Tribute to Rendra at Ubud – reflections

The first event at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival that I was scheduled to speak at was the Tribute to Rendra, being held in the evening of the first day, immediately after the opening ceremony. Rendra, one of Indonesia’s most interesting, active, prolific and political playwrites and poets, had died a few weeks earlier at age 72.

I was asked to speak for just seven minutes or so. I had met earlier with the organisers of the event and also asked them to arrange to use a tape recording I had of one of  pre=”of “>Rendra’s most dramatic poetry readings back in 1978. It was at the open air theatre in the Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) at the Jakarta Arts Centre, which could seat (and stand) a few thousand people. It is gone now, replaced by an enclosed theatre that seats about 400 hundred. In 1978 Rendra was in the vanguard of protest against social injustice and military dictatatorship. He was arrested the day after that 1978 poetry reading and spent almost a year in jail. Besides myself, and the tape recording (which had been made by Professor Doug Miles, an Australian anthropologist, who had been in the audience in 1978), there were to be other speakers and performers.

I attended the formal opening first. It was held in the palace, or pura, of the primary Ubud aristocrat. Stone-looking walls, steps, thatched pavilions, the gateways to inner sanctums – all of those special features associated with Balinese architecture were there. A stage are was set in front of high walls, with a gateway to some inner courtyard in the middle. On both sides were pavilions which, like the courtyard area where people entered, were crowded with people. These were the festival participants. They were writers of various sorts, invited to speak at one or other session, or they were people who had bought tickets to attend the festival. Perhaps there were some that had walked in curious, as this event was open to the public and free. There were speeches from the festival director, Janet de Neefe; from the Governor of Bali, the police general, Pastika; from the Tjokorda of Ubud; from the patron of the festival, an Indonesian entrepreneur, of Australian descent, Warwick Purser. There was a Balinese dance.

I sat on a little wall around a big tree with only limited view. My partner, moved closer to the front.

I had thought that the tribute to Rendra was being held in the same venue, having misunderstood what I had been told. So I was pleased to see the big crowd, assuming that many would stay on for the tribute. Rendra deserved a decent tribute at an event like this, I had thought to myself. The atmosphere at the end of the formalities, however, was disconcerting. People dispersed. The palace courtyard was soon half empty. There seemed to be no attempt to keep people at the venue.

“They should make an announcement,” I said to Faiza. “This is a good chance to make sure there was a crowd. These people have come for an internationaol festival, to hear writers from round the world. They may not know who Rendra is. They should be building up the event.”

“Yes,” she and one of her friends agreed. I was a bit cranky with what seemed to be a disintegrating event. And I couldn’t see where the organisers were. I thought they might be on the other side of the courtyard, perhaps in the pavilion where various festival workers had been sitting. I headed in that direction but only got half-way. Faiza tried to catch up to me, “Niku,” she called to me,”It’s not here, its in another venue.” We soon confirmed it was in another pura, fortunately within walking difference. I now realised that the disappearance of people from the venue of the opening did not threaten an impending disaster for the Rendra tribute. My consternation didn’t disappear however. There didn’t seem to be a stream of people heading in the direction of the second pura, which was five minutes walk down the street, in the middle of Ubud town, past cafes, restaurants, and hotel entrances. No announcement, a different venue, no stream of people: this was going to be a disaster, I could see.

Three of us, Faiza, myself and another hurrying participant arrived at the pura entrance which was another imposing stone-like gateway at the top of ten or so stairs. There were a few people heading inside, but it was not promising.

It was a surprise to me then to see that the venue was full. It was an open air arena with perhaps two hundred chairs. There was a pavilion one side, behind a few rows of chairs, and that had quite a few people sitting there on the floor. Had they come from the opening, leaving before us, actually knowing where to go? Or had they come straight here, avoiding the formalities?

front row Rendra
Front row Rendra Tribute - Photo Faiza Mardzoeki

The sight of the full seats; at least 200, maybe more people; mostly non-Indonesian, but with 40 or 50 Indonesians as well, was food for thought. Did they know of Rendra? Who were they that would come to Bali for a literary festival? What would they be interested in? I had chosen one of my favourite political poems by Rendra, one of the ones he called “pamphlets”. Would I be able to get them to respond to that. I hadn’t been to an Ubud festival before. I didn’t know who would actually be there, or why they would be there. The impressive turn-out was a good first provocation to think.

Jun, a Balinese Indonesian writer and journalist, then told me that they had selected a few minutes from the Rendra tape (which they had transferred to a CD) and that I would be the first to speak after his introduction. I wasn’t sure how things would work out. I knew there were other speakers and performers, but I didn’t know what they would say or perform – though I guessed – correctly as it turned out – that they would read poems from the younger Rendra, before he became enmeshed in political action.

“Oh, well,” I thought, “who knows,” and I went through again the notes I had made. The staging had some dramas to it. The traditional, high walls surrounded an open area, where there were also banana trees and other tropical shrubs. There was Balinese gamelan group that played an opening piece. It was dark; around eight in the evening. The lighting gave it the atmosphere of a torch-lit, pre-modern theatre. That kind of lighting also meant that I would find it hard to read my notes. And there was no lectern either. Just a microphone on a stand. I quickly glanced again at the bits of poems that I planned to read out – I better be able to remember them, I thought, if it is too dark to read the notes. And the effect will be lost, if I am shuffling with bits of paper.

They introduced me and I went to the mike. I tried to look around the audience and it was actually an impressive sight. There was no restlessness. People seemed very attentive. Perhaps it was the drama of the lighting and the location. It also felt surreal. Could a political poem about exploited peasants be communicated standing here in a traditional, aristocratic invented “palace” in Bali’s tourist icon village of Ubud with an audience I wasn’t even sure knew anything about Indonesia.   

“Oh, well,” I thought again, “here goes.”

It was too dark and too awkward to use my notes. So I just started to speak about Rendra and about how I thought his works were very rich and powerful and about many different things: love and sex; religion and its hypocrisy; mysticism. I probably mentioned other things as well. I added that I thought though that for a long time to come when Indonesians, and even people from outside Indonesia, read his works it would be his “pamphlets” that would be most valued for their beauty and their message. They reflected his love for his country and for the people that made up its majority.


“One of his poems,” I think I explained it something like this,”tells of how the mountain wind descends seeping into the forests below, then whistles across wide rivers finally finding its home in the leaves of a tobacco plantation. There, its heart aches.

melihat jejak-jejak sedih para petani buruh,                                                                                bekerja di tanah gempur,                                                                                                                namun tidak memberi kemakmuran padanya.

“The wind’s heart ached as it watched the sad strides of peasant labourers, working on fertile land, which did not give them prosperity,” I repeated in English.

Did the stanza have the same impact in English as it did in Indonesian, with its soft, musical simplicity that captured the sadness and weariness? I don’t know, but at least those listening had not become restless.

Rendra did not just see the peasant as downtrodden victims. He also saw them as having the spirits of eagles, of condors, even if conquered by anguish and pain.

Beribu-ribu burung kondor,
berjuta-juta burung kondor,
bergerak menuju ke gunung tinggi,
dan disana mendapat hiburan dari sepi.
Karena hanya sepi
mampu menghisap dendam dan sakit hati.

Thousands of condors, millions of condors,                                                                                      move heading to the mountains,                                                                                                        there to find respite in the quiet loneliness                                                                                       only that quiet                                                                                                                                        sucks up the hurt and sense of revenge .

“dan di kota orang-orang bersiap menembaknya.”   

“And in the towns, people readied to shoot them down”                                       

Rendra wrote about many things. He did many different things also, sometimes even disappointing his own admirers with less idealistic projects and alliances.  Still, his work had embedded in it a question that he was constantly posing, especially from the 70s onwards:

Ya ! Ada yang jaya, ada yang terhina
Ada yang bersenjata, ada yang terluka.
Ada yang duduk, ada yang diduduki.
Ada yang berlimpah, ada yang terkuras.

 pre=””>Saudara berdiri di pihak yang mana ?”                    

Yes! there are the triumphant, there are the humiliated
There are those with guns, there are those with wounds.
There are those who sit, there ar ethoise who are sat upon.
There are those with abundance, those with nothing left.

And on whose side do you stand?” 

After I sat down, two more poems were recited; two of his early poems, written while he was in the United States in the 1960s.

Rendra - photo by Susan Piper

I think the audience appreciated the event. Hopefully, those who had not read Rendra would seek out translations and also read more about Indonesia.

For me, I still remember gazing at the audience and still keep asking what it meant.