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Opera Batak, das Wandertheater der Toba-Batak in Nord-Sumatra: Schauspiele zur Wahrung kultureller Identitat im nationalen Kontext, vols.

Opera Batak, a genre of Batak popular wandering theater, developed from about 1925 onwards, inspired by the Malay popular theater groups that also traveled around Sumatra, Indonesia. By 1988 all Opera Batak groups had disappeared in North Sumatra. Rainer Carle's study is based on fieldwork carried out in 1979-81, and derives more generally from his involvement with Batak culture for about twenty years. It is meant to contribute to the understanding of a regional--in this case Batak--identity in the national, Indonesian, context. The emphasis of the book is on an intertextual analysis of transliterated plays, performed by the theater group Serindo in 1979.

Texts of some plays and commentary form the greater part of this study. Further, in volume 1, after a general introduction, the historical development of the genre is discussed and the theater group Serindo described. The second volume contains much detailed information on the wandering theater groups; places where the Serindo group performed in 1963-81; the Opera Batak repertory of 143 plays in 1979 as drawn upon by the different groups, and the frequency of performance of a particular play; short information on all the players of the Serindo theater group; and maps, diagrams, and fifty-three photographs, with valuable information on the social setting of the performances.

The founder of the trend-setting Tilhang Opera Batak, or Serindo, Tilhang O. Gultom, used for his plays traditional themes of the oral literature (including genealogical histories, historical legends, and sensational stories derived from articles in newspapers), or themes adapted from written texts. His followers in the Serindo theater group described this process as "lifting [the material] on the stage" (mengangkat ke pentas), to point out that Tilhang Gultom had not just "invented" the story. The texts that were used in performances were not written down. The dramatic framework was orally transmitted and explained to the players. With this general background knowledge they rehearsed the play, and it was presented on stage according to the form it had been given during the rehearsals, with some degree of improvisation during the performances. The form and dramatic development of a particular Opera Batak performance remained the same in the sixty years of its existence. Only the "extras"--songs, dances, and antics in the interludes between segments of the main story--were changed with respect to content and style during this period.

The author's methodology relies in part on the concept of "intertextuality," and Carle often compares the cultural themes of Opera Batak with texts from other sources. Aspects of intertextuality appear as explanations insofar as they are concerned with text-producing factors that are clearly, though not always directly, present in the communication process. The research is not so much focused on the relation of the Opera Batak texts with prior texts, but rather on the discussion of the different interpretations of cultural themes. Carle claims that his approach differs from other studies of Indonesian texts, which are mostly descriptive and documentary.

The author set out to produce written texts of five different plays that had been orally transmitted during performances of Opera Batak. These Batak texts are reproduced in full in volume 2. The first play (Sejarah Tarombo ni Si Raja Lontung mulai dari Si Raja Batak) is also fully translated into German, but of the other four texts only a synopsis is given in German. Each play is annotated, and especially the first play receives a lengthy commentary.

Carle describes how the Opera Batak became established and very popular in the first decade of its existence, 1925-35. The members of the Opera Batak groups came from a rural background, and were very much tied to their Batak clan (marga). They were anticolonial (Dutch colonial rule of the Batak region had only been firmly established since the beginning of the twentieth century), antimission (the German mission had been well established since the second half of the nineteenth century), and "Batak-centric." The Opera Batak groups were supported and influenced by the urban intellectuals of that time--for instance, through articles they contributed to the local newspapers. At first, these intellectuals stressed the pan-Batak consciousness. In the awakening of Indonesian independence, the repertory changed, and stressed both Batak identity and the Indonesian fight for independence. In 1977, an Opera Batak group was established for the first time in Jakarta. This group has been, for want of a better phrase, "Batak-nostalgic." As was the case in the beginning of Opera Batak, the group acts mainly as a mediator of Batak culture to the Batak (in Jakarta). Further it propagates Batak ideas to Indonesian fellow citizens and to tourists. From the second half of the 1980s this Jakarta group is the only one performing Opera Batak. The wandering theater groups in the homeland of North Sumatra had all disappeared by that time, a development that did not come entirely unexpected for Carle, but one that occurred much faster than he had forseen. He therefore felt that his documentation of the genre contained data that could probably never be collected again.

In his commentary to the transliterated plays Carle discusses the genealogies and the relations between the different clans. The asymmetrical kinship system, in which each exogamous group has relations to a wife-giving and a wife-taking group (dalihan na tolu), plays an important role in Batak society: it stands for harmony. Incest, the illegitimate ruler, denial of the elder-younger relation, and individual crimes disturb the harmony. The resulting conflicts, caused by this betrayal of the divine covenant between human beings and nature, form the dramatic elements of Opera Batak. Another theme is given in the play Boru Tumbaga, a "fairy-tale"-like story, that could be considered as a Batak version of the women's liberation movement.

In addition to his examination of the Batak view of the human world, Carle carefully explains both the divine world and the underworld of the Batak. The relation between Batak and Hindu deities comes in for discussion, and Carle demonstrates how some Batak names and words are derived from Sanskrit parallels. This part is sometimes very technical, but undoubtedly of great interest to researchers of Batak and other Indonesian religious systems.

Although this study is a valuable contribution to the study of regional theater, music, and dance in Indonesia, there are some critical comments to be made. The book contains an extraordinary amount of detail, much of which will benefit only a few scholars who research Batak society. I think that the author would have done better to restrict himself in this regard--it is sometimes very difficult to follow the main argument, for it is mixed with excessively detailed comments. Interested researchers may always contact an author if they want more detailed information. On the other hand, some general points concerning Batak culture are not discussed at all. For instance, diagram 3 is a reproduction of the genealogical tree of the Batak clans (hariara). It is not explained, but regularly referred to.

The title of the book may give some readers the impression that the author concerns himself to some extent with music. That is definitely not the case. Some remarks are made about the music and the musical instruments used in performance, but these are only very general remarks. In between the text of a play Carle mentions when the gondang orchestra (or other music) is played or the tortor is danced. And sometimes the type of gondang music is mentioned: for opening or ending a scene, for confirming a wish, and so on. However, the performance aspects of Opera Batak do not really occupy the author, whose decision to focus on textual and ethnographic matters is, of course, wholly legitimate; but we await a study of the music.

Yet some of the information Carle presents does shed some light on the role of music in performance. After recording one of the plays presented on three consecutive nights (14-16 August 1979), Carle interviewed people in the audience, and offers some of their critical remarks here. One camat (subdistrict head), for instance, seemed to be very sympathetic to the performing Serindo group, but commented: "Opera Batak is inclined to represent the Batak culture in a distorted way. They change the traditional cultural heritage at will for commercial reasons. A stage is not fit for performing a sacred play. A bottle used as a rhythmic instrument is a sacrilege and non-Batak." A pensioned head of a primary school, who was now employed by the Ministry for Education and Cultural Affairs, had noticed an increased falsification because of the introduction of non-Batak cultural elements. He objected, for instance, to the Javanese female singer in the interludes, who made ronggeng movements (that is, "exciting," "erotic" movements) during the presentation of her song and dance. However, generally speaking, he considered the Opera Batak a valuable means of cultural communication. These two commentaries seem to me very illuminating, and I would have appreciated more of this than just the three pages in the book.

In sum, scholars of several disciplines may find interesting and detailed information of relevance to the popular performing arts of Indonesia in this fine contribution to a field in need of closer study.

WIM VAN ZANTEN Rijks Universiteit, Leiden
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Author:Zanten, Wim van
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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