Poet, writer, dramatist, cultural activist and theater director, WS Rendra, died on Thursday night, approaching the age of 74, after battling heart and kidney problems for around a month. Indonesia has lost one of its most talented artists.
Rendra rose to fame as a poet in the 1950’s and remained the most influential poet in the country until his death. He is also credited as the man who brought modern Indonesian theater to its maturity through his experimental works with Bengkel Teater (Theater Workshop), which he founded in 1968. Before Rendra and his Bengkel Teater, modern Indonesian theater was simply a copy of that in the West, but Rendra brought traditional expressions into a modern context.
Born to a Roman Catholic family and baptized as Willibrordus Surendra Broto, he changed his name to Wahyu Sulaiman Rendra when he embraced Islam in 1970 on his second marriage to Sitoresmi Prabunigrat from the Yogyakarta palace. Rendra leaves behind eleven children from three marriages.
During the repressive New Order era, Rendra was one of the few creative people in this country who had the courage to express dissent. When the novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer was returned from Indonesia’s gulag — the prison island of Buru — he said Rendra was “one man who has the courage to resist the power of Suharto, under his own name. If you cannot respect that, you should learn to.”
Rendra’s plays and poetry during the Suharto era were very critical of the ideology of development and his performances as a poet or with Bengkel Teater were often banned.
“I learned meditation and disciplines of the traditional Javanese poet from my mother who was a palace dancer. The idea of the Javanese poet is to be a guardian of the spirit of the nation,” Rendra once said. Because of his poetry readings and his sexy performances on the stage, he was dubbed “the Peacock” by the press.
In 1979, during a poetry reading critical of development in the Ismail Marzuki art center in Jakarta, Suharto’s military intelligence agents threw ammonia bombs on to the stage and arrested him. He was imprisoned in the notorious Guntur military prison for nine months, spending time in solitary confinement in a cell with a ceiling too low to stand up and only mosquitoes for company. When he was released, without ever having being charged, his body was covered with sores from mosquito bites.
His experience in Guntur prison inspired him to write the short poem: “Thunder beats and hammers/ Life is forged on stone/ Harsh thunder is my teacher / The sun always shines” and also the ballad “Paman Doblang” (“Uncle Doblang”), which was later set to music by the rock band Kantata Takwa. The ballad tells the story of Uncle Doblang, who is sent to a dark cell for voicing his conscience, and ends with the lines: “Conscience is the sun/ patience is the earth/ courage forms horizons/ and struggle is the implementation of words.”
After he was released from prison he was banned from performing poetry or drama until 1986, when he wrote, directed and starred in his eight hour long play “Panembahan Reso,” which discussed the issue of the succession of power that was a taboo at that time. Before the performance at the Senayan sports center, he told his cast of 40-something actors: “Pack your toiletries, because there is a chance that we might get arrested.” The play took six months to prepare and was performed for two nights. “Modern Indonesian theater has no infrastructure. We must create it ourselves,” he used to tell his performers.
Rendra studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the same school as Marlon Brando, but when he graduated, he chose to return to Indonesia and in 1968 founded Bengkel Teater in Yogyakarta. The group quickly fascinated audiences with works that were artistically experimental and politically critical.
In 1969 he created a series of dramas without any dialog where actors employed their bodies and simple sounds such as bip bop, zzzzz and rambate rate rata. The journalist poet Goenawan Mohamad dubbed these experimental performances as “mini-word theatre.” During the 1970’s, his plays such as “Mastodon and the Condors” and “The Struggle of the Naga Tribe” and “The Regional Secretary” were often banned because they openly criticized Suharto’s development programs that often alienated indigenous people and tended to side with multinational corporations.
Rendra was also a great admirer of Shakespeare and Bertolt Brecht, and he translated and performed Hamlet and Macbeth. A keen student of the traditional Indonesian martial art pencak silat, Rendra always looked a lot younger than his age and he played Hamlet when he was well into his sixties.
He translated and performed Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” as well as Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy. In the process of embracing Islam, he translated and directed the traditional Islamic poems telling of the life of the prophet Muhammad, in his play comprising drums and poetry, “Qasidah Barjanzi.” His works have been translated into many languages and performed all over the world.
Rendra, who was born in Solo on Nov. 7, 1935, will be missed by creative communities all over Indonesia. He was a dedicated mentor who was always willing to help younger artists. He will be remembered for many things, especially by members of his Bengkel Teater. For them, he was a dear friend, a teacher and a father figure.
Bramantyo Prijosusilo is an artist, poet and organic farmer in Ngawi, East Java. He was a student of WS Rendra at Bengkel Teater.