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Asian Theatre Journal 22.1 (2005) 138-149

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I La Galigo. Directed by Robert Wilson. Text adaptation and dramaturgy by Rhoda Grauer. Music by Rahayu Supanggah. Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, 12 and 14 May 2004.

A scrim is lit with blue light and the projected image of a frayed manuscript written in the Buginese characters of South Sulawesi (Celebes, Indonesia), nine lines on both verso and recto. Silently a bissu priest dressed in traditional regalia enters, clutching a tubular container in a hand that swings in a controlled ark as he walks. He looks around, and sits down in an extension of the proscenium stage overhanging the orchestra pit—a liminal space set off from the playing area.

As the bissu takes out a manuscript from the container and sets it upon a wooden stand, preparing to read it, the musicians enter the stage in unison. All are dressed identically in cotton tops and simple plaid sarongs, with cloth headwraps. They approach their dimly lit instruments, a huge variety of Indonesian percussion, wind, and string instruments, arrayed upstage left. The conductor and composer, Rahayu Supanggah, dressed in similar attire, follows. The musicians turn in unison, and sit down behind their instruments. Supanggah bows (see Color Plate 8). The composer-conductor sits down next to the musicians. The lights dim. A spotlight comes up on the seated bissu.The scrim rises, and there is the soft sound of quivering strings. Before long, there are many different bowed stringed instruments playing together, each with a unique timbre and pitch, each following a different rhythmic and melodic contour.

In silhouette, a grand procession of men, women, and one child. All [End Page 138] carry objects made of bamboo, wood, ceramics, dried grasses —baskets, jars, containers, a sapu lidi broom, carved pieces of wood suggesting parts of boats or houses. Slowly, one by one, they cross from stage left to right in measured paces. An entire village, perhaps an entire world, is on the move. An orange light comes up at the bottom of the white screen that stretches across the back of the stage. Is sunrise nigh? Details of the processors and the objects they bear become visible (Fig. 1). We see Supanggah rhythmically waving his hands, occasionally making a fist or leading forward for musical emphasis. More mysterious beings enter, supernatural entities, undulating across the stage, trailing long rivers of blue cloth. An acrobat springs up and down as he crosses the stage. The strings fade as the sound of a low-pitched bamboo flute, played with circular breathing, comes to the fore. Other winds join in, and before long the music is a riot of swooping and trilling flutes. A piercing puik-puik, a shawm prominent in bissu ritual, blares. Thunder and lightning occur: a flash of white light bathes the stage, receding in seconds, as jumping birds and leaping warriors bearing spears fly across the stage. The winds recede as the sound of drums and other nonpitched percussion playing complex rhythms and cross-rhythms come to the fore. The music increases in volume as the light becomes stronger and the faces of the processors become visible for the first time. The faces display no emotion. The sky turns green. The shawm sounds again and the stage becomes increasingly crowded with processors as the lightning and thunder increase in frequency and the drums beat louder and faster.

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Figure 1
The denizens of the Middle World vacate this plane of existence in I La Galigo. (Photo: Ken Cheong)

And then, silence. The stage fades to black, as the bissu intones the [End Page 139] sacred Old Buginese words of I La Galigo (also known as Sureq Galigo) inscribed in the manuscript before him. This twenty-minute tableau, a meditation on emigration and displacement, is prologue to a text, a performance, an entire world.

Even Longer Than the Mahabharata

I La Galigois one of the great expressive traditions of Southeast Asia, a gargantuan pre-Islamic compendium of mythic tales and knowledge common to the Bugis people of South Sulawesi and adjoining Indonesian ethnic...