While the Singaporean arts scene may not be as conspicuous compared to other countries, it has seen significant growth in the range and quality of cultural offerings. To show support for the growing arts scene in Singapore, DANAMIC supported two productions by local universities this year – ICN: Arunika by NTU and GAYA: Sangharsa (The Struggle) by SMU.
Organised by Pelajar Indonesia NTU (PINTU), the Indonesian Students of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) presented Arunika, a musical that pulled the audience into the dark past of slavery and cruelty that plagued the city during the early nineteenth century.
Arunika follows the journey of Anika (Karen Prasetio), a Dutch-Indonesian girl in search of her own identity. The issues of slavery and cruelty became embodied in her character as she lived with her oppressed mother, Ningsih (Nasya Martin Theniko), who tried to compel Anika into resenting the social hierarchy. Unabashedly outspoken about her ambitions, Anika refused to conform to gender and social norms and expressed confidently of her dreams and aspirations to find her place in the world. As she banters with her mother and boldly declares that “this girl won’t be like the rest”, Anika takes her first step into reality.
The play quickly focuses on the problems of slavery with an auction scene, which showcases a series of bids for human slaves. While delivered playfully through song and dance, this particular scene was one that was the most uncomfortable to watch. The auctioneer made demeaning remarks of the slaves and even requested one of the female slaves to “stand straight and show a little twirl” to increase the price of her bid. One of them, Raka (Kevin Montana Wongso), tried to put up a fight in a chilling performance that showcased the politics of power play between the officials and the slaves.
The interpretive performance of the cast led to moments of theatrical brilliance which almost convinces one to forget that Arunika was produced by a student-led organisation. Deya’s (Valerie Benita Tanuwijaya) energetic scenes and Ningsih’s multi-layered and emotional performances were finely tuned by the works of the scriptwriters – while compellingly telling the cultural history of Indonesia’s.
The musical falls a little short in its variation of songs and their characters’ storylines. A particular scene struck a chord when Anika was desperately looking for a powerful ranked official to save her mother’s life. The lyrics “Were we born different/Aren’t we all just grains of sand” and “Does it feel good to you/Born into a life you didn’t earn” perfectly summed up the injustice she felt when the officials kicked her around like flies around one’s ears.
However, some of the song lyrics in Arunika do not seem to fit well with some of the live band’s melodies and could come across a little awkward in the play. The musical could have afforded to be less enthusiastic with their tunes, and those scenes would have been stronger in its delivery if they were changed to conversational ones instead.
There were several opportunities for certain characters to shine, especially for Deya, who made an illuminating presence every time she delivered her lines on stage as the cheerful Moluccan Slave. It later became apparent that there was not much that the audience could expect from her, and it leaves much to thought. Gustaaf (Abraham Nathanael Kasogi) also seemed to be an interesting character who had a softer side that he was afraid to reveal, but his lines were limited to that few scenes where he had to play an oppressor.
Due to the disparity of character development in Arunika, it is Anika who was given the most emotional legwork to do during the musical, and she can be considered the protagonist. This work is also shared with Raka, who also revealed his fair share of struggles as a new slave. As much as we hate to compare who suffers more, it seems that Anika’s single-parent narrative and journey towards personal freedom pales in comparison. Meanwhile, Raka tells a more compelling story of how he had to watch his father die from war, explaining why he refused to heed Deya’s advice and proceeded to rebel against the Dutch. As the two characters hailed from completely different backgrounds, the audience was left perplexed as to who they should sympathise with more.
It seemed odd for Anika to have a stronger side narrative, where she shared how her Dutch father left her family before she was born, thus causing her to be ostracised by her peers. As a result, it distracted the viewers from the pertinent issue of inequality of the slavery happening in Batavia, and it also gave the impression that the play was trying to leave some unexplained elements in the story.
Yet, the purpose of this narrative later points at a shocking revelation and progresses into the climax of the story, which was hugely unexpected and impressive. Unfortunately, because not much focus and time was given to the development of this narrative, it can be easily missed if one fails to pay attention to this part of the story carefully.
While Arunika ended on a bittersweet note, it delivered a strong message that the price of peace should not be taken for granted. With the aesthetically pleasing set design and talented cast contributing to the continued success of this student-led show, ICN Cultural Production’s annual play is one to watch for the years to come.
GAYA: Sangharsa (The Struggle)
Singapore Management University’s Komunitas Indonesia (SMUKI) – a cultural club in Singapore Management University (SMU) – returned with their annual musical production, Gelar Budaya (GAYA) 2019. Titled Sangharsa: The Struggle, their play this year transported viewers to the 15th century.
A new kingdom, Mataram, ruled by the ambitious Panembahan Senapati (Toh I-En), rose from the ashes of the Majapahit kingdom – one of Nusantara’s greatest empires. Seeking to consolidate his rule over Nusantara, Senapati quickly established his dominance over the various perdikans (villages) scattered across the land, except for one – Perdikan Mangir.
Led by the youthful Wanabaya (Jerikho Patrick Wijaya) and his brother Baru Klinting (Mason Petra Agung), Mangir’s defiant stance against Mataram presented a tough challenge for Senapati and his most trusted advisor, Martani (Mohamed Ali Azeera).
While all the signs were pointing towards the possibility of a never-ending stalemate, Martani hatches a devious plan to use Senapati’s daughter, Adisaroh (Jessica Davinia Layardi), to seduce and assassinate Wanabaya. Adisaroh reluctantly agrees at first but begins to fall for Wanabaya over time. Torn between love and duty, her ultimatum wouldalter the fates of Mangir and Mataram forever.
As Adisaroh was originally introduced as a member of a traveling dance troupe, the audience were misled to speculate that Martani’s plot was to kidnap or kill Adisaroh. However, after the unexpected plot twist, the story became rather predictable
The captivating dance numbers and vibrant costumes in Sangharsa were subtle yet impactful in paying homage to their Indonesian culture. Jessica, who played Adisaroh in the play, seemed to steal the spotlight when it came to the musical number – her singing skills were a few notches above that of the other cast. Perhaps the other cast were lagging because they could not switch between singing the verses and reciting their dialogues. Their singing got a little off-pitch every time they switched from talking to singing, but they eventually find their bearings after the first line or two.
The lyrics to the songs were also shown on screens at either side of the stage – I consider this a blunder as it posed an adverse impact on the cast. It is not uncommon to see performers resort to ad-libbing when they forget their lines on stage – so long as it keeps the show going. However, it certainly did not go unnoticed when the cast of Sangharsa sung the wrong lyrics or improvised the words to the tune – no thanks to the on-screen lyrics they implemented.
The hordes of SMU students who took time off their weekend to show their support are a testament to the success of GAYA over the years. The large crowd of SMU students elevated the overall enthusiasm level and mood in the theatre – they sang along to almost every song and cheered on their peers during the romantic moments between Adisaroh and Wanabaya.
A moving story of forbidden romance caught in strife for domination, Sangharsa captured the hearts of the audience by the end of the play. Hopefully, GAYA will outdo its preceding plays next year.
DANAMIC is proud to have been the Official Media Partner of ICN 2019, and the Sponsor of GAYA 2019.
Photos by Goh Jing Wen and Soloman Soh of the DANAMIC team.