Correction appended: This story listed the time of the “Sinta Ablaze” concert as 2 p.m. on Sunday. The show is at 4 p.m.

Christina Choi
Soegito instructs the actors. (BEN SIMON/Daily)
Christina Choi
Christina Choi
Gamelan players rehearse a gongan. (BEN SIMON/Daily)
Christina Choi

Watching Sigit Soegito and the University gamelan performance group at rehearsal in the School of Art and Design, you’re struck by the awesome sense that you’re witnessing something much greater than what a mere practice space can contain.

Cross-legged on the floor, each member of the Indonesian percussion ensemble plays a resonant brass instrument as Soegito, a visiting Indonesian artist, sings in Javanese and directs the group in multi-layered gongans, or song cycles. Over Soegito’s measured drumming, zither players pluck their delicate celempungs and heavy gongs crescendo and decrescendo in washes of cyclical sound. In front of a lighted screen, dancers and puppets act out the Ramayana, the legendary Vedic text.

It’s overwhelming to think that these kinds of instruments and songs have been played for hundreds of years to tell variations of the same epic story.

Soegito and the University gamelan players have been practicing all semester for Sunday’s performance of the Ramayana at Hill Auditorium. Along with Thai and Indian productions, this is part of a performance series to showcase pan-Asian interpretations of the hero Rama’s quest to rescue his wife Sita.

The performance will combine dancers, puppetry and the gamelan in the style of wayang sandosa, which is a contemporary take on shadow puppet-and-gamelan-based storytelling of epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

During Reformasi (the political movement following the overthrow of Indonesian dictator Soeharto in 1998), Soegito was one of the original galung, or master puppeteers, who popularized wayang sandosa, said Amy Kimura, a gamelan graduate student instructor. While several puppeteers manipulate puppets in wayang sandosa, and there is the addition of dancers and actors, the more traditional form of wayang kulit is much different. In wayang kulit, one galung must manipulate all of the puppets as he directs the gamelan and tells the story in Javanese. Such displays can go on for upward of eight hours.

But artists like Soegito realized ” ‘We need to have a national art form that we can all understand,’ ” Kimura said.

As a result, the modified sandosa form was born: an interpretation with the aforementioned artistic modifications, performed in Indonesian (English for Sunday’s performance) and less than two hours long.

The husband-and-wife team of Soegito and Yulisa Mastati are the creative minds featured in this year’s performance. Both graduates of STSI Surakarta, the most highly regarded institute for the arts in Indonesia, Soegito and Mastati have spent the last two years at the University teaching puppetry and Javanese dance classes respectively.

Mastati dances professionally in Indonesia, having studied the traditional form since she was eight years old, and Soegito has also been invested in his specialty since childhood.

While there have been other wayang kulit performances in the U.S., this will be the first combined gamelan/dance interpretation of the Ramayana, Kimura said. Last year the group did a wayang sandosa production of the Mahabharata.

Although the University has hosted visiting Southeast Asian artists each year for the last several years, Soegito emphasized the importance of appreciating what they have to offer now as it’s not always guaranteed that the University will have the opportunity – or funding – to invite guest artists.

“We are so proud and so lucky because we had a good opportunity to introduce (our) culture, and I hope the Javanese programs like puppetry or dance can continue at the University of Michigan,” Soegito said. “I think it’s good for American students.”

Another decidedly different take on the classic Sanskrit epic is the multimedia performance piece Pornrat Damhrung’s Thai theater class has been working on this past semester. “Seeda, Tell Our Stories” focuses on the Sita character’s point of view instead of the hero Rama’s. Two years ago, Damhrung put together a similar production, “Sita: Sri Rama?” The piece asked whether Sita serves only the honor of Rama, or if she deserves to be a richer, more complex character. But Damhrung will readily tell you she is not the first to take on what some would deem a feminist take on the Ramayana.

“Even in the history (of) India itself, there’s a lot of stories about her,” she said, “women writing about her in particular local communities – they have songs dedicated to her and her life.”

The character of Sita remains especially interesting because she’s seen as the ideal woman in many societies where the Ramayana spread. Portrayals of Sita in Thailand usually marked her as a quiet character, faithful and waiting to be saved by her valiant husband. But in Thailand there are also many folk stories illustrating the sheer power of women. Stories with female warriors and fighters, wise and knowledgeable women, great travelers and even tricksters, instead of simply, as Damhrung said, “being quiet and being the good supporter, the good wife.”

“Those types of things made me interested in why Sita in classical literature has become an ideal image of women, an ideal image for society to teach how girls behave – because there are other ways to believe as well,” she said.

Thus, Damhrung’s project became not just a Sita-centric version of a legendary tale, but a social commentary.

“I had to look beyond Thailand: ‘OK, this is not just Thai problems, it is everywhere in South Asia and Southeast Asia,’ ” she said.

In contrast to the more modernized interpretations of the Ramayana by the dance/gamelan ensemble and Damhrung’s Sita-centric theater piece, Sreyashi Dey will lead her dance company, Srishti Dances of India, in a more traditional performance – Odissi.

“(Odissi) is visiually very striking – there’s a lot of very elaborate hand gestures and facial expressions, very fast footwork,” Dey said. “It’s a very expressive form of dance . a combination of graceful and soft and strong movements.

Odissi dancers are also characterized by elaborate, brightly colored silk costumes, said Dey, who performs across the United States and India. Before relocating to Ann Arbor, she recently taught Indian classical dance at Carnegie Mellon University.

Dey’s performances on April 13th and 14th will correspond with the Thai performances. Before Dey and her company tell Rama’s epic through classical movement, there will be an invocation to the gods.

With performances this coming Sunday and the following weekend, the Indian, Thai and Indonesian versions of the Ramayana are “all a combined effort . to ensure the diversity of the Ramayana across Asia,” Dey said.

Originating in India sometime between 500 and 100 B.C., the Ramayana spread throughout Asia, and different traditions and versions of the story sprung up over the last two and a half millennia. The Thai version is called the Ramakien and its faithful wife is Seeda instead of Sita; that version’s Khmer cousin is better known as the Reamkr. In some interpretations, Sita dies or is cast off to a different land at the epic’s conclusion, and in others she asks the earth to swallow her whole.

“I think people will be able to see the similarities and differences (between the performances),” Dey said. “The source is in India and (the story) traveled to these other countries – (the audience) will be able to see the regional differences in these other performances.”

Sullivan echoed Dey’s comments. He said the point is to show the multiplicity and diversity of the Ramayana but also show that they’re all part of the same story.

“(The Ramayana) has all these variations . sort of an example of early globalization,” Sullivan said. Just as different goods spread through Asia via trade, the Ramayana traveled and evolved through storytelling. “(The versions) take on their own meaning. They have their own cultural identity in (each) space,” he added. “Even though it’s all related it’s still recognizable as its own story in a different place.”

Ramayana Performance Series
Sunday at 4 p.m.


At Hill Auditorium

For more dates and locations, go to michigandaily.com/thefilter

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