SPEAK by Emiko Saraswati Susilo

By Emiko Saraswati Susilo


Once upon a time, there lived a brave warrior, heir to the throne of Manipur. The King of Manipur raised his heir to be a fearless warrior, a skilled politician and a wise ruler. The people of the kingdom came to love the courageous and kind heir to the throne. Word of the warrior’s prowess traveled far and wide, reaching even the ears of the valiant Arjuna. Intrigued, he set across India to find the legendary royal champion.

But this warrior had one weakness: she was not beautiful. Or so she thought.

One day this warrior, Citrangada, came knocking at my door in the form of a sweet faced, world renowned tabla player with a rascally laugh and a dark eyed stunning ghatam player, aka Abhijit Banerjee and Somnath Roy.

Abhijitji and Somnathji were working on a staging of poet/ writer Rabindranath Tagore’s Chitrangada (pronounced Chee-tra- NGA-da and spelled Citrangada in Indonesian). They brought a tempting collaboration to my husband, Dewa Berata and myself and we decided to bring Citrangada to Gamelan Sekar Jaya, where we are in residence until 2015. South Berkeley seemed as good a place as any for a piece about a woman warrior. Her story fascinated me, a powerful warrior, heir to the throne, confident as all get up, beloved by her people, who nevertheless falls apart when confronted with her own assumptions of beauty.

When Citrangada saw Arjuna, like so many women, her heart was all a flutter. She was horrified to realize how unladylike she was and was quite convinced Arjuna could never find her attractive. Having fallen madly in love with Arjuna, Citrangada beseeches the goddess of love to make her beautiful. The wise goddess advises her against the idea but finally relents. Citrangada gives up her life to make herself beautiful in Arjuna’s eyes, or as it turns out, in her own eyes…

Gamelan Sekar Jaya dancer does an upper body twist extending right arm, while the left arm rests on the hip.YEARS AGO, when I began the process of creating dance, it didn’t come instinctively to me. Trained in the strict traditions of Balinese and Javanese dance, and steeped in the exquisitely complex structures of gamelan music from infancy, raised in a Japanese Indonesian American family that is equal parts tough and love, the idea of freely creating things, trusting my instincts, knowing where to find inspiration was infinitely more daunting than memorizing a 20 minute traditional piece and performing in front of thousands of people.

I was fortunate that years ago, when I first began to create choreography, an internationally renowned composer, I Made Arnawa (pronounced I Mad-ey Ar-na-wa), was my first creative partner. His gentle manner allowed me to confide my feelings of inadequacy. Step one: admit reservations to self and collaborator.

Pak Arnawa’s formula for creative work, it turns out, is deceivingly simple.

-Meditate regularly to create peace in the mind. Nothing fancy, not a retreat, no incense needed (though a useful tool if available), no special meditation cushion. Just sit and breathe. Easier said than done.
-Take one day a week and be with nature. Practice receiving things gently, not always pushing forward to ‘achieve’ something. Sometimes inspiration is but a whisper in a dream, a silent flock of birds leaving footprints in the sky. It took some practice to be quiet enough to hear the sound of an idea.
-Experiment experiment experiment. This was a hard one. Trusting the body and mind to move outside that which already existed. My own mind and body were at a loss when asked ‘What happens next?’

It turns out, it isn’t just three bullet points, and I lean on people all the time. But I always go back to Pak Arnawa’s advice: breathe, allow nature to nurture you, experiment.

The beautiful and loving dancers in Sekar Jaya dance every new move, no matter how ‘weird,’ with the fullest of their spirit, firing up the full potential of the imagination. Their smiles are another lesson for me: when feeling vulnerable, work first with people you love and who love you. There’s nothing like those first moments of development when an idea is just being born. One harsh word will send the whole thing into retreat. One smile is the sun, the earth and the rain…

AT THIS VERY MOMENT, Dewa, the artists of Sekar Jaya and I are in the incredible process of finding Citrangada. Abhijit and Somnath are listening giving input from their homes in India via email, dropbox and facebook.

I can see Citrangada in my mind now. Three months before she will appear on stage, she’s beginning to take form. She’s emerging through the complexity of Balinese interlocking gamelan, songs in Bengali and the movement of the human body. Our artists are their own warriors, tireless, graceful spirits. They are proof that the arts can soar across boundaries of ethnicity, race, politics and economics.

Freeing up the spirit and mind to absorb the beauty around me then capturing it back into someone else’s body is one way the arts have connected me to those around me. When I am hoping that a flash of inspiration will come through, it appears on someone else’s body, in someone else’s face and eyes, and I realize – inspiration has arrived.

Citrangada’s story is not a happy ending. It is a powerful ending. With the help of Arjuna and the goddess of love, she realizes it is her true warrior spirit that is divine and beautiful. There is still the problem of already having traded in the warrior Citra for a Cover Girl Citra. She’s lost her true strength.

I won’t tell you how the story ends because you have to read Rabindranath Tagore, the Mahabharata or see the performance yourself, but I can still share the lesson I’ve learned from her:

Sometimes in this crazy life we need others to help us not only find what is inside us, but to see why it is inside of us. Citrangada has reminded me that the answers to many questions come quietly and can only be heard when the mind isn’t packed with digital chaos. She’s reminded me of how deeply connected I am to my fellow artists. She’s reminded me that questions of beauty (Straighten? Curl? Bleach? Dye? Lighten? Tan? Toned? Voluptuous? Longer eyelashes or thicker?) and power (President? Chief Justice? Lead musician in a Balinese gamelan?) have been here for two thousand years.

Citrangada figured it out. Surely we can too.

Sometimes just before I wake up in the morning, I can hear her rustling around in my dreams. I think she’s here now, and I hope she’s here to stay.

Gamelan Sekar Jaya, under the direction of Emiko and Bapak I Dewa Putu Berata will be presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West in the Rotunda Series at SF City Hall on March 7th. Citrangada will premiere at ODC Theater on April 4 and 5. A performance with a simple meditation guided via Skype to Bali with Pak Arnawa will be at the Asian Art Museum on April 6, and Sekar Jaya’s first performance with the SF Symphony will be at Davies Symphony Hall June 12-15. After that? To Bali to give thanks for 35 amazing years of Gamelan Sekar Jaya. gsj.org

This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of In Dance.

Emiko Saraswati Susilo is the Director and Guest Dance Director of Gamelan Sekar Jaya. A dancer, musician and vocalist she is also a founding member and Associate Director of Cudamani, one of Bali’s most active and internationally renowned performing arts companies. She spends her life finding balance between the worlds of Bali and California, music and dance, modern and traditional, and mother and professional.