February 22, 2024

Watching the Ramayana in Indonesia

As the sun began to set and the yellow electric lights of the theatre came on, there was restiveness in the air. A large group of school children had arrived there a few minutes ago, apparently as part of a cultural excursion. Apart from these giggly kids and their harried teachers, most of the audience comprised foreign visitors to Indonesia. Like me.

I was at the Prambanan temple complex near Yogyakarta (pronounced locally as Jogja) to watch the famous Ramayana ballet that takes place there every night. In the summer months, the performance is in the open-air theatre, against the backdrop of the towering temples. But since I was there in the cold season, we had settled into the cosy amphitheatre, with its stage right in the centre.

The orchestra at the back of the stage – complete with local versions of musical instruments we know in India, such as the mridangam and harmonium – soon began to strum traditional tunes, signalling the start of the show. Having grown up with this epic, I was really not sure what to expect, but I was definitely looking forward to a new interpretation. As it turned out, the performance was fascinating, enhanced by the undeniably Indonesian looks and costumes of the actors, over 200 of them.

The performance was peppered with lots of dance and movement, all the actors (including the demons, I must add) seeming to glide with an easy grace, leaving no doubt that this was indeed a ballet. The music was melodic and dramatic by turns. And there were no spoken words in an unfamiliar language to hamper my enjoyment of this experience.

The story began with Rama and Lakshmana leaving for the forest, a docile Sita in tow. The narrative was more or less traditional, following their path to Lanka, all the way through till Ravana’s gory end. A glittering golden deer, a brave Jatayu vulture, the semi funny-ferocious demons at Ravana’s court – every detail was carefully detailed through dance and music, and the vibrant costumes. Sita herself was a petite beauty, filled with pathos and hope at the same time, moving gracefully in time to the lilting music.

Although the battle scenes were spectacular, it was Hanuman in his white costume and beard who stole the show, first with his antics and finally the flair with which he set fire to Ravana’s golden city.

At the end of the ballet, as I made my way out of the theatre, I found myself coming face to face with Hanuman; along with other characters, he was waiting to pose for photos with the appreciative audience. I refused with a smile and walked on, humming the lilting notes of the background score.

(Watch this short video for a sense of the vibrant costumes and the lilting music and the magnificence of the battle scenes)

To be continued: At the Prambanan temples of Yogyakarta

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