LEARNING TO SWIM UPSTREAM: EXPERIENCE WITH ‘MAS’ ROEDJITO

Marianne König

During my research on modern theater in Jakarta, which took place over two years (1989-1991), I often met with Roedjito at his home to talk together about many things. Our conversations, sometimes they would be hours, were not epitomized by exchanging information and facts concerning theater for the sake of my research; rather, they tended to move around the problems and meanings of life. I got a lot from Roedjito, and he (directly and otherwise) had his part to influence and shape my dissertation and, on a broader level, my thinking and view of life ever since. This writing is on various ideas and experiences I had with and of him.

In one of our early conversations, he explained to me about how characters in the Javanese wayang kulit puppet theater make their entrance: they enter with their backs and turn around only later to face the unfolding events on the screen, in contrast with the frontal entrance of characters in the Western theater. Roedjito added that in Indonesia things happen in the forms of such spins and swirls; they circle, interconnect, and are undefined. For example, certain characters of the wayang can never die; they can get killed but only to live again shortly after.

Some three years after the conversation I went to see Teater Mandiri group in rehearsal at the Gedung Kesenian Jakarta Theater for their production of “Dor”. Roedjito was responsible for the set and lighting but Putu Wijaya also asked him to lend a hand in the directing, giving inputs to the cast. To them, Roedjito explained the way wayang characters make their entrance and showed how the cast could also make their entrance to the stage in a turning-around mode. Because some of the actors found such way of entrance too hard, the alternative was moving forward at entrance but halted a moment as soon as they emerged from the wing. Roedjito told the actors that it was as if they were entering a different world, amazed or stunned. He explained further with illustrations of various performances in Bali where dancers enter through a doorway and a little set of steps, or from behind the curtain. They made their entrances slowly, as if hesitating, exposing at first just one hand or foot in different manners that suit different characters, and only afterward the dancers present themselves in their fullness. Roedjito called this mode of entrance “menyelinap”, i.e., “slipping in”.

For me the term “menyelinap” then mediated my comprehension of Roedjito, his view of life, his theatrical works as well as their effects on other people and on me and my work too.

The entrance of a performer to the stage can be seen as one among the esthetic and technical details that a director or performer gives particular attention. For Roedjito, details are extras as theater and art in general are more than just means to present esthetic expressions or entertainments. To him, entrance to the stage should become a new birth, a birth into a new awareness and into a world that transcends the real world of daily life. This world enables unexpected discoveries and notions that are not merely intellectual but, rather, moral and timeless as well. Through the theater we should feel ourselves more human and we should be more aware of our humanity in its horizontal (our relationship with the environment) as well as vertical (our relationship with God) dimensions. To enable this, the theater as a process has to lead to events that are not necessarily descriptive and explanatory; rather, it should stimulate something more profound. The theater becomes subversive in the basic sense of the word, namely turning things upside-down from below.

Roedjito rarely imparted his visions of the theater in such a complete or abstract way. He would prefer “inserting” a remark or sentence that could take the form of a question addressed, at an appropriate time, to a person in order to help her/him in working or thinking, opening new ways or offering different orientations and encouraging her/him to go even further. His words were generally not immediately and rationally comprehensible. One needs personal preparedness (or suppleness – plasticity – that was the word Roedjito would use) to go into Roedjito’s views and accept them. One had also to do a sort of “slipping in”, spinning and swirling oneself in entering a wider world that was perhaps not Roedjito’s but just a space in one’s self waiting to be opened. This must be done fully and earnestly without aiming at any victorious gain like – for instance – making use of Roedjito’s inputs for the sake of our own particular and pragmatic interests. Those unable or unwilling to open the other space would only hear words that, just as mere words learned by heart, would not take them anywhere. This is perhaps the case with several persons complaining that Roedjito was weird and perplexing. Moreover, Roedjito would often choose not to speak out his opinions as he was afraid the persons he was talking to would not understand what he meant. He told me once that he could not talk with persons whose thinking was rigidly patterned and clogged.

“Menyelinap”, “slipping in”: this refers to a movement or a journey that had gained importance for Roedjito in various senses. In conversations with Roedjito, if one was clear and earnest enough, she/he could journey together with him to distant realms, moving from one thought to another and through unexpected and gorgeous discoveries.

There was also real traveling: since young, Roedjito had been fond of nature; he traveled to ancient sites or visited traditional artists and their environments in different regions. When a theater group invited him to give training, he often took them out to the open, exposed them to natural settings, made midnight long journeys without lights and speeches, or made passages through squatter areas by the outskirts of a city. And there was also a miniature journey: Roedjito told me how he once asked a stage director to enter the yard of a Javanese home by creeping below the fence. When the director was creeping, Roedjito told him to stop the activity and to note well how it was being half inside and half outside. Roedjito seemed to live out the theater as a sort of journey; once he said that a theatrical project began with devising a map, a chart.

Making a journey was for Roedjito “imbuing with vitality and experience” as well as “hauling lessons to learn” just like hauling water from a deep well. However, these do not happen automatically. One should have the appropriate openness, curiosity and alertness, astute senses (Roedjito liked to emphasize smelling), suppleness and proclivity to get amazed. In turn, this attitude provides the basis for theatrical works. Openness of the mind will enable us to perceive different and unusual aspects of reality, the hidden interrelationships of things. We will find out, for example, that “the noises of twigs being trampled vary from one forest to another.” In this way, the world around us can be very rich. Talking about things like these often reminds me of a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff, a German poet from the Romantic era:

“a song’s asleep inside all things
that keep dreaming on and on
and the world would just start singing
if the magic word you could only find”

For Roedjito, nature expands into the universe; a microcosm became a macrocosm.

Everything is speaking to us and we can catch and read its signs. Shrewd observation is not sufficient. Experience can only come to life and become actual, inspiring, when it is worked on, elaborated, reciprocally by means of profound and unbroken reflections. For Roedjito, reflecting on thoughts and experiences while tending his own spirituality and refined feelings, which he was devoutly pursuing every moment, provided the basis for his work and way of life. Such reflection was multi-layered to include re-questioning its conclusion along with the assumptions that followed. In Roedjito’s concept, skepticism is essential without shaking the persona. Through reflection, such experience as expressed in the poem above is not just a romantic event or mystical revelation to send people afloat, loosing foothold on the ground; instead, it may provide the source of one’s down-to-earth practice and view of life.

Roedjito’s reflections were enriched with his extensive readings. He built a private library comprising thousands of volumes on many different fields. Reading seems to represent another sort of traveling for him; his way of reading books (which might remind us of consultancy sessions) was similar to his way of perceiving natural or cultural phenomena during his travels. His reading was not for the sake of knowing certain theories he could later use in his works or refer to in discussions with others; rather, he read to deepen and enrich the findings from his own thinking and journeys. To Roedjito, the main point was to keep learning from life; in this regard he would often express his concern over the lack of such “learning from life” among younger generation artists, particularly those graduating from art education institutes that give too much curricular emphasis on theoretical knowledge in comparison with intuition training. Moreover, Roedjito observed that their theatrical performances and other kinds of art were more of reacting to, rather than reflecting on, contemporary circumstances. With his openness and suppleness Roedjito was able to melt and mix together his experience and knowledge, modern scientific knowledge and olden teachings, material and spiritual elements. It is most impressive to me how a person could have such integrating capacity, particularly in Indonesia where tensions between traditions and modernity has remained among the basic problems.

Roedjito liked to sum up findings from his reflections in single words or brief statements that would at first bewilder us. In order for us to comprehend and adopt them we also have to make reflections, a sort of re-translation, which involve pondering on the words themselves, setting them free from whatever general and conventional notions they might contain, and tracing them back to their basic significance. This approach is consistent with his treatment on natural phenomena I already describe. That way, words gain life and provide discourses to “slip into”, entering unexpected space, instead of turning into frozen maxims or knowledge. It is just fitting when Roedjito often cited Islamic legends and wayang, Javanese nursery rhyme and old Javanese children’s songs that provided for him models and inspirations thanks to their openness and flexibility.

Such materials always carry moral lessons. This element of morality was also of great importance to Roedjito. This is because his reflections and practices were aimed at and based on some strong moral and religious conviction. For him everything he did became some form of prayer the ultimate goal of which was God’s acceptance. Roedjito believed that God also trusts human beings and gives us the chance (and perhaps obligation) to choose our ways of life. Regarding himself, Roedjito chose to lead a life without any definite worldly aspirations, unbothered by the issue of status and recognition. He chose to help and support, and just because of this he preferred theatrical projects that capitalize on collective work, collaboration, rather than painting that represents the _expression of a single person. In Roedjito’s case, helping didn’t mean providing ideas, concepts and works for others, not to say imposing his own ideas on them. Rather, he would accompany those he helped while adjusting himself so he could join their exploration and offer his suitable notes to help them find their own ways. With such a stance, Roedjito was able to make out of himself a good friend and advisor to persons of different age groups, backgrounds, status, etc. Having such qualified integrity, he had become so free.

Roedjito seldom spoke about the crux of his highly personal conviction, not to say showing it off or preaching it. His moral appeal addressed to other people or artists in particular was quite liberal, namely, for each of us to have some clear perspective of the world and life. In modern life that not longer provides any general and complete value system and worldview, individuals ought to develop their own. In Roedjito’s opinion, such perspective of life provides the basis and source not only for one’s way of life to choose, but for one’s artistic pursuit as well: it is from here, instead of sophisticated techniques and concepts, spring the true vivacity and beauty of works. When asked for advices by a student of dancing who was about to make research or training with traditional dancers in various regions of the country, he would encourage her/him to first of all ask and learn to know the local artists’ worldviews and values rather than learning just their dancing techniques and movements.

A question that may help in further recognizing and developing one’s view of life is: “Where did I come from and where will I go?” The question formed the basic issue and orientation for Roedjito throughout all his deliberation and actions. Working on the question will lead to the emergence of one’s awareness of the aptness of whatever one does. This also becomes important in theatrical projects that involve many temptations of overdoing things in the creative process. The requirement that anything ought to be accurately fitting would often be reminded overtly or otherwise by Roedjito. The word “fitting” or the phrase “just as needed” does not signify some value immediately conceivable or measurable or, else, static. Roedjito liked to refer to examples in nature involving the process of birth, growth, development, and transformation that includes a great many accidental yet fitting proceedings.

The phrase “where did I come from and where will I go” leads to another “journey” for which Roedjito’s physical journeys might stand as the concrete expressions of his dealing with it. All the actual traveling was eventually for Roedjito part of his attempt to get closer to the “mystery of life” that the question signifies. Yet Roedjito also said that the mystery of life would only be opened to anyone in death. Perhaps it is death itself the true journey and “slipping in”.

In a film “To Vlemma tou Odyssea” (Ulysses’ Gaze) by a Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, the hero – a wanderer like Odysseus of the olden Greek myth – states that the basis of his wandering is “yearning and doubts”. To him as a traveler, yearning and doubts provide the basis or, even more, the significance, of his life. To me, the hero’s remark well describes what had motivated Roedjito to work and live his life and what perhaps should have motivated all of us. It is most subtle, like some tiny breeze hardly felt but is there unbroken.

Meanwhile I recall some sets designed by Roedjito. The spaces that employ simple materials and lighting become the natural space inviting us to saunter, meditate in it, letting the heart and soul wander away. Also in those spaces the breeze is felt. Like natural settings, spaces designed by Roedjito have that latent serenity, keeping something extending in space and time across and beyond what is visual; its presence becomes the real beauty, touching and opening the innermost part of our selves, carrying us far away. In my memory and for me, it is Roedjito himself doing the opening inside.

23.12.2004