Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Writing back

Lauren Bain

It’s a balmy night and the amphitheatre is crowded. The space itself is run-down, almost derelict. The pavement, still warm from the midday sun, is badly cracked. Tall black roosters are running around an area that might be described as ‘backstage’. The audience sits on sheets of newspaper spread out on the ground. The backdrop is a high cement wall scrawled with graffiti. It’s a snapshot of urban Makassar, a place where local theatre is thriving.

Theatre artists in Makassar have engaged with elements of both local and national cultures to create a distinctive theatre culture of their own. In a variety of ways, artists in regional areas are ‘writing back’ to the Jakarta centre, redefining the map of contemporary Indonesian theatre which has often been blind to the work of artists outside Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Bandung.

Changing costume

The scene described above is in fact the backdrop to a performance called Aku Pinjam Baju Baru (I’m Borrowing a New Shirt), by one of Makassar’s leading contemporary theatre groups. Officially established in a warung kopi (coffee café) opposite Makassar’s Benteng Fort Rotterdam in 1993, Teater Kita Makassar works under the direction of Asia Ramli Prapanca (called ‘Ram’ by his friends) who collaborates closely with designer and writer Is Hakim and an ensemble of performers. Their work is both highly contemporary and grounded in a strong sense of tradition and local identity. ‘Although we create contemporary performance, we always use ritual and traditional performance as a point of departure,’ explains Ram.

Aku Pinjam Baju Baru is all about costumes. It’s about the changing of costume, the adoption of new identity, and the chaotic consequences of this. It’s about how easy it is to put on a new ‘costume’ or borrow a new shirt, for a new context. It is intended to be a political critique: the military uniform is easily swapped for a reformist outfit, the dictator’s supporter becomes a democrat.

From super heroes to Bugis ritual

At the same time as being sharply critical of this duplicity, like the best of political cartoons, Aku Pinjam Baju Baru is extremely funny. We see a series of ‘characters’ put on new costumes, which they pull out of a coffin, a Pandora’s box with the potential to unleash chaos on the world. And the costume design is what really makes this performance work. The characters are delightfully exaggerated superheroes and super-villains of a world going off track. They make fun of political life and of themselves.

One character wears a head piece crowned with a huge crucifix and a Muslim crescent moon and star, and a breast plate instantly recognisable as Indonesia’s national symbol, the Pancasila shield, but without the symbols it usually contains. He’s the hero of emptiness, his values stripped of meaning. This character presides over the costume-changing ceremony, mumbling a mantra of magic spells as catastrophe unfolds.

Other characters include an enormous silver ‘communist’ sickle, a man locked in a set of legal scales like a convict in stocks, a man tied down by a ball and chain, a woman who dances in a field of rupiah, a man covered in spoons. Their interactions are at once violent, chaotic and ridiculous. They climax with one character being winched into the air by industrial lifting equipment.

In addition to the exceptional costumes, Aku Pinjam Baju Baru uses a limited amount of text, elements of traditional Makassar-Bugis ritual such as mantra and a chaotic — almost apocalyptic — sound design. Trumpets and drums mingle with songs and the clanging of the huge industrial pulley. Ram explains that ‘this work is a reflection of the post-reformasi era… We have tried to ‘photograph’ the current era and the (manifestations of) power.’ Aku Pinjam Baju Baru’s political critique is not obvious, but it effectively challenges the symbols of Indonesian political life and the meaning of identity (whether it be of the individual, the political party or the nation) derived from these symbols.

The result is a highly contemporary and unconventional physical performance, perhaps best described as being like an Asterix cartoon crossed with a traditional Bugis-Makassar ritual. The strangeness of this juxtaposition is exactly the point. It is precisely through the interaction of contemporary and traditional elements that Teater Kita Makassar has found a way to make sense of some of the complexities and contradictions of contemporary Indonesia.

Poking fun at aristocracy

Established in the mid-1980s, Rombongan Sandiwara Petta Puang (Petta Puang) is very different from Teater Kita Makassar. Petta Puang’s performances are based on a local folk theatre form, kondo buleng, which originated in the early twentieth century. Since their establishment, Petta Puang have developed a reputation for their ability to use light-hearted satire to communicate serious social critique to audiences ranging from villagers in outlying islands to Jakarta’s political establishment. Their ability to perform anywhere, to incorporate any theme for any audience has been widely noted, as has their irreverent, self-reflexive humour. Unsurprisingly, given their ability to adapt their performances for almost any occasion, they are often invited to perform for Independence Day celebrations in and around Makassar.

Petta Puang’s satirical critique centres on the character of Petta Puang, a Bugis aristocrat who is portrayed as old-fashioned and unable to adapt to modern times. He is also a sharp and astute critic of those around him. Petta Puang’s mannerisms, use of language and relationships with other characters draw on director Bahar Merdu’s own observations of the Bugis-Bone aristocracy, from which he himself is descended. The name Petta Puang itself - a combination of two aristocratic titles that sound incongruous when used together — implies a ridicule of outdated feudal social structures and values.

Celebrating 17 Aug. Makassar-style

In contrast to Independence Day performances in Java, Petta Puang’s Independence Day performance last year was a story neither of heroism nor of anti-colonial triumph. It was instead a tale of how the colonial powers easily co-opted members of the opposition. It also depicted an indecisive, weak Bugis aristocracy who didn’t participate effectively in the anti-colonial struggle.

Îhe performance tells the story of a Dutch military man, who seeks out Petta Puang in order to ridicule him, and then seduces Petta Puang’s daughter, Minah, before co-opting her ex-boyfriend as a provokator (provocateur). Minah’s boyfriend is given food in return for his assistance in destablising the city. Once the military man no longer has any use for the provokator, he kills him. The performance ends with the provokator being dragged off the stage by Dutch soldiers, while Petta Puang wrings his hands in resignation.

Rather than celebrating Bugis-Makassan contributions to the nationalist struggle then, Petta Puang’s Independence Day performance was explicitly about the inadequacies of the local response to colonial domination. It subverts official versions of the Indonesian struggle for independence. It also makes timely connections with contemporary politics in Indonesia. The use of the provokator in destabilising a community would, for example, have resonated strongly with the audience. Unknown ‘provokator’ have been blamed for many instances of violent social unrest in recent years.

But the politics of Petta Puang’s Independence Day performance are complex. The unifying theme — if there is one — is political apathy. Political commitments are malleable and easily bought, and political action at the grassroots level exists only as a means to an end desired by a more powerful force. Heroism is an abstract concept, and is certainly not embodied by aristocratic figures like the character Petta Puang. Freedom fighters must choose between starving and selling out, ultimately choosing the latter. While the characters in the performance pay the price for their follies — Minah’s boyfriend is in the end a victim of his decision to sell out to the Dutch — one wonders whether audiences, upon watching the performance, would feel any provocation towards positive action.

But regardless of the broader political implications of the performance, Petta Puang’s work clearly positions South Sulawesi as a participant in the story of anti-colonial struggle. Whether or not the region distinguished itself in this endeavour is perhaps not the point. Petta Puang’s performance locates the Indonesian nationalist struggle as something South Sulawesi was a part of, however ingloriously.

Petta Puang and Teater Kita Makassar are only two of several active groups in South Sulawesi’s theatre scene. The work of both groups — while very different in style — highlights the richness of Indonesian theatre cultures. It also suggests the role artists are playing in defining regional identities in a new era.

Lauren Bain (lauren_bain@yahoo.com) has recently completed a PhD on contemporary performance in Indonesia.


Inside Indonesia 83: Jul-Sep 2005

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