Rendra and martial arts
Published: Jul 02, 2010

Bre Redana

   Max Palaar teaching in Yogyakarta
   Image courtesy of Burung Merak Press

In May 2009, Rendra spent a long time praying before the altar which holds the ashes of Grand Master Subur Rahardja at the house of the Bangau Putih (White Crane) martial arts school, in the district of Kebun Jukut, Bogor. School members had been somewhat startled that afternoon by his sudden arrival with his wife, Ken Zuraida. They were further astonished by the solemn intensity of the prayer of the great dramatist.

No-one dared disturb Rendra before Gunawan Rahardja, the Grand Master who now leads Bangau Putih, emerged. On seeing him, Rendra began to kneel but was quickly prevented. The awkward atmosphere was eased with light banter - something for which Gunawan Rahardja is well known. Rendra told Gunawan that he wanted to 'take his leave'.

'Leave? Where are you going? To Yogya? Surabaya?' joked Gunawan.

This meeting did not last long. Around 15 minutes later, Gunawan escorted Rendra and his wife to the end of the lane where the car in which they were traveling was parked. Ken Zuraida recalls that they arrived home at the Bengkel Teater complex in Citayam, Depok at around 10pm. Rendra immediately began to shiver and his hands started to shake. With his wife's arms wrapped around him, he began to write his last long poem 'Maskumambang'. Around 100 days later he passed away.

Bangau Putih on stage

All Bengkel Teater members, especially those who joined in the decade after the group was founded in 1967, know the group's strong relationship with the physical movement organisation, Persatuan Gerak Badan Bangau Putih. Rendra was particularly close to the father of the current Grand Master, the late Suhu Subur Rahardja, who passed away in 1986. Each had a strong influence on the philosophy of the other. After they met in 1972, Bangau Putih movements became a key element of the Bengkel Teater performance style and the philosophy of the group was similarly reflected in Rendra's poems. Although Bengkel Teater was then located in the suburb of Ketanggungan in Yogyakarta and the martial arts complex in Kebun Jukut in Bogor, they could be described as two houses under one roof. Yet while thousands of words have been written to recall the greatness of the artist known as the Peacock - about his plays, his poetry, his thoughts on culture, his activism and his flamboyant personal life - the influence of Bangau Putih is one topic almost ignored in mass media commentary.

It began with the visit of one of Subur Raharja's students named Max Palaar to Bengkel Teater, which at that time was a magnet for artists, intellectuals and spiritual leaders. When Max demonstrated the long movement named the Drunken God, Rendra was amazed at its fluidity and power, which reminded him of the Gerak Nurani (Inner Flow) practised in Bengkel at the time. Bangau Putih was itself 20 years old, having been founded in 1952, under the name Shaolin Pek Ho Pay (Shaolin White Crane Association). The martial arts style was developed by its founder Subur Rahardja from a combination of Chinese Shaolin, enriched by influences from West Javanese silat cimande and silat jelantik from Bali. Many of the movements were inspired by natural phenomena and the movements of creatures married with the natural grace of local silat and dance moves.

After a long discussion, Rendra decided to become a student of Subur Rahardja. Rendra and several Bengkel Teater members visited Bogor and then Subur Rahardja and several senior students visited Yogyakarta. The timing was right. In the early 1970s Bengkel Teater was experiencing something of a crisis because many of the actors of the first generation, like Chaerul Umam, Putu Wijaya, Amak Baldjun, Azwar, Moortri Purnomo and Syubah Asa, had moved to Jakarta. Many of the new members were drop-outs, drunks and troublemakers - people who Fadjar Suharno, one of the more senior members of Bengkel Teater, described as 'driftwood'.

But the martial art gave the drifters discipline. From that time, the silat practice continued without interuption as a key part of Bengkel Teater practice, independent of any performance plans. This was in accordance with Rendra's credo, that the practice of art is to cultivate life.

The performance of Antigone in 1974 was the first time the Bangau Putih moves were used by Bengkel Teater on stage. The moves were choreographed by Max Palaar. The martial art continued to be employed in subsequent performances, becoming inseparable from the physical style of Bengkel Teater performance. Musican and actor Sawung Jabo, who became a member in 1977, recalls the preparations for Bengkel Teater's colossal staging of Panembahan Reso (Lord Reso) in 1986. For almost six months they worked intensively. Every day from 6 to 8 in the morning they did physical exercises. After breakfast, they practised martial arts for three hours to noon, and again from 3 to 5 in the afternoon. At night, ending sometimes at 2 am, they rehearsed the script and the moves. This time the choreographer was Pepen, a Bengkel Teater member from the 1970s who had become a Bangau Putih instructor.

Compassionate militancy

Rendra's philosophy is reflected in the Bengkel Teater vow not to possess anything in excess, and to return any excess to God through nature and life. It continues, 'I will be faithful to my conscience and the path of nature.' His philosophy as an artist grew out of Javanese ascetic teachings which he then combined with Chinese esoteric and Taoist philosophy. In conflict with the authorities through cultural activism Rendra defended the poor, employing metaphors from the world of nature.

Aku mendengar suara
Jerit hewan yang terluka
Ada orang memanah rembulan
Ada anak burung terjatuh dari sarangnya.
Orang-orang harus dibangunkan
Kesaksian harus diberikan
Agar kehidupan bisa terjaga.

I hear the voice
The scream of a wounded animal
An archer shoots at the moon
A nestling falls out its nest.
People must be awakened
Testimony must be given
So that life is protected.

Bangau Putih also developed and changed following its encounter with Rendra. Like the Bengkel Teater vow, the Bangau Putih credo developed in 1977 places equal weight on the importance of nature as the place to which knowledge is returned through will and actions to defend humankind and culture. The school opened branches in Java, Sumatra and Bali and, as international interest increased, overseas in Europe and the USA. The current grand master continues the healing traditions of the practice through providing traditional Asian healing practices to a wide variety of supplicants.

In February 1975 seven Rendra poems were published in the daily newspaper Kompas, their titles reflecting Bangau Putih influence. These were 'Anuning Ning' (roughly translated as Things about Clarity), 'Mengolah Kesadaran' (Processing Awareness), 'Mengolah Teratai' (Processing the Lotus), 'Mengolah Gerak Nurani' (Processing Inner Flow), 'Laku adalah Kenyataan' (Movement is Reality), 'Mengolah Nafas, Menghayati Doa' (Processing Breath, Appreciating Prayer) and 'Doa Lingkaran Kosong' (Prayer of the Empty Circle). They were about meditation methods and prayers, experience, and deep understanding. Practising these methods gave Rendra the strength and courage to sustain himself in detention. Reflecting on his experiences in jail led to the poem 'Paman Doblang' and these famous lines were sung by stadiums full of fans in the 1990s Kantata Takwa rock concerts where Rendra often read his poetry.

Kesadaran adalah matahari
Kesabaran adalah bumi
Keberanian menjadi cakrawala
Dan perjuangan adalah pelaksanaan kata-kata.

Awareness is the sun
Patience is the earth
Courage becomes the horizon
And the struggle is to realize the words.

Yin to each other's yang

What actually drew Rendra and Subur Rahardja together so closely? Grand Master Gunawan Rahardja is convinced that each discovered through the other their respective weaknesses and strengths. 'Mas Willy read nature and turned it into poetry; Suhu read nature and turned it into movement,' said Gunawan. After becoming acquainted with Rendra, Suhu also began to write about silat, although his writings are yet to be published widely.

In Chinese tradition the Pat Kwa octagon with its eight directions bears important symbolism. In 1972 when Rendra met Suhu, the Shaolin Pek Ho Pay was 20 years old. It had grown in various directions, especially in West Java and Jakarta. Yet in Pat Kwa terms it required another orientation, to the East, the direction of Yogyakarta. The meeting betwen Suhu and Rendra was perhaps indeed fated - in Gunawan's words, 'Like an egg about to hatch.'

Both Suhu and Rendra cultivated their own sustained world view. They had developed their capacities and talents to better achieve their chosen role and to serve their community through their practice. They also devoted their lives to inspiring others to discover and develop their own potential. These ideas live on in the communities they developed and the practitioners they inspired.

Bre Redana (don@kompas.com) is a Kompas reporter and Bangau Putih member. This article is based on conversations with Grand Master Gunawan Rahardja, and the following members of Bengkel Teater and/or Bangau Putih, Fadjar Suharno, Ken Zuraida, Rahmat Dandanggula, Edi Haryono, Iwan Burnani, Sawung Jabo. Further information on PGB Bangau Putih can be found at http://pgb.org/.


Inside Indonesia 101: Jul-Sep 2010