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Garin Nugroho: Opera Jawa On View at Haus der Kunst in Munich
Garin Nugroho, Opera jawa

MUNICH.- The "Ramayana" is one of the world’s great epic narratives. Originating in India, the epic is based on Hindu religion and culture and its characters incarnations of Indian gods. The "Ramayana" has spread throughout South East Asia; its stories have been re-told as a Muslim tale, too, and in such different forms as painting, dance and puppetry. Its transformations and re-interpretations are a reflection of different cultures and different times.

Garin Nugroho, who is Indonesia’s leading independent filmmaker has made a radical new musical and dance version of the central story in the "Ramayana": ’The Abduction of Sita’ in which Sita, the wife of Rama, is abducted by Ravana. He sets his Opera Jawa firmly in contemporary Indonesia and takes this version from the wayang or puppet theatre.

The film tells of a passionate love triangle between three former dancers who had once performed that same Ramayana story in its traditional Javanese wayang orang version. It is a love triangle that leads to conflict and violence. Setio (a contemporary version of Rama) and Siti, who are husband and wife, run a pottery business. When it collapses and Setio has to leave town, the powerful and ruthless trader Ludiro (who danced Ravana) seizes his chance. He has always been in love with this beautiful woman and now abducts and tries to seduce her. Inevitably the two men begin to fight over Siti. Caught between these two men, Siti struggles to find her own way.

Garin Nugroho’s artistic language is unmistakeable: The film’s dialogues are sung and the actions danced. For Nugroho "This film is a requiem presented through a combination of gamelan, Javanese song (tembang), dance, costume, acting, visual art and installations. It is inspired by a Javanese culture that develops and grows in the midst of multicultural expression." Nugroho thus creates a new kind of musical, an opera for the 21st century.

If Opera Jawa is a requiem – showing where violence might lead – it is also a celebration: a celebration of creativity and of the diversity of voices and cultures in Indonesia. The film can be understood by those knowledgeable of Indonesian society and culture; it boldly combines popular, classic and modern forms of dance and performance, variously drawn from communities in the mountains, beaches and palaces of central Java. At the same time it can be enjoyed by others as would an opera with its classic format of two men fighting for the love and possession of a woman.

The film maintains a balance between culturally coded elements, on the one hand, and archetypical ones on the other, basically human in nature and comprehensible beyond cultural borders. Nugroho’s artistic venture is that all elements carry the same weight; he does not let any of them win the upper hand. Opera Jawa, thus, enthusiastically embraces differences, such as aesthetic arrangements, the sounding out of psychological laws and political classes struggles. Nugroho proves himself to be an optimist: He assumes that his viewer is willing to take on this parity.

Opera Jawa involves one of Indonesia most famous gamelan musicians, the Maestro Rahayu Supanggah, who composed and arranged all the sound elements for the film. Seven well-known Indonesian artists have created special installations as part of the set design. Among the seven famous Javanese dancer choreographers are the internationally renowned Martinus Miroto and Eko Supriyanto, who have worked with Peter Brook and Robert Wilson and who play the leading male roles.

Garin Nugroho (b. 1961 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia) is the director of numerous documentary films (including Tepuk Tangan, 1986 and Icon Sebuah Peta Budaya, 2002), as well as feature films (including Love on a Slice of Bread, 1991, Bird Man Tale, 2002, Of Love and Eggs, 2004 and Serambi, 2006). Opera Jawa, his newest work, was originally commissioned for the New Crowned Hope festival in Vienna 2006 to mark the Mozart anniversary.

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