They dance with different steps

Musical instrument at Ubud Saren Royal Palace. Photo: Aruna Chandaraju   | Photo Credit: GRJGM

The dances and dance dramas of Indonesia have held an enduring fascination for me. From the audio cassettes of dance music and dialogue (especially from the Ramayana performances), which my father used to bring back from Indonesia when I was in college, to the several performances I have watched many years later in various countries, I have always found these dances admirable. The artists sport gorgeous costumes, jewellery and accessories such as elaborate masks and elegant fans; the performances feature a range of interesting subjects and characters; and there is beautiful accompanying music, played on instruments that are something to see.

With over 700 ethnic groups in Indonesia and each group having their own dance traditions, it makes for over 3,000 varieties of Indonesian dances. The major traditions are flourishing, thanks to a vibrant performing arts scene across the country. Contributing to this are government-run institutions or supervised art academies and private schools, where these dance forms are taught and/or researched.

So pervasive is this love of dance, that the various forms are celebrated in paintings. Almost every store sells canvases with dancers in various poses. Dance motifs are also used creatively in the interior design of stores, offices and hotels.

Above all, with people crowding performance venues, the dance traditions are assured of patronage.

Several of the dance forms draw from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. In fact, so close is the connection between India and Indonesia, especially in the Hindu-majority province of Bali, that at traffic junctions, there are enormous statues of Rama, Sita, Hanuman, Arjuna, Bheema and even Ghatodgacha. There is also a Kunti Street in Seminyak, Bali. As for images and paintings of Ganesha and Saraswati, they are ubiquitous in Bali in temples, restaurants, offices, homes, stores, dance-schools, auditoriums, etc.

Among the better-known dance traditions are the Sanghyang Dedari, Legong and Barong (of Bali) Saman and Tor-Tor (of North Sumatra) and the Javanese Ramayana. The Saman from the Aceh province was honoured with World Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2011.

Talking to performers and teachers, apart from reading up on Indonesian dance history, I gathered that the origins of these dances are largely traced to religious worship, social rituals and invoking the forces of Nature. They are classified in three ways.

The first is according to time periods, such as the prehistoric-tribal era, the Hindu-Buddhist era, and the era of Islam. Another common approach is to divide them into traditional and contemporary styles. The third criterion is linked to patrons, so there are court dances and folk dances.

The nation's dance traditions have been influenced by the different ruling dynasties as well as the multicultural nature of the residents and immigrants. Hence, they offer an insight into the diversity of Indonesia's culture and ethnicity. These forms have different elements and themes: sacred dances about divine forces and those which invoke spirits and are associated with trance. There are performances which narrate a tale or an episode from a story, while a few are for entertainment and social occasions. The accessories such as masks used for some sacred dances need to be sanctified by priests before the performance. The priests sprinkle holy water on artists after they have done a dance associated with trance.

Sanhgyang Dedari is a sacred dance performed by very young girls. Trance is associated with this dance and with several other dance traditions, when the artists go into a trance. In contrast, Joget or Joged is associated with social events, entertainment and street performances and has a breezy music with a quick tempo. Pendet, which has evolved from its sacred nature, is now a welcome dance to greet guests. Barong depicts the fight between good and evil forces. The highly stylised Legong narrates a story and is performed by pre-pubescent girls.

An event that draws many citizens and tourists is the Javanese Ramayana, staged with regularity at the 9 century Prambanan temple, Yogyakarta. A Balinese version of the Ramayana also exists and is performed across temples on that island.

So art lovers have many reasons to visit Indonesia.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 4:08:20 PM |

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