottom a man poses for photos with a group of glamorous girls. As a recording is played of the song genjer-genjer, infamously linked with the Indonesian Communist Party, one of the women, her head covered in plastic, flinches in distress then creeps away, in reference, presumably, to those still suffering from the lifelong stain of  their past association with Communism. But the rest of the group dance joyfully on the spot, hands raised in the air as the song changes to one which proclaims ‘Free and happy, I am Indonesia.’ (Bebas dan Bahagia, Aku Indonesia.)  A drum sounds, the marching band reappears and the cast as a whole regroups as the audience applauds enthusiastically. The show is over but the party goes on. Trays of drinks  appear and audience members accept the invitation to come onto the ‘street’ and dance.


*   *   *


Garasi’s admirably exemplifies the creativity, dynamism and imaginative, eclectic blending of genres characterising much contemporary Indonesian performance. And the world it represents is likewise full of life, energy and movement. But Indonesian streets are also the site of violence and danger, of small daily frictions – the clashing narratives of buskers and street traders, fights over badminton rackets, the disapproving gossip of neighbours – and major eruptions of conflict such as the May 1998 riots. Issues of class difference find slyly humorous reference in the special tables set up for celebrity audience members and more serious exposure in the studied obliviousness of elegant elite figures to the story of  the suicide of Slamet, the tempe seller. Security personnel are pictured as brutal and repressive, denying ordinary people use of the streets.  Commerce is represented not as dazzling spectacle but in the desperate struggle of traders to survive. Muslim-identified figures appear prominently, along with explicit reference to the  controversial social issues of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism.

Reference to the overheated pace of contemporary life and the posing of the question Mau kemana ‘Where are we going?’ suggests a headlong, dangerously uncoordinated rush into the future. In a conversation in mid-2009, Garasi director Yudi Tajuddin  confirmed this view of Indonesia’s contemporary condition. Following the dismantling of the centrist Suharto state and its version of the national project,  Indonesia faces two options – to be swamped by global culture or to adopt a local essentialism. Yet the strongest, most widespread essentialist identity in Indonesia, that of fundamentalist Islam, is one in which many social groups do not feel accommodated. Yudi feels a sense of responsibility, as a creative artist, to explore and present alternate options.


Celebrating the In-Between

In 2010 Garasi embarked on the third in their series of explorations of contemporary Indonesia. This time the gaze concentrates still further, zooming in from the whole ‘street’, the whole array of contemporary Indonesian groupings, to focus on a single area as an emblem of shared identity. This production, Tubuh Ketiga (The Third Body) takes up the concept developed by post-colonial theorist Homi Babha of a space between, a post-colonial identity beyond essentialisms, neither Western no indigenous, a third space. Within this framework Indonesia’s hybrid, plural mixture of cultures and fluidity of form  takes on an explicitly celebratory quality. The example of Indramayu, an area close to the capital, Jakarta, both urban and rural, traditional and modern, serves as an iconic embodiment of this principle. And the exuberant, hybrid local entertainment genre tarling dangdut sets the dominant atmosphere of the show.

As with the production, audience members enter a theatre set up as a real life space, this time a village wedding. The new arrivals are greeted as honoured guests, invited in and plied with drinks and snacks. A compere in front of a small stage where musicians play lively dangdut music gives a welcoming spiel; in the background a decorative arch over the couch where the bridal couple will sit bears the sign Selamat Menempuh Hidup Baru dalam Era Globalisasi ‘Best Wishes on Embarking on Your New Life in the Era of Globalisation’. Then the stages are moved, screens part and a wider area opens up, with painted backdrops of rice-fields, mountains and factory chimneys and bags of rice in the foreground. The setting is Indramayu; the rice bags and figure making gestures of giving bear reference to the custom of guests donating rice to  the family holding the celebration. A woman sewing up the bags, a performer from Indramayu, sings a joyous tembang and instructs young people who gather up spilt rice and sweep the floor with energetic leaps and twirls. The mood is festive, expectant. A loud crash is heard; a parcel of  bottles of mineral water, cosmetics and other modern goods  falls from above and smashes open on the stage. Unperturbed the woman performer extracts from the  mess a pair of high-heeled sandals and puts them on. Then she dons an amazing mask, a child’s monster-face mask combined with the traditional Indramayu maskdance headdress of a string of pompoms and begins to dance. Global and local combine in incongruous, exuberant celebration.

In the next segment individual actors narrate scenes and stories written by Garasi  members in response an observational ‘ field stay’ in Indramayu, and other cast members act out the scenes described. As the Garasi woman actor, Sri Qadariatin, describes the unbearable heat yet boisterous, joyful atmosphere of a daytime wedding celebrated with a dangdut concert, lively music begins and bodies begin to sway. Mention of one woman’s experience of becoming poorer and poorer ( makin lama makin miskin), until she decided to go overseas as a migrant worker, prompts  rapturous, screaming embracing of a pretty young girl by a group of other women – presumably family members welcoming the migrant on a visit home. The story of Shanti, the dangdut queen is narrated by a performer in a  red dress, who then dances on top of a small float which is pushed into the laughing, clapping audience by a rotund teletubbie figure, modelled on the television character. The reference is to a large statue of a teletubbie, observed by Garasi members on the streets of Indramayu  – a random, unexplained instance of general global influence.

There are suggestions of hardship, struggle and striving in some of the narratives – that of the bakso seller who imagines himself a stage melodrama king; the woman who has worked  for five years in Saudi Arabia to be able to pay for her son’s  circumcision celebrations and will return imminently for a further five years to earn  enough to celebrate his wedding. Physical struggle takes place between a young man and woman, with hints of domestic violence. But such moments are transitory, the overall mood determinedly upbeat. Reference to the celebration paid for by the Saudi-based migrant worker gives rise to pounding music, flashing lights and yelled greetings to the crowd from the actor Sri Qadariatin, known familiarly as Uung.  Uung moves into the audience, gyrating provocatively and inviting men to dance with her. The performance ends with a joyful procession through the audience as four laughing, skipping young men hold aloft an empty sedan chair, symbolising the absence of any single, dominating authority.

Tubuh Ketiga embraces the celebratory, participatory style of much contemporary performance. The experience of the show is pleasurable fun, a blending of different performance genres; audience members are included as  active participants in the event. Is the ‘message’ of the play also one of unambiguous celebration of contemporary Indonesian identity in its hybridity and plurality, its lack of constraint by narrow essentialisms? Indonesian-ness as one big party? Perhaps not. Garasi members speak of a prospective, follow-up  production to Tubuh Ketiga entitled Sehabis Suara, ‘ When the voice is gone’. When the party is over, what next?


Concluding Thoughts

This paper has argued that theatre in New Order times had distinct role in expressing  resistance to the national agenda of the New Order state. Today that resistant role to a common enemy is gone. Garasi theatre’s performances illustrate ways in which theatre in these changed times, using new aesthetic forms, addresses the nation within an alternate framework of celebration. The message is one of embrace of pluralism, resistance to essentialism. Yet is there also a sense of warding off reality, an awareness that continuous partying will not solve the rifts, unite Indonesians beyond narrow local interests and beliefs. Something more is needed but what is it?  Garasi Theatre’s next production seems set to continue the search for the answer.



Bain, Lauren (2005) Performances of the Post-New Order unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Tasmania.

Bodden, Michael (2010) Resistance on the National Stage: Theater and Politics in Late New Order Indonesia Athens, Ohio, Ohio University Press

Swastika, Alia ‘Biografi Penonton Teater di Indonesia: Yang Retak dan Bergerak’ Lebur 2.2: 13-37