Rahayu Supanggah was born into a family of traditional artists (dalang, or puppeteers), but initially had no desire to become an artist, as he did not wish to be poor. It was due to this poverty, however, that he was forced to enter the formal art school, Konservatori Karawitan, because of its low fees. During his first year there, Supanggah was chosen to represent Indonesia and take part in a prestigious presidential art mission to North Korea, China, and Japan in 1965. The first trip abroad opened his eyes, ears, and mind, and encouraged him to work hard in the world of the arts, with which he became totally involved. He was devoted to traditional arts, especially Javanese karawitan (traditional gamelan music), both as an artist and scholar. He became involved in various activities including composing, performing, organizing forums and festivals, education, the mass media, and art administration.
Towards the end of the 1960s, Supanggah became a pioneer in strange new experimental works of karawitan and was often branded controversial, or a rebel. Nevertheless, his works later became an impetus for new works of karawitan (new music Indonesia). These modern musical compositions, neither rooted in Java nor depending on the West, attempt to develop the potential of Asian musics, especially Indonesian music, in a modern cultural context and setting.
Supanggah's enduring artistic achievements have taken him to over 50 countries across five continents. He has worked together with many artists with excellent reputations and influence in their own fields including, Sergio Leone, Peter Brook, Neil Sorrel, Alec Roth, Warner Kaegi, Philip Corner, Vincent McDermott, Toshi Tsuchitori, Katsuru Kan, Ong Keng San, Mark Chan, Denisa Reyes, Ramli Ibrahim, Sardono W. Kusuma, Djun Saptohadi, Teguh Karya, Marseli Sumarna, and may more.
The ambiguiy of his profession - as a performer and ethnomusicologist (he completed his doctorate at the Universite de Paris VII) - not only confuses him but has also helped to fulfill, enrich, and broaden his views in his involvement in the world of music. He was the Director of the STSI Surakarta from 1996 to 2001. His compositions for Opera Jawa won the Asian Film Award in 2007.