ICN 2020 – Nilanka brings folklore storytelling to the fore

ICN Cultural Productions returns in 2020 for the 11th edition of their show — titled Nilanka: A Musical. 

This year’s production sees them taking on Batak folklore, specifically “Dayang Bandir dan Sandean Raja” from Indonesia’s cultural heritage. In a story revolving around themes of identity and conformity, Nilanka invites audiences to follow the journey of the six characters as they struggle against facing established societal norms while trying to stay true to themselves.

As with previous editions, Nilanka is produced solely from the efforts of the Indonesian students of Nanyang Technological University (NTU); overseeing every aspect of the production including scriptwriting, song composition, dance choreography and more.

We speak to the minds behind the musical to get some insight into the production and how the Nilanka came to be. 

 1. What inspired you to use Batak folklore as the basis of your story?

Lavando Lauwrel, Co-Scriptwriter: As our name suggests, we try to present interesting Indonesian culture on our show. As both of us (Chrstopher) are new to scriptwriting, there were challenges when we tried making the script. We tried making a new story, following the footsteps of our previous production, but we were unable to create a story that would satisfy us. We then looked at another option: Retelling a story, and what could be more Indonesian than our own folklore? 

We searched high and low to find a new and refreshing story to present, and we found out that Batak culture was never used in an Indonesian production before, which came as a surprise for me personally. In Indonesia, the Batak people are well known for their strong manner of speech and their loyalty to their family. We then kept finding unique values and others that we learn about as we did more research on Batak, and we’d love to show the audience what we have found; a little piece of the vast Indonesian culture.

2. Since this is from a fictional setting, were there clashes in terms of interpretation for your preparation of the character roles?

Christopher Lee, Co-Scriptwriter: Each character roles were unique in their own way, and multiple interpretations were inevitable during the beginning of our scriptwriting journey. Some roles displayed a more dominating influence compared to the other and we tried to tone them down, such that harmony was achieved throughout the whole story. 

It was a huge challenge for us to consistently display the personalities of each character, and the fluctuating emotions encountered by them was a close representation of our empirical experiences in life. Reflecting back on each unique feature the roles had displayed, we believed the core message of the story will be powerful enough for the audience to relate and think through.

3. What challenges did you face in adapting folklore for a modern audience who may not have heard of it?

Clarita Saslim, Artistic Director: Folklores exist all around the world. Passed on from generation to generation, they play a huge part in preserving our heritage and culture. Tales and songs describe myths, legends, architecture and the way of life of our ancestors — a record that might die if we do not continue to preserve it.

We do recognise that as we move forward, we create stories of our own and our experience of the world might be different from then. However, I believe that these folklores hold many values that are still true to this day. In our play, we analysed the values presented in “Dayang Bandir and Sandean Raja” and re-interpreted them in a modern context, such that it is relatable to the audience in the 21st century. This way, we hope we have created a stage where the past and present meet.

4. Embracing diversity seems to be the theme of the show, how much of your real-world experiences play a part as inspiration?

Esya Samudra, Artistic Director: The story we chose intrigued me first in a way that it relates closely to Indonesia’s value. Born in a country with many different cultures, languages, religions and races only made me realise the importance of embracing our diversity to make our nation stronger.

But we can see beyond this. In this ever-growing society we live in, diversity needs to include what lies deep within each individual: their ways of thinking and how they choose to express themselves. 

It came to me that different generations see the world differently. And this gap sometimes creates a communication barrier that can make both parties move forward otherwise. I discovered that the young around me are seeing this, too. Our performers, with their personal experiences, share one common goal to break this barrier. And with that, I, and the whole of my team, have been putting our very own personal touch in the way we deliver this story to the audience.

5. What message do you hope your audience leaves with after watching your show?

Natasya Adistana, Producer: Presenting themes surrounding the idea of conformity and identity, we hope that our audience will take a step to embrace diversity, just as our story did. Not just in race, ethnicity or religion, but also in the way we think and express ourselves. We hope that they will be reminded that we all have a unique place in society and it is important to make each other feel welcomed to strive for a more positive and inclusive community.

6. Being that this is a self-funded musical, how did you guys come up with the costumes and score for the production?

Clarita Saslim and Esya Samudra: The traditional costumes from Sumatra are truly vibrant and elegant. Batak is especially known by their Ulos, a kind of traditional woven textile, and we have a team that is very appreciative of the complexity and meaning of all the different types of Ulos. 

We aimed to show costumes that are practical for the stage, while still retaining the authenticity of the costumes. By coming up with original designs and consulting with a group of Bataknese, we were able to design suitable traditional costumes with modern touches and adaptations.

Producing the score is a bit trickier. We wanted to open our show with the music of Batak, to involve Batak traditional instruments and songs. We consider ourselves lucky to have found great creative minds who composed and arranged our very own music.

In addition to the original songs, you will also get to hear Batak complex yet dynamic instruments as soon as the curtain opens. If you have good ears, you might even recognise snippets of the songs “Sinanggar Tulo” and “Butet” in our play.

ICN 2020 – Nilanka: A Musical

Date: 08 February 2020

Time: 2.30 – 5.00 pm

Venue: National Library Building, Drama Centre Theatre

Address: 100 Victoria St., #03-01, Singapore 188064

Get your tickets at

Photos by Darren Chiong of the DANAMIC team.

Russell Matthew Loh

Watcher of films and player of games. Dabble with writing in between.

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