Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Solo’s Operatic Soul

The city of Solo in Central Java, Indonesia, was once known as a center of culture, religion and royalty. More recently, however, it has been associated with something much more menacing.

“I was sad and angry that people started labeling Solo a ‘haven for radicals,’” said Atilah Soeryadjaya , referring to an article in Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper last month. The article detailed the killing of terrorist Noordin M Top on the city’s outskirts.

A true-blue Solo native, Atilah is the granddaughter of Sultan Mangkunegara VII, a direct descendent of the Mataram dynasty’s royal line, which ruled Java between the 17th and 18th centuries.

“I thought, we’d better show the world all that we have to offer so people will once again recognize Solo as a proud city of culture,” she said.

With the help of some friends, Atilah decided to direct and choreograph an elaborate Javanese dance opera that is scheduled to go on a world tour starting in Singapore this month.

As material, she used the epic of Raden Mas Said, his wife, Rubiyah, and their struggle against the Dutch colonialists in the 18th century.

The opera, “Matah Ati ” (“To Serve the Heart”), tells the story of the warrior lovers — itself a source of pride for Indonesians — while incorporating almost every form of cultural heritage that the artisans of Solo and Central Java have become famous for.

Atilah first became aware of Raden Mas and Rubiyah from listening to her grandfather ’s stories when she was young. “The story tells of a time when women were recognized for their courage and power,” she said. “They were not merely the wives and followers of men.”

According to the story, Rubiyah, a commoner from a village in Wonogiri, Central Java, led 40 female soldiers disguised as farmers against the Dutch. They were able to freely enter Solo without arousing suspicion and their siege took the Dutch Army by surprise.

On the other side of the city walls, Raden Mas simultaneously led his troops in an attack. He killed so many soldiers that he earned the nickname Pangeran Samber Nyowo, which literally means Soul-Reaping Prince.

After winning the battle, the prince ruled in the city of Solo and became the first Sultan Mangkunegara, taking Rubiyah, his loyal commander and lover, as his wife. Eventually, he gave her the title Raden Ayu Kusuma Matah Ati — Princess Ayu Kusuma Matah Ati .

“It’s a love story, but it also tells the strong, proud history of our nation,” Atilah said.

Full article by Sylviana Hamdani

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