SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Centhini saga

UNIQUELY JAVANESE: A series of word pictures in song and dance.  



GEETA DOCTOR

Elizabeth D. Inandiak, French poet and writer, on her journey to re-create a neglected Javanese epic.



You have to understand that Centhini is not so old. It's like saying that the works of Victor Hugo are no longer accessible to the people of France, because they do not have the means of reading him anymore.

"YOU could say that I was searching for my secret lover for many years," exclaims Elizabeth D.Inandiak, French writer and poet, " but I did not know this. Then when I came to Java I found him - in the soul Java."Elizabeth Inandiak is in India with the Indonesian dancer Didik Nini Thowok on an unique mission of re-creating the links that used to stretch between the ancient kingdoms of South India, with those that used to exist in the many different islands that now make up Indonesia. Between them, they have brought alive a manuscript written in old Javanese, a copy of which was re-discovered by Inandiak and translated by her into French. For their Indian debut, Inandiak and Thowok have created a series of word pictures in song and dance, using various classical and folk forms with the cantos rendered into English. While Thowok takes on the role of all the characters, both male and female, including most memorably in one sequence the use of two masks front and back, one aggressively male, the other delicately female, Inandiak sits on a small batik covered dais at the side and recites or describes the formal elements of the story. The music from the orchestra of wailing windpipes and drums has been pre-recorded.

Dominant notes

"Serat Centhini" as it is known was composed by the ruler of Surakarta in the early l9th century and was meant to be a record and a manual of all the rites and traditions of his kingdom. It's what we might call a `saga' but one that is recent enough to also be described as a history. At the same time, it also provides a philosophical backdrop to the manner in which the Indonesian mind has absorbed the varied religious, economic and cultural currents that have flown in and around its islands.The dominant note is the drumbeat of Islam that is echoed in the ritual invocation of the poem. Strangely however, the imagery of the verse is so filled with all that is sensuous and erotic that reflects the natural life of Java that it is constantly at war with itself, just as much as the main characters, sultans and queens, of the Earth and Ocean, here described as the Red Lotus Ocean, slog it out on the battlefield of war as readily as on the bridal bed. It is as Inandiak explains in a note to the recitation, as much Kama Sutra as a "Thousand and One nights". It can be compared to the wandering hero of the Greek Odyssey and to the all-encompassing worldview of the Mahabharatha with bits of the Sufi mysticism of Ibn'Arabi. At the same time, as she says it is also uniquely Javanese. What makes it so is the language. Reclaiming the language with all its delicate scents and flavours of the past has been part of Inandiak's search for a heritage that has been all but buried under the weight of modernity and nationhood. "It's like Borobodur (the famous Buddhist monument in Java) it has had to be built up stone by stone from the destruction of the past. You have to understand that Centhini (pronounced Shanthini) is not so old. It's like saying that the works of Victor Hugo are no longer accessible to the people of France, because they do not have the means of reading him anymore." Elizabeth Inandiak's journey to the discovery of this precious manuscript mirrors in a small way the strange path taken by the main characters of the Book of Centhini. She was born, she explains in the city of Lyons in France in a strict Catholic family. "My Father was very right wing. It was a time when all the tensions connected with the Algerian problem were being felt, particularly in a town like Lyons, when people were coming back from Algeria, those who had lived there all their lives and who were now seen as traitors since they had collaborated with the colonial government." She was torn by her Father's racist attitudes and the despair of the dispossessed and remarks that part of the problem was that there was no public forum in which to address these two very different concerns. She rebelled and took to the streets marching with the French Algerians. As she notes sadly, "Some of those who revolted in the streets of Paris in October (2005) are the children of those people with whom I marched in "81. We did not address the problem then, we have not done so now." In the nearby auditorium of the Alliance Francaise of Chennai, whose Director Jean-Pascal Elbaz is himself a keen Indonesian scholar; Didik Nini Thowok is guiding his students through the slow movements of Javanese dance. "Follow the movement of the chin gently," he says. "The eyes must look down at the tip of the nose." He sits in the silent meditative pose of the Buddha. It is also with the inward gaze of the Sufi mystic and the yogic seer who is watching the flowering of the "Lotus in the Red Ocean" the name of dance that has been created from the Song of Centhini. He sways like the delicate filaments of live coral growing in the Indian Ocean, as swarms of tiny tropical butterfly fish fly past his closed eyes. He smiles as the words of the poem sweep over him. Amongraga, the hero, has just made love to the heroine, Tambangaras, for the first and last time. As he watches her in her sleep, he whispers to her, "Dearest, a journey is filled with meetings and returns. But one can only journey alone. I carry my body in the maze of this poem whose harmonious voice you are. You believe I have left, whereas I am wandering in you." In the passion of Elizabeth Inandiak and Didik Nini Thowok, the wanderer returns home.