An ancient story brought to vivid life: Gayatri

Edinburgh Fringe online via Fringe Player
August 25, 2021

Around Trowulan, in East Java and well off the radar for most travellers, lie the ruins of the eponymous capital city of the Majapahit Empire, which is described by Mpu Prapanca in the 14th-century poem Nagarakretagama. Among the reamins is the Shrine of Gayatri, daughter of King Kertanegara, the last king of Singosari, who ruled for 24 years towards the end of the 13th-century.

Gayatri, a historical traditional opera co-directed by Indonesian director and playwright mhyajo (Mia Johannes) and Bona Palma, and with music by Franki Raden, a professor in ethnomusicology, is an adaptation of the old Javanese narrative of the poem. It tells of the youngest of the king’s four daughters as she strives to attain her dreams while pursuing the long-time legacy of her father, who was killed in a revolt. It is not an opera in the Western sense (there is actually very little singing) but more a story narrated by mhyajo, in the voice of Gayatri and in the old Javanese language, illustrated by movement and dance.

The opening of Gayatri
Photo courtesy mhyajo

After her father’s death, we follow Gayatri as, along with her sisters, she becomes a wife of Raden (King) Wijaya, the first king of Majapahit, to her death in retirement in a monastery in 1350, the same year that her grandson, Hayam Wuruk, ascended the empire’s throne as its fourth king. A huge amount happens along the way, including quite a lot of violent deaths.

Gayatri is much more than a historical narrative, however. The opera gives its lead character a very particular reverence, emphasising her spiritual rather than human being. She seems almost goddess-like. One senses an inevitability about events, that she is all too aware of the legacy she will leave and the impact she will have long after her shift to the spirit realm.

Times past are evoked right from the opening parade of performers. Raden’s orchestration of traditional musical instruments not only magnifies the effect, but are also quietly hypnotic. The overall greyness throughout emphasises the distance of time. The only colour, although what colour it is, comes from Gayatri’s golden costume and the occasional splash of red at the back.

Gayatri at the innaguration of Raden Wijaya, first monarch
of the Majapahit Empire
Photo courtesy mhyajo

The performers are uniformly impressive. Afrilia Mustika Sari as Gayatri has a beautifully graceful, serene yet powerful, magisterial presence. She dominates every scene she is in. Elsewhere, Zaenal Ahmad is a strong and commanding Hayam Wuruk.

The large supporting ensemble, which sometimes acts as a chorus, back the main performers up excellently, their movement superbly detailed and controlled. The videography cleverly picks up on the sweep of hands and arms, intricate finger work, darting eyes and meaningful inclination of heads. Although shot largely from the front, occasional birds-eye views allow us to see the detailed patterns created by the dancers.

The action all takes place in a black box. The set is minimalist in the extreme, comprising only two white moveable sets of steps and a white box. But so good is the storytelling that it doesn’t need any more; indeed, more would probably get in the way.

Gayatri is not like any opera I’ve seen before, Eastern or Western. The story does get a little confusing, and there are a lot of characters and a lot of events to get through, but then it does cover several decades in just sixty minutes. The narration by mhyajo is excellent, however. It’s combination of contemporary and traditional; of history, music and movement; is unexpectedly compelling.

Gayatri is available online at the Edinburgh Fringe via Fringe Player until August 30, 2021.