Dec 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Remembering Rendra

Remembering Rendra
Published: Jul 02, 2010

Suzan Piper

   Poet and dramatist
   Image courtesy of Burung Merak Press 

On 6 August 2009 the poet, playwright and cultural statesman Rendra died, aged 73. Hailed as a daring and passionate humanitarian and the father of modern Indonesian theatre, he was a voice of conscience for the nation through his artistic works and speeches. His flamboyant critique of the establishment moderated as age and the hard slog of managing and directing a theatre group for over forty years took its toll. But the Bengkel Teater vow not to accumulate more than one's needs, to be generous in one's thoughts, words and deeds and live true to one's conscience, uplifting the highest values of humanity and culture, is a legacy worth due respect.

When I first met Rendra in Sydney in 1972, he was a charismatic younger poet who had only seven years earlier returned from two year's study in New York. He had not witnessed the so-called communist coup of September 1965, although he had been detained and his writings refused publication in the early 60s. The Rendra of those days was the romantic poet, writing and declaiming beautiful lyrical love poems, but also strong, powerful social indictments.

By the seventies, New Order Indonesia had become increasingly repressive in its outlook and practices, modelling Javanese refinement and acquiescence as the Indonesian way. Rendra continued to offer an oppositional view of Javanese tradition that did not privilege the ruler, but rather the strong, rebellious critic, resisting the abuse of power. This was the role that Rendra carved out for himself, the outspoken adviser, the sage in the wind, unbound by institutional ties. He challenged the establishment in his plays and poetry, crafting pamphlet poetry for the barricades and inspiring stanzas for the social and individual conscience. He was not afraid to stand up and be counted on the front line of demonstrations from Sukarno's days, then campus protest stages in 1978 and demonstrations about the press bannings in 1994, to striding the rock music stage in the late days of the New Order era.

Yet Rendra did not trust a violent overthrow of power, believing that only gradual action brings lasting results. He developed the concept of kantong kebudayaan, a grassroots circle for interaction and friendship amongst the intelligentsia where alternative thinking could be explored, developed and matured. In his later years he stood back more as a witness, or perhaps, as Daniel Dhakidae claimed, a prophet; certainly an intellectual faithfully defending the marginalised against injustice. He was a thinker and analyst, whose advice was sought by many from many disparate circles, including politicians and officials. One particular concern of his last years was Indonesia's status as an archipelagic state, not being given its full recognition in law, in education in the form of a maritime university and in services such as a sea and coast guard watch.

Rendra's life spanned three marriages and two theatre complexes. His wives contributed greatly to his creative life, not only through their management of family responsibilities that freed him to focus on his creative life, but also through their input as artists in their own right. The late Sunarti was a fine singer and musician, Sitoresmi was a talented actor, and his third wife, Ken Zuraida, is a costume and mask designer and director who continues to manage the Bengkel Teater Rendra complex.

The first Bengkel Teater in Yogyakarta was the home Rendra shared with Sunarti, and later Sitoresmi and their nine children. The house was where the group gathered for their evening classes. The large front yard was where the group rehearsed in the afternoons watched by neighbours, mothers and children, and, as the crowd grew, grateful local vendors selling to the captive audience. Bengkel Teater shifted to Jakarta when Rendra moved there in the late 1970s with Ken Zuraida, and then in 1985, a three hectare complex was established in Cipayung, south of Depok. Although Rendra had hoped the complex could be self-sustaining through small scale farming by the members, it proved to be more of a financial drain, not least because the two to three hour journey over bumpy, pot-holed roads hours from central Jakarta increased transport costs. But there was a large tin-roofed rehearsal hall out the front and accommodation for members on site, with a common kitchen (shared with Rendra, Ken Zuraida and their two children) for the twenty-odd theatre members and their families. The leafy campus populated by trees that Rendra sometimes received in lieu of artistic fees is where he is now buried. Apparently one of Rendra's last wishes was to turn the land into a public forest, a breath of fresh air to the noxious fumes of the megatropolis. As in life so in death.

As we approach the one year anniversary of his death, the following articles examine Rendra's literary works and activism, the influences on his life and his influence on others. There are some topics for which we had to make a hard choice amongst several highly-qualified commentators and others that could not be covered due to a lack of contributors. I would like to thank those who contributed excellent articles that did not make the final cut. We also appreciate the support of the Burung Merak Press, printer of a number of books on Rendra, for the many accompanying photographs from their documentary archives.

This issue opens with Max Lane's lead article; a reminder of Rendra's importance as a cultural and political activist whose savage ridicule of the state dictatorship and outspoken critique of injustice bridged the anti-communist student activism of the late 60s and the pro-Left student activism of the 80s and 90s. Rendra's splicing of disparate elements grounded in a rich Javanese soil is well-exemplified in his poetry and plays, and many of the other interculturalist practices mentioned in this edition.

The next four articles describe some of the influences that helped shape him. Javanese spiritual exercises of the type described by Bramantyo Prijosusilo, such as walking blindfolded to the local spring of Sendang Kasihan, Bantul or walking in silence along the (then) muddy roads and river crossing to Parangtritis, were part of Bengkel Teater practice when I visited them in Yogyakarta. Bram explains the inspiration behind such exercises and gives an example of how they were employed in Bengkel Teater. Anne-Marie Morgan then describes in her article how Rendra developed a hybrid theatre form that skilfully blended contemporary Western influences with local tradition to create a unique intercultural Indonesian performance form. Bengkel Teater's premier performance of the startling Bip Bop 'mini kata' plays was viewed as so extreme and challenging by one commentator in the early 70s that Rendra was labelled insane.

Regular martial arts practice has been part of the Bengkel Teater curriculum since the 1970s, yet the influence of silat on Rendra's performance form and his philosophy has been overlooked by commentators. Bre Redana provides a fascinating overview of the mutually enriching interplay between Rendra and Subur Rahardja, leader of the PGB Bangau Putih silat school in Bogor, and their respective groups. Religion was also an important influence in Rendra's life and artistic practice. Rendra was raised a Catholic and his conversion to Islam and subsequent marriages attracted much commentary. Julian Millie offers his critical perspective on the story behind Rendra's conversion and, following his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1991, his appearances as a muballigh.

Following this first group of articles is a series of postcards consisting of paintings by New Art Movement painter Hardi and poems by Rendra. The postcards were produced in Indonesia in 1979, at a time when both artists had been arrested by the authorities. Australian activists sold the cards in Australia to raise funds to help bring Rendra to Australia. The cards couple Hardi's strong images of urban underdogs with Rendra's compelling verses.

The second group of articles examine Rendra's influence on others. Keith Foulcher writes of the critical poetry-reading at the Jakarta Arts Centre in April 1978 which ended with Rendra being taking into 'protective custody' for months, after ammonia bombs were thrown at him on stage. Keith carefully dissects Rendra's skilful craft as a poet and powerful rhetoric as a performer. Arahmaiani writes of Rendra's focus on women's oppression in a patriarchal society, through poems such as 'Prostitutes of Jakarta Unite'. This same poem inspired Kirik Ertanto to campaign against exploitation and injustice through his support of the Girli street kids community in Yogyakarta. As Kirik explains, Rendra's poetry played a crucial role when so many other voices were muted by political repression. David Reeve ends the issue with his account of Rendra's visits to Australia and how they spoke to Australian politics and Australia's potential in the region.

Suzan Piper ( is a Research Associate at the Transforming Cultures Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney. She is an award-winning Indonesian translator and interpreter with a firm belief in the role the arts have to play in a nuanced understanding of each other.


Inside Indonesia 101: Jul-Sep 2010

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