Thu, 02 Oct 2003

Indonesian epic 'La Galigo' takes world stage

Andi Hajramurni, The Jakarta Post, Makassar, South Sulawesi

La Galigo, probably the world's longest epic, that describes the values of life and heroism in the Buginese community, will go international as a colossal theatrical performance under the same title.

The performance, which will be directed by Texas-born Robert Wilson, a famous name in experimental theater, will take the stage in a number of cities in Asia, Europe and the United States. The series of performances -- slated to be held between February and December 2004 -- will commence in Singapore and finish in Indonesia. Two inaugural performances will be held at Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam and Teatro Liure at the Forum Universal de Les Cultures.

Researchers and observers have dreamed of the revisited fame of the epic -- which is estimated to have been written between the 14th and 17th centuries -- especially since in its place of origin, South Sulawesi, it has virtually sunk into oblivion. Fewer and fewer people have a copy of the epic or participate in the once popular storytelling method of singing it.

Twice as long as the Mahabharata epic or the story about the adventure of Ulysses in Homer's Odyssey, La Galigo -- also called Sureq Galigo among the Buginese community, has drawn the attention of Rhoda Graeur and Restu Imansari Kusumaningrum of Bali Purnati Art Center. Both were assisted in their exploration of the epic by La Galigo experts and observers like Nurhayati Rahman, Andi Anthon Pangerang, Muhammad Salim and Fahruddin Ambo Enre.

"Sureq Galigo is about the creation of the world and the first six generations to inhabit the planet. The main characters' incredible adventures relate the cosmology of the ancient Buginese. Many of these features are still apparent in the music, customs, architecture and rites of the Buginese community," said Kusumaningrum.

She and Grauer conceptualized the performance and arranged for Robert Wilson to direct it. They have also established the cooperation of the Change Performing Art of Milan, Italy.

Written in the ancient language of the Buginese language in Lontara characters, the epic is composed of several episodes, each telling a different story. The stories develop from relating how man was created, to the heroic adventures of the main character, Sawerigading. They convey the attributes of good leadership, the fundamentals of democracy, the values of the Buginese community and the skills of the Buginese people in making voyages.

As many as 300,000 verses of Sureq Galigo have been collected and re-written, amounting to an impressive 2,859 pages. The Indonesian translation of this epic will consist of 12 volumes. Although, thus far, only two volumes have been published.

The upcoming theatrical performance of La Galigo attempts only to relate the story of how the world was created. For, to explore La Galigo in full, would be a mammoth task indeed.

In the production, the story will be retold in a traditional narrative form but will feature more contemporary aspects in terms of dance and music.

To lend an authenticity and originality to the performance, most of the cast -- including dancers and musicians -- will be recruited from South Sulawesi.

As the director, Robert Wilson, says he is always open to input. He realizes that this performance, which will surely be a great theatrical achievement, must honor the work from which it has derived. Some La Galigo experts and observers have already begun to criticize the not-yet-staged performance.

They fear that the performances will fail to live up to the awesome qualities of La Galigo.

But, Wilson -- far from the dictatorial director -- has said, "basically, I'm ready to learn." He is advised by Puang Matoa Saidi and script consultant, Muhammad Salim. But big challenges lie ahead.

To ensure that La Galigo will be flawlessly performed, rehearsals already began late last year. The rehearsals have been held in Bali and also in locations in South Sulawesi, like Makassar.

Extreme care will be taken over the staging of sacred elements of the story, or those concerning rites or ceremonies.

"Wilson is very serious about the production. He ensures that everything is as authentic as possible. Take, for example, the sound of a thunderclap. To produce this sound, an iron sheet will be used, as composer Rahayu Supanggah cannot find this sound among her musical instruments," said Yusi Avianto Pareanom, the project's media relation officer.

Elizabetta di Mambro of the Change Performing Arts, a producer who has worked with Wilson for some time, confers Wilson's commitment to La Galigo.

She said, she was most encouraged to see that the play was being meticulously prepared from the bottom level up.

The rehearsals for La Galigo have been divided into three workshops. The last workshop will be held for three weeks in Singapore, prior to the inaugural performance.

Unlike Hamlet, for example, La Galigo is unknown to theater buffs. As his most important theater project in the last few years, Wilson says he hopes the production will make La Galigo famous, not only in Indonesia but also abroad.

It is hoped that, in sharing their marvelous cultural heritage, South Sulawesi's young people will find renewed interest in the stories themselves.