“Matah Ati,” a dramatic rendition of Javanese dance performed in Teater Jakarta, Taman Ismail Marzuki, Central Jakarta last weekend, had all the right moves. With its simple yet impressive stage, beautifully choreographed Javanese dance, and lightings that Indonesians could finally be proud of, “Matah Ati” was certainly one of Indonesia’s finest plays. Yet behind the experience, seeing “Matah Ati” had left us to ponder on how oblivious we are to our own culture.
“Perhaps this nation is the only one not embarrassed of not knowing the history and culture of its own people,” wrote artistic manager Jay Subiakto in the playbill.
“Matah Ati” was a cry for remembrance that began from a concern and a dream of Atilah Soeryadjaya, a well-known director that dedicated years of her life to preserve and popularized Indonesian culture inside and outside of the country. Working with a team of Indonesian choreographers, Atilah invites us to the world of Rubiyah, the wife of Javanese chief commander Raden Mas Said.
The whole play was in Javanese, excluding one scene of four sassy old ladies with their satire jokes on contemporary problems such as corruption, Democratic Party’s chairman Anas Urbaningrum, and even the hype surrounding BlackBerry Messenger. The dialogue, singing and music were all perfect interpretation of Javanese culture.
As the play proceeded with beautiful choreographed Javanese dance, flawless music and accurate lighting, I found myself clueless and begging for a sudden appearance of subtitles. I questioned my Javanese blood and how much of my own culture is being displayed yet impossible to be understood by their modernized, globalized affected audience. Ashamed of not being able to grasp the story, I quickly took a glance of the show’s synopsis and jumped back on track with the show’s storyline.
Why, then I asked myself, have I no idea of my own culture? As a half-Javanese, I felt obliged to know Javanese, or at least have knowledge of Javanese culture and history. Raden Mas Said, a knight who led an army who drove away Dutch colonization out of Solo in the 18th century, was in fact a real person. Another fact I’ve just learned after watching this play.
In my desperate effort of finding any evidence of Javanese culture implored in our society, I asked some Javanese friends what was the first thing that came to their mind when hearing “Javanese culture.” Sadly, the answers had only made me much more pessimistic: the word “slow” being the most common answer.
Have we forgotten our glorious past? From the days of Majapahit, Singosari and Kartanegara, Javanese have conquered much area of Indonesia for several centuries, becoming a prominent ethnicity in Indonesia. From Gajah Mada to Raden Mas Said we have many gallant heroes that we could be proud of, yet we are more accustomed to idolizing western figures.
That said, we are left with another question: Why should it be important for us to understand our culture?
The answer for that question can be found in Atilah’s explanation of what motivated her to create “Matah Ati.”
“Solo is a haven for terrorist,” was the headline of a newspaper in a neighboring country that provoked Atilah to making this play and proving to the people of that neighboring country the beauty of Solo.
Indonesia, with its 300 or more ethnicity and more than 700 living languages, has yet to be a prominent cultural figure compared to other developing countries. News relating to the country is most likely to be connected with disastrous events – earthquakes, terrorist attacks and human rights abuses. Seldom have we managed to make headline-worthy achievements that would raise our name in the international community.
That is where “Matah Ati” comes in. Performing for the first time in Esplanade Theater in Singapore in 2010, “Matah Ati” displayed another – and a better – side of Indonesia for others to see.
Our culture is slowly rising to the international stage – and sometimes stealing the spotlight once or twice. Major support from the government is needed to make us secure a spotlight: More funding on art and theater for traditional culture is a must.
Now let’s reflect on us, the people. If a friend, or in this case a newspaper, from another country criticize Indonesia of its culture, will you be able to make a good, reasonable argument? I hope we can.