‘Knights of the Golden Empress’ Premiere a Royal Affair

The finest Javanese food, fashion and opera was on show last week to honor a great mind, writes Sylviana Hamdani

The premiere of the classic Javanese opera 'Knights of the Golden Empress' brought together six royal families of Java, with dignitaries and socialites also attending. The Opera honored the life of famed batik designer Iwan Tirta, who died in 2010, with costumes worn by performers replicating his print work. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

The premiere of the classic Javanese opera ‘Knights of the Golden Empress’ brought together six royal families of Java. The Opera honored the life of famed batik designer Iwan Tirta, who died in 2010, with costumes worn by performers replicating his print work. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

There’s an old Indonesian saying that goes, “When an elephant dies, it leaves behind its tusk, when a tiger dies, it leaves behind its skin, when a man dies, he leaves behind his name and reputation.”

Batik maestro Iwan Tirta died in 2010 at age 75, but his name and works continue to flourish.

To honor the late designer, Gelar Nusantara, Iwan Tirta Private Collection, Yayasan Iwan Tirta (Iwan Tirta Foundation) and BeritaSatu Media Holdings’ The Peak magazine last Thursday hosted a Royal Dinner, with an exclusive presentation of the Javanese classic opera “Knights of the Golden Empress.” The event was held at The Dharmawangsa Jakarta in the capital’s inner south.

Gelar Nusantara is a Jakarta-based private company that produces local traditional performing arts and organizes cultural trips to various parts of Indonesia to promote the country’s art and cultural assets.

The background

“Iwan Tirta’s contributions to Indonesia’s performing arts are enormous,” said Bram Kushardjanto, cofounder of Gelar Nusantara. “He laid a foundation for traditional court performing arts to be presented in today’s modern settings. We all should really appreciate that.”

Gelar Nusantara first collaborated with the late maestro in 2003 to present “Retrospeksi Iwan Tirta” (“An Iwan Tirta Retrospective”) at the Pakubuwono Residence Jakarta, where he presented his extensive collection of batiks from Solo in Central Java.

The sacred dance of “Bedhaya Pangkur”, created by Sri Susuhunan Pakubuwono X, was presented in the event.

“It’s a great success,” Bram said. “Mas Iwan was very happy with the event.”

This success led to another event by Iwan Tirta and Gelar Nusantara, a traditional Javanese opera “Tanding Gendhing” (“A Battle of Wits”), at The Dharmawangsa Jakarta in 2006. All the dancers and musicians in the classical Javanese opera wore Iwan’s classic batiks.

The opera traveled to seven Indonesian cities, including Cirebon (West Java), Yogyakarta, Solo and Surabaya (East Java), until 2009 and was received with great fanfare.

“Mas Iwan was ecstatic,” Bram said. “He said to me, ‘Let’s make another one.’ ”

But Mas Iwan’s dream failed to materialize before the maestro died.

The premiere of the classic Javanese opera 'Knights of the Golden Empress' brought together six royal families of Java, with dignitaries and socialites also attending. The Opera honored the life of famed batik designer Iwan Tirta, who died in 2010, with costumes worn by performers replicating his print work. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

The premiere of the classic Javanese opera ‘Knights of the Golden Empress’ brought together six royal families of Java, with dignitaries and socialites also attending. The Opera honored the life of famed batik designer Iwan Tirta, who died in 2010, with costumes worn by performers replicating his print work. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

“We, artists that were close to Mas Iwan, felt that we have to present a special something in honor of the late maestro,” Bram said.

For Thursday’s “Knight of the Golden Empress,” Bram worked with senior choreographer Elly D. Luthan and musical composer Rahayu Supanggah. Both were close friends of Iwan.

Elly and Rahayu composed the classical opera based on the ancient Javanese scripture “Serat Damarwulan” (“Damarwulan’s Scripture”).

The royal feast

About 200 VIP guests attended the gala dinner. Among them were representatives of two traditional kingdoms from each of Cirebon, Yogyakarta and Solo, along with foreign dignitaries and members of Jakarta’s high society.

“Mas Iwan was personally very close to these six Javanese monarchs,” Bram said. “They have also influenced his batik styles a lot.”

Cocktails and canapes were served to the guests in the foyer of the grand ballroom. The canapes were Javanese traditional snacks that are hard to find in cities nowadays.

Among them were udang kalasan (grilled shrimp), getuk lindri (a cassava dish served with grated coconut and palm sugar) and ande-ande lumut (cassava steamed in coconut milk).

The guests then entered the ballroom. The traditional snack of Surakarta Palace, gadon udang (shrimp cooked in coconut milk) was served as the amuse-bouche .

The high-profiled culinary team of The Dharmawangsa Jakarta prepared the entire gala dinner repertoire that evening.

The premiere of the classic Javanese opera 'Knights of the Golden Empress' brought together six royal families of Java, with dignitaries and socialites also attending. The Opera honored the life of famed batik designer Iwan Tirta, who died in 2010, with costumes worn by performers replicating his print work. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

The premiere of the classic Javanese opera ‘Knights of the Golden Empress’ brought together six royal families of Java, with dignitaries and socialites also attending. The Opera honored the life of famed batik designer Iwan Tirta, who died in 2010, with costumes worn by performers replicating his print work. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

“We’ve especially consulted the six traditional palaces in Java to create the traditional dishes for this evening,” The Dharmawangsa Jakarta executive sous chef Idham Mirwan said.

The appetizer was sate penthul with selat Solo from Surakarta Palace. The dish consisted of marinated beef sate and beef roulade in cinnamon soya sauce, served with a Solo salad in mustard dressing.

The dish is considered to be sacred, and is traditionally only served on the eighth year of the Javanese calendar during the Grebeg Maulud religious ceremony in the Surakarta Palace.

In the following dish, they served the soup of empal gentong from the Kanoman Palace in Cirebon. The soup contained diced beef in curried turmeric and candlenut broth.

Soon the main course, sekul golong , a ritual rice dish from the Yogyakarta Palace, arrived. The dish consisted of a roll of rice, grilled chicken, beef, corn cake and vegetable soup.

“The dish is usually served to the guests during a special celebration,” said chef Idham. “It’s a symbol of togetherness, as well as a wish that the guests that eat it will receive golong-golong [in Javanese, bountiful blessings].”

The performance

After the main dish was served, the lights in the ballroom were dimmed. A group of traditional singers and musicians marched slowly to the stage while singing a sweet Javanese melody.

Dressed in black velvet kebaya blouses for women and beskap black jackets for men, every performer also wore sogan (brownish) batik sarongs.

The batik worn during the show was provided by Iwan Tirta Private Collection. In total, ITPC prepared 60 batik pieces for the opera.

“They’re replicas of the ancient batik motifs found in Mas Iwan’s personal collections,” said Era Sukamto, fashion designer and ITPC creative director.

Since March, Era has inspected more than 10,000 batik motifs designed by Iwan in order to curate and prepare the costumes for the show.

“The character and philosophy of the motifs should match the roles in the play,” Era said.

None of the batik pieces were cut or made into clothes. Instead, according to Javanese traditional custom, the batiks were wrapped around the bodies of the performing artists.

“That’s the beauty of Javanese traditional attire,” ITPC director Johannes Bima said. “We don’t need to cut and sew [the batiks]. They’re already beautiful and ready to wear as they are.”

The premiere of the classic Javanese opera 'Knights of the Golden Empress' brought together six royal families of Java, with dignitaries and socialites also attending. The Opera honored the life of famed batik designer Iwan Tirta, who died in 2010, with costumes worn by performers replicating his print work. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

The premiere of the classic Javanese opera ‘Knights of the Golden Empress’ brought together six royal families of Java, with dignitaries and socialites also attending. The Opera honored the life of famed batik designer Iwan Tirta, who died in 2010, with costumes worn by performers replicating his print work. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

As the opening act of the opera, they presented the sacred dance “Srimpi Catur Segatra.” With their gentle dance moves, the four female dancers, dressed in burgundy velvet kebayas and batik sarongs, portrayed the harmony of four traditional monarchs in Central Java.

The opera told the story of Prabu Stri Suhita, a beautiful queen who between 1427 and 1447 ruled the Majapahit Empire.

Majapahit was Indonesia’s last and largest Hindu-Buddhist empire and ruled Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, the Malayan Strait and the eastern parts of Indonesia between 1293 and 1500.

A big revolution took place during the rule of Queen Suhita. Feeling threatened by the violence, the queen swore that any man who forced the rebels back would become her husband when the battle was won.

Seizing the opportunity, a brave young man Joko Umbaran gathered the best fighters he could find and attacked.

The arias of the opera were performed in kromo inggil , the most formal of the two levels of formality in Javanese language, but non-Javanese speaking guests were provided a synopsis in English in the program book.

Joko and his loyalists vanquished the rebels. But unfortunately, the fight with the rebels marred Joko’s face and left him with a limp. Seeing him in that condition, the queen refused to marry him.

Joko was very angry. He went to Blambangan, East Java, intending to spearhead a new uprising against the queen.

As the empire was again threatened, the queen summoned Adipati Ronggo Lawe, the grand duke, to quell Joko’s rebellion. Again, the queen promised to marry Ronggo upon completion of his duty.

The fighting scene between the armies of Ronggo and Joko was beautifully choreographed, with a group of bare-chested male dancers dressed in black batik sarongs fighting ferociously with long bamboo sticks. Intense lighting added dramatic effect to the scene, throughout which the audience was enthralled.

While the men fought, the queen had been waiting anxiously at the palace. By this point she had developed true feelings of affection for Ronggo, and she decided to stay true to her word and marry him.

But Ronggo died in the battle. His body was carried by the army to the queen’s palace. The epic play closed with Queen Suhita weeping over Ronggo’s dead body.

The play was acted out beautifully. Cast as Queen Suhita was the traditional dancer Dorothea Quinn, while Ronggo was played by senior traditional artist Fajar Satriadi and Joko was played by senior traditional dancer Ahmad Dipoyono.

The opera presented on Thursday was the premiere. Gelar Nusantara plans to bring the show to a wider audience in Jakarta and other cities in Indonesia and Europe from December.

“We hope Mas Iwan’s name and legacy live on,” Bram said. “And his works will continue to be appreciated and developed in the future.”