Feb 26, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

The Theft of Sita

Published: Jul 30, 2007

A spectacular joint Australian-Indonesian performance bursts boundaries

Robin Laurie

The premiere performance of Theft of Sita took place at the Adelaide Festival in March this year. It was an outdoor performance set among huge old Moreton Bay figs, beautifully lit against the black night sky. The audience sat in rows of steep bleachers looking down on a square of wooden staging. Ten musicians, five of them Balinese gamelan players and five from the Australian Art Orchestra, took their places. Five puppeteers, a Balinese dalangand four Australians, emerged onto the stage and lit the screen light or damar. A large fabric screen descended from above at the front of the stage and we were in the enchanted forest of creation.

Before us lay the idealised classical landscape of the ancient Ramayana story, complete with shadow puppets of the lovely Sita, her princely lover Rama, and their farting, chatting servant/ clown companions Tualen and Merdah, the latter a father and son pair from the Balinese wayang kulit known aspunakawan. A range of whimsical and funny animal shadow puppets pass across the screen. But there is always trouble in paradise. Sita is captured by the giant demon Rahwana and carried off to his kingdom of Langka. Then huge logging machines invade the forest and begin demolishing trees...

This Ramayana begins conventionally, but quickly explodes into a metaphor of the tumultuous events surrounding the overthrow of Suharto. Computer-generated images and photographic projections of demonstrations coexist with giant shadow puppet logging beasts. There are white water rafters and withering paddy fields in Bali. And Langka becomes a futuristic city of gleaming steel and glass towers, and of rubbish tips. Giant screens lift and disappear, perspective shifts from screens at the front to screens at the back of the stage. Shadow puppets emerge on tiny screens in the middle of the space and then shift again.

In those turbulent days of 1998-9 two main avenues of expression for radical views were satirical political comment by performers of all kinds, including the wayang, and the internet. Theft of Sita consciously brings together these two screens, the fabric screen of the wayang and the electronic screen of TV and the internet.

The working behind the scenes was as complex as the images in front. Associate director and puppeteer Peter Wilson describes how the puppeteers had to work from trolleys lying on their backs, keeping the puppet level as they hurtled downstage, or trying to look at the puppet as they moved backwards away from the audience.

Through all this impressive scenery wander the determined and shrewdly amused figures of Tualen and Merdah. Their mission from Rama is to rescue Sita from the clutches of the demon Rahwana. Theirs is a people's mission. Normally that mission belongs to the nobles and to the White Monkey General Hanuman and his army, but these do not appear in this version.

The clowns pass through burnt-out forest landscapes. Tualen explains to his son the strange and remarkable transformation of forests into toilet paper for the west. The two punakawan continue on their quest, engaging in a struggle to restore water to the rice paddies of Bali, traveling through a surreal world of factories, electrical pylons and freeways, before at last coming upon the awesome sight of Langka just as Rahwana's black limousine glides ominously past. Merdah and the army of the poor then join students and demonstrators. Together they storm Rahwana's palace as his financial empire collapses. The night I was in the audience, as the demonstrations reached their peak, a real helicopter flew overhead. One of the unpredictable pleasures of outdoor performance.


How did this epic collaboration come together? Director Nigel Jamieson and composer Paul Grabowsky were offered a commission for the 2000 Adelaide Festival. Sydney-based Performing Lines produced. Nigel and Paul wanted to do something based on the Ramayana story. Nigel had invited the Balinese dalang I Wayan Wija to Australia in 1998 for the Australian Theatre for Young Performers. Nigel wrote versions of the Sita script, eliminating some characters, as he felt it would be hard for western audiences to recognise too many. He sent these drafts and ideas to Wayan Wija.

A team of puppeteers, designers and the composer went to Bali to rehearse in November 1999. It was the height of the tensions around Timor and the choice of a new president. I Wayan Wija decided that because of the political tensions he was unable to continue with the project. Nigel and Arif Hidayat, the Australian-based interpreter for the team, went off on their own mission to find a new dalang. The rest of the team meanwhile found a shed in Denpasar, negotiated streets filled with demonstrators and burning tyres, and began experimenting with the lights and computer images using equipment they had brought with them. Nigel and Arif finally met I Made Sidia, who teaches at the arts college STSI in Denpasar and is the son of the famous Balinese dalang I Made Sija. Made is a mask (topeng) dancer and choreographer as well as a dalang. He had worked in New York on a version of the Mahabarata epic with one of the more experimental New York groups, Mabou Mines, as well as throughout Asia and Europe.

Nigel and Peter both tell the story of Made's arrival at the Adelaide rehearsal space in February this year. Peter was lying on the floor manipulating one of the giant logging beast puppets. Made had just got off a plane. His puppets, traditionally imbued with the sacred power of the gods, had been confiscated and gassed by Australian customs. He arrived in the space, saw what Peter was doing, took off his coat, lay down on the floor, picked up another puppet and the two puppeteers began playing together.

What are we to think of these international collaborations? Are they not manifestations of cultural globalisation in which western idioms inevitably dominate? Doesn't the commercialisation of the ticket-buying international festival circuit destroy local culture? Global television and western economic dominance certainly do threaten cultural diversity as never before. But a project like Theft of Sita is different. Decisions were not made in some far-off place that caused another country's economy to crash.

In this kind of project a group of people work together intensely over a period of time, in a cheap, large room somewhere. They discuss and argue about issues of power and culture, politics and gods, life and art and how they are to be represented. If it's a good process, understandings and accommodations and creative transformations occur. By all accounts, Theft of Sita was a good process. Arif and Peter both tell me this was because it was in fact something new for all of them.


But doesn't this process ruin the authenticity of the Ramayana? The story was totally transformed, new puppets were invented, the god-like voice of the single dalang in charge was abandoned, overtly political comments on environmental issues and the voices of the people were heard. However, no culture is static. Wayang has constantly adapted to new political circumstances, new social values and technologies.

New puppets have often emerged. Helen Pausacker, a Melbourne based dalang, tells me there have been puppet bicycles and motorbikes. When President Sukarno used to arrive everywhere by helicopter there was a period in the 1960s where the god Visnu would descend in the same manner. TV and video created a demand for faster action and more realism if wayang performers were to attract younger audiences. Multiple dalang and multiple screens, electric and coloured lights have all been used before in Indonesia. Sometimes the puppets even move through film projections of exploding volcanoes. These changes are popular with audiences. There are rock songs in the middle, comedians (pelawak), singers, and people get up and dance. In one wayang performance the dalang smashed his puppets in a manner reminiscent of Who concerts.

Indonesian environmentalists have used traditional performance structures before. The Earth Cleansing (RuwatanBumi) of April 1998 was a series of performances based around Earth Day. Clearly traditions are not only located There, in Indonesia, and innovation Here, in Australia. Barbara Hatley notes that western interest encouraged Indonesian performers to explore their own traditions in the 1970s. Conversely, interaction with Asia has encouraged western performers to explore ritual and spiritual aspects of performance.

Indonesia's crisis is creating turmoil and change. The phrase Think Globally Act Locally is heard in Indonesia as well as Australia. Theft of Sita is global in its concerns with the environment. It recently performed at a festival in Germany. It is local in that it is part of creating new cultural relationships and artistic collaborations in our region. In Indonesia progress became modernity, became development, and now democracy is the word on everyone's lips. Theft of Sita ends with images of the celebrations following the overthrow of Suharto. A confused Merdah and Tualen nervously approach the ballot box. Plot mirrors politics.

Robin Laurie (nibor@vicnet.net.au) is a performance director in Melbourne. She was a founder of Circus Oz, and has just been in East Timor recording traditional dances and songs for a CD. 'Theft of Sita' will be part of the Melbourne International Festival in October 2000.

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000

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