Dec 12, 2017 Last Updated 3:54 AM, Nov 13, 2017

Moving with the times

Moving with the times

Monika Swasti Winarnita

   Girls performing a traditional Minangkabau dance
   Paul Mason

In contemporary Indonesia, traditional dance, music and performance genres maintain their role as integral expressions of the values, worldviews and identities of ethnic communities. As their forebears have done since time immemorial, the Indonesians of today frequently perform these traditional genres at ceremonies, rituals and rites of passage events like marriages.

Recently, some of these performances have also taken on new meanings as they fulfil new functions in tourist promotions or cultural diplomacy. These new meanings have not always been well received by observers.

Since the New Order era, some traditional performances have, according to critics, been institutionalised and formalised as symbols of national identity (see the Andrieu article). Performances at events such as Independence Day celebrations and cultural diplomacy gatherings remove these performances from the specific ritual contexts in which they developed. Therefore, critics argue that these new meanings play a symbolic role on behalf of national culture: the traditional performances of Indonesia’s ethnic groups, when considered together, form a colourful mosaic that in turn expresses Indonesia’s motto, ‘unity in diversity’.

Inside Indonesia has asked five researchers to reflect on how nationalisation and recent history have affected specific dance and music performance genres. In the articles, the authors discuss a specific dance, music or performance genre,,paying special attention to the social and political changes that have taken place since the end of the New Order era.

Three of the articles provide detailed accounts of the performances of specific ethnic groups: Artistic Survivors from Aceh’s Conflict, the Tsunami and the Peace Accord by Margaret Kartomi, Gestures of Power and Grace: The traditional dances of the Minangkabau by Paul Mason and Heritage and Paradox by Sarah Andrieu. These three articles illustrate the strength and resolve required to maintain traditional performance practices in the face of challenges brought to bear on regional communities by national interests. Kartomi describes the severe restrictions placed on the ceremonial artistic activity and certain musical genres during the conflict period and the further difficulties faced after the tsunami disaster decimated the artistic community and destroyed instruments and rehearsal spaces. Mason explains how the traditional Minang performance known as silek has evolved with the adoption of a nuclear family structure and a national education program that has weakened its place in society. Andrieu analysises the recognition given to Indonesian wayang by Unesco’s declaration that the artform is an example of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity. She asks whether the resulting standardization process is harming wayang golek’s capacity to evolve in tune with West Java’s rapidly changing society.

The remaining two articles do not deal with specific indigenous art forms, but touch upon the ways in which acceptable national culture is conceptualised and problematised. The musical and dance forms discussed in Dangdut – A Second Revolution? by Sandra Bader and Dancing the Nation in Migration: Indonesian Women in Perth Perform a ‘Uniting’ National Dance by Monika Swasti Winarnita are hybrid melanges of various international, national and indigenous influences.

The undulating sounds of dangdut are influenced by Indian, Arabic and Malay music, but dangdut songs feature lyrics that express the common experience of the Indonesian people, and thereby give form to an identity that cuts across the nation’s ethnic groups. However, dangdut’s national popularity was exploited by the New Order in its campaigns and promotions, and the music was thereby coopted into government rhetoric about political and social issues. Bader’s article discusses a new dangdut revolution announced by Rhoma Irama, the self-proclaimed creator of dangdut. He opposes the ‘erotic’ nature of the Dangdut dance styles popularised by the artist Inul Daratista and her goyang ngebor (‘drill dance’), which caused a controversy when it was labelled a threat to the nation’s ‘moral health’ and social stability.

As the fifth article in the collection explains, dance is also part of the nationalist project abroad. Winarnita describes how a group of Indonesian migrants made a literal, cultural reading of the national motto of ‘Unity in Diversity’, and produced the Bhineka Tunggal Ika dance, which combines the traditional dance movements of four ethnic groups with those from the national aerobics campaign of 1988, along with some belly dance moves for international appeal. The dance was performed originally at an Independence Day celebration in Perth, but was criticised by the city’s Indonesian community for not being authentic enough.

All five articles demonstrate the shifting and moving nature of culture, and how social developments create pressure on cultural products to evolve and adapt to new challenges. This can manifest in a revitalisation of art and the birth of new significances such as the psychological healing associated with traditional culture in the case of Aceh, or in the adaptation to national norms that we observe in the silek example, or even in Unesco’s construction of a cultural category known as ‘intangible heritage’. Irama’s new dangdut revolution modifies the conventional sound by adding more rock and pop beats in an effort to fit into mainstream Indonesian music. The Unity in Diversity dance is an effort to assert Indonesianness in the cultural context of multicultural Australia, and at the same time to give an idea of the complex variety of Indonesian culture.

This Inside Indonesia series doesn’t merely explore how Indonesia’s diverse population uses bodily movements and music to express what Bader has called its ‘politics, culture, moral values, and people’s sense of self’. In the belief that cultural practices are sensitive to social change, our authors have searched for the nuances of evolutions peculiar to the decade that has passed since the end of the New Order period. In that sense, this series is an update, a chance to catch up with what is happening to Indonesian cultural forms and practices that are already widely known. Our authors find these processes of change exciting and stimulating. Ten years from now, it seems certain that these genres will still be staples on Indonesia’s cultural scenes, but who knows what new directions they will have taken by then?     ii

Monika Swasti Winarnita is a Monash Asia Institute Adjunct Research Associate and PhD candidate in Anthropology, RSPAS, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. She would like to thank Julian Millie for assisting with the organisation and editing of all articles and Paul Mason for the original idea of compiling the series.

See also: Music for the fight, movements for the soul (ii92) and The end of fasting (ii93), both by Paul Mason.


Inside Indonesia 96: Apr-Jun 2009



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