Going with the flow
As an event it was spectacular; as dance it swirled past the barriers of Culture and language. As theatre it was emotional, the quality international.
But few shared the moving experience. The location was the small Panji Museum set among paddy in Tumpang village, East Java; maybe only 150 in the audience.
The museum includes a replica of the 1,000-year old Candi Jolotundo, the royal bathing pool on sacred Mount Penanggungan about 100 km north west.
Choreographer Matheus Wasi Bantolo arrived at Tumpang from Central Java just a few hours before he and 25 local and visiting dancers were to perform Panji plays at a local festival.
“At first I decided to stay on the stage,” he said. “Then I wondered how to use the foreground, to get closer to the audience. I thought it might make the show more dramatic.”
Indeed. Bantolo started his Kidung Kayungyun masked dance at the water’s edge then moved into the shallow pool fed by a mountain stream.
Bantolo said the Javanese title was difficult to translate but implied being “ensnared by personal feeling like love or revenge …I developed it from a contemporary mask performance we staged earlier in Singapore and Thailand.”
In an master stroke Bantolo scooped out a long fishing net on his left, then another from the right while singing and accompanied by a gamelan; it looked like a Biblical tableau of casting nets to feed the multitude. Even without flapping fish it was a powerful image.
The Panji Museum is being developed by Malang entrepreneur Dwi Cahyono, 51, (right) to promote Indonesian culture and history focusing on Central and East Java. Displays start with an archaeological dig and lead through reality and myth to the present.
Indonesians seldom queue outside museums so Cahyono has added a swimming pool and picnic ground only accessed through the artefact-filled auditorium. Visitors get shanghaied by history like air-travellers ambushed by duty-free shops while heading for the boarding gate.
Some of Cahyono’s ideas were gleaned during a 2016 tour of New Zealand. This included the National Museum Te Papa, and director Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop in Wellington used to make props for the Lord of the Rings films.
The Panji themes are universal; think Romeo and Juliet. Boy Panji Inu Kertapati, Prince of Jenggala, meets girl Dewi Sekartaji princess of the Kediri Kingdom. He’s already booked but guess what - they tumble into love.
Crisis! Dewi disappears on their wedding day - did she know of the Other Woman, get cold feet or spirited away by a foe?
Panji sets out to retrieve his True Love. He confronts rivals, fights assailants and triumphs as befits a gallant. This gives space aplenty for sideways romps into intrigue, faith, politics, threats, moral and gender issues and what it means to be human.
Spoiler alert: Dewi transforms herself into a man Panji Semirang. Will her lover be duped? Think Rosalind in As You Like It.
Panji stories allegedly originated in East Java but are found throughout Southeast Asia. In Thailand they are called Inao. Nationalists claim this shows Java is the origin of much Asian art rivaling India, the source of the epic performance poems Ramayana and Mahabharata.
“Culture should be central if international relationships are to be improved,” said Bantolo, lecturer at the Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI - Indonesian Arts Institute) in Solo. Also known as Surakarta the city is near Yogyakarta.
“Some mask dances are nearly extinct; maybe fifty per cent of Indonesians don’t know the culture. We are trying to conserve and revive and make the stories more popular through contemporary choreography. But kayungyun remains the base.”
ISI has set up a Centre for World Dance Studies to promote masked dancing and attract overseas students. Bantolo has performed in the Netherlands, Britain and Germany, and been a guest lecturer at Michigan State University. He plans to enrol for a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London next year.
“Our take of the Panji tales isn’t simply a love story between Panji and Dewi, though that’s been the standard interpretation,” he said.
“Rather we always keep an eye on what we feel is the story’s higher humanity. So throughout our creative process we hold onto the cultural symbols reflected in the Panji narrative.
“These include keblat papat, the Javanese interpretations of the four cardinal points and associated elements to maintain harmony and balance. Then there’s the interplay of the macro-cosmos and micro-cosmos, agrarian culture, and the arts of carving and painting masks; all are sources for our creative ideas.
“The challenge is to reflect these ideas differently - as a cultural dialogue. The dance movements are drawn from the court styles of the Keraton Surakarta (Solo Palace Court) and the Pura Mangkunegaran (Sultan’s Palace).
“Our innovations include sharing masks between multiple dancers. The story is told through tembang (sung poetry) and monologues. It’s a mix of theatre, opera and dance.”
Bantolo, 43, was brought up in a liberal Catholic family of creatives which let him choose a career. His grandfather was a dalang (puppet master). He was playing in the gamelan at ten.
He said an early reference to masks in performances appeared in an 11th century manuscript from the royal court of Jenggala. (The short-lived kingdom was probably located at Sidoarjo near Surabaya).
“To mask can mean to hide one’s face or wear a different face, an imitation,” he said.
“A mask can represent a certain personality, a community or the values of a cultural system. By wearing masks,rather than hiding we expose and explore something about the reality of the human condition.
“I want the world not just to enjoy and respect our creativity, but to understand what’s behind our culture and the way we think and feel. Indonesians are close to nature and the universe. We have so much to share.”
(First published in Inside Indonesia 23 December 2017: http://www.insideindonesia.org/essay-masked-but-not-hidden