Tan Malaka: An opera of absence

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Tan Malaka is a story of absence, mystery and, ultimately, about not knowing. The opera incorporates these themes into its very structure and communicates a subdued feeling of absence.

Throughout the work moments of silence — and the absence of the character for whom the work is named  — gave the audience a sense of incompleteness.

The opera, a collaboration between libretti Goenawan Mohamad and composer Tony Prabowo, was re-staged in Graha Bhakti Budaya (GBB) at the Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center on April 23.

Tan Malaka was first performed for the public at the Salihara Theater in October. The performance commemorated both Goenawn’s 70th birthday and the 40th anniversary of Tempo, the magazine he co-founded.

The opera began in the pitch black. Then a line of red light traversed the stage from bottom to top. A man came out and stood on top of an ersatz wood platform waving a red flag depicting the hammer and sickle.

The opera tells the story of Tan Malaka, one of the country’s founding father and an international communist activist. He wrote about a potential Indonesian nation in his work Naar de Republiek-Indonesia in 1924 while in Canton, China — well before Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta voiced similar ideas.

Tan however was not present when Sukarno and Hatta proclaimed independence in 1945.

“People say he was in Jakarta those days. However, the young people prepared the proclamation of independence, and he was not there. Tan Malaka did not show even a couple of meters from Jl. Pegangsaan. He was unseen on the Aug. 17. Nobody told him,” Landung Simatupang, the opera’s narrator, said on the stage in the work’s third act.

Nearing the end of the opera, text flashed onto a screen behind the stage read: “Reportedly someone was shot dead. Reportedly Tan Malaka was shot dead. In the Kediri area”.

According to Harry A. Poeze, a historian who has traced Tan’s story for the last 30 years, Tan was shot in Selopanggung, Kediri, in 1949.

Goenawan described the performance as an essay opera — “a form that maybe has never existed before”. The opera does not follow the traditional storytelling conventions, such as a linear plot.

As Goenawan said in the opera’s program notes, the creators wanted to convey the idea that the stage did not represent an illusory reality.

“The stage is the place where reality is processed and the audience is involved in the process of freedom from illusion”.

There is no dialogue in the conventional sense. The actors are storytellers. Without a plot, however, the opera becomes demanding on viewers. It featured neither a crescendo nor resolution in the usual sense.

For some viewers, these muted currents allow for contemplation of the absence of Tan Malaka during the country’s most crucial moments and his mysterious death. For others, it’s a lovely (albeit inadvertent) lullaby.

Nyak Ina “Ubiet” Raseuki and Binu Doddy Sukaman beautifully performed the work’s arias. The sopranos sang short poems about Tan Malaka set to music performed by an orchestra conducted by Josefino Chino Toledo from the Philippines.

Goenawan incorporated into the work the Sumatran folk tale of Malin Kundang, which tells of a son who travels and returns home ungrateful.

Ubit and Binu each sang in turn: “Once there was a mother who heard her son say ‘I came to be seditious’,”. Malin Kundang symbolizes Tan Malaka as the antithesis of the status quo.

Landung replaced Adhi Kurdi who portrayed the narrator in the last version of the work. His strong presence on stage made the audience think of what happened during the time of Tan Malaka’s absence.

.Whani Darmawan played the person behind bars. He tells of the idea of struggle, a metaphor for continuing the revolution despite imprisonment.

The Paragita choir of the University of Indonesia, headed by Aning Katamsi, provided supporting vocals while Yudi Ahmad Tadjudin served as assistant director.

One of the most important elements of the opera was dance. Fitri Setyaningsih’s choreography was slow and silent to the point of meditation. About two dozen dancers from Surakarta represented the common people, miners and refugees, in the opera.

At one scene Fitri drew chalk circles on the stage, representing Tan Malaka’s continuous effort in writing and thus shaping history.

Goenawan and Tony’s opera revives memories of a revolutionary figure whose life ended tragically.

Tan Malaka is immortalized in the opera. As the narrator says:

“I disappear therefore I exist. I am present. Tan Malaka will not die in this story. Maybe that is what I need to say”.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Feature | Sat, May 07 2011

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