Meeting Rendra


In Jogjakarta we heard the name ‘Rendra’ over and over again; `Have you met Rendra?’ and `You must meet Rendra’, and `Rendra is an interesting man’. And we began to mention the name too, to shopkeepers and becak boys, restaurant owners and waitresses. They all knew Rendra. Rendra, the rebel; Rendra, the genius; Rendra, the superstar.

Rendra is a poet. How different this is from Australia or Europe, where poets are obscure figures, reading their work to small devoted audiences. In the United Kingdom the man in the street might know of Dylan Thomas because of how he drank rather than how he wrote.

Rendra lives in a Kampung. We came silently by becak along a quiet, narrow lane where small houses were set amongst trees. His house is one in a compound of houses. We walked through a bamboo corral with high, capped gateways; the rehearsal space for Rendra’s Drama Group. There were no banners or signs to advertise its presence.

He was at home, nursing a tiny baby. While we sat, he paced lithely back and forth before us. I said: `I had expected you to be older’.

`I am old’, he said, `two wives, eight children – that is an old man isn’t it?’. One wife entered at this point and Rendra handed her the baby. He sat opposite us Java fashion, cross-legged on a chair. A fine boned face, a slim build, Rendra has long hair, greying a little when you get to noticing, he looked thirty years old. `1 am forty’, he said.

Rendra plays the game of conversation like a set of tennis. Our questions came as slow lobs and he slammed them back at us, tricky, complicated shots. `Do children have a place in the drama group?’ we asked.

`Children? Of course children, but why say children? This is not the west. Here children are liberated.’

`You mean there is not any distinction between children and adults?’

`Yes I mean that. We do not shut our children away. And crazy people; here they are free. We do not lock them up. They walk about like other people.’

Rendra is passionate and single minded. East-west problems interest him and he is wholeheartedly a Javanese patriot. He sees falsity in western philosophy, western technology and progress. `Yet many Indonesians are adopting western ways’, we said, `how do you feel about it?

‘The western ways they are adopting are already being questioned in the west. They are almost outmoded.’

`Everybody talks of drugs’, he said. `For ritual, drugs are fine. For uplifting the spirit, fine. But drugs to kill pain or drugs to prolong life – I don’t think that very good. Pain is part of life and so is death. We should realise that birth and death are belonging to the one thing, life’. Rendra was once a Christian but chose the Islamic faith and shows the zeal of a convert. One by one, established ideas fell before his attack. His logic was backed by amazing vigour. This vigour and also a good amount of courage are essential ingredients in his rise to fame. He writes what he believes without a thought for consequence. When there are difficulties, such as censorship, he ignores them and continues writing, rehearsing, performing. University students rise up in his defence and so do heads of faculties.

`Are you a rebel?

‘No’, he said vehemently, `no, I am not. I want peace. I do not approve of disturbances and demonstrations. I am called a rebel, but I am not’.

What Rendra writes is what he sees as truth. He has no intention to disturb anyone, though what he does write might disturb them. His poetry has been published in a thick volume from Oxford University Press, a thinner one from Queensland University Press. He has held Dutch audiences enthralled with his readings. He has been awarded grants to travel to America, Europe and Australia.

`Has technique had anything to do with it?’

Rendra dismisses technique out of hand. `What we are taught means nothing. Ideas are important, rhythm, yes. Nobody can teach us how to write or how to paint or how to act.’

Rendra was not built for compromise; not in conversation nor work. He is not rich, nor does he want to accumulate riches. Like many of the Indonesians we have spoken to, Rendra is keen on the idea of the spiritual – material link. `Accumulation’, he says, `brings death’. And with his flair for analogy, `a river accumulates and floods’.

`But you accumulate’, Betty said and indicated his bookshelf. He brightened, `But books are circulative’, he replied.

I sensed his bias coming through the conversation and it was towards the underdog. His comments on the Australian Aborigines were thoughtful, intelligent and sympathetic. Though a startling opponent, I think he might be a very good friend.

We were able to watch rehearsals in progress of Goethe’s, ‘Egmont’, produced in the rather static Javanese style. People From the Kampung came quietly to watch over the bamboo fence. Now and again, Rendra strode into the centre with advice or rebuke. His actors have the wild look of the avant garde. Though Rendra is no rebel, this bamboo corral had something the look of a brigand camp.

Mrs. Rendra, number one, is a composer and a singer trained in the western style. One day, she will compose the music for a mask drama. Rendra dreams of it; but first the right topeng masks must come to him.

`It is no use looking for them and buying them’, he says. `I know that the masks will be created and will come to me.’

As we left, he presented us with a poster, a large centre spread from a glossy magazine. It was a beautiful colour shot of Rendra playing Oedipus Rex. Rendra, superstar.

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