Jun 29, 2017 Last Updated 3:27 AM, Jun 28, 2017

Staging local identity in West Java

Published: Sep 26, 2016

  Neneng YK Lahpan

One evening in 2002, performers from different villages gathered in an Islamic boarding school, Pesantren Cipasung in Tasikmalaya, West Java, for an event called Performing Traditional Arts. Most of the performances were rare and nearly extinct. One of them was pantun beton. Pantun is a type of traditional Sundanese sung storytelling accompanied by kacapi (zither), which mostly tells stories about the old Sundanese kingdom, Pajajaran. 

Pantun beton, meanwhile, has a set of instruments including kecapi, saron, viola, kendang and gong, along with a penyinden (woman singer). As in other types of Sundanese pantun, the performance commences with singing of rajah pamuka, opening prayers offered to God, the prophets, the saints, ancestors and all men with power in the area, showing how this ancient Sundanese musical form was later influenced by Islam. 

There was a story behind the pantun beton performance. The juru pantun (storyteller), an old man in his eighties, refused to perform although everything was ready, causing panic among the organisers. He asked for a specific type of a cock called ayam saadi, a cock that was separated from its mother since born, to be used in offerings for the performance. It was not easy for the organisers to find this specific chicken – they had to go throughout the village searching for one.  Offerings play a very important part in traditional performances, however some of the materials they require are difficult to find or even non-existent these days, adding to the complexity of staging.

Cipasung pesantren is one of the biggest Islamic boarding schools in West Java, with more than a thousand students. The oldest son of the Cipasung leader, Acep Zamzam Noor, is a well-known poet and cultural activist. He holds most of his performance activities in the Cipasung pesantren precinct, especially in front of his house, giving students and local people the opportunity watch a wide variety of performances, including traditional genres.  In following the traditions of the moderate Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, Cipasung pesantren is indeed known for its friendly, inclusive approach to local culture. In its content and staging, the pantun beton performance, including the chicken incident, illustrate a tolerant embrace of local performing traditions within an Islamic environment which has particular significance in the current political context in Indonesia, as will be illustrated below.

New voices 

The ending of the New Order era and the introduction of regional autonomy in West Java have been marked by a proliferation of voices from different social groups asserting their perspectives on local identity and social and cultural priorities. One important force has been the maintenance and revival of traditional Sundanese culture. For example, one of the cultural activities contributing to this movement is the annual Sundanese-language drama festival held in Bandung (see our article on this festival in the volume edited by Hatley and Hough, Performing Contemporary Indonesia: Celebrating Identity, Constructing Community published by Brill, Leiden, 2015).  Another strong, often dominant position is assertion of the Islamic identity of West Java, in some areas involving the implementation of Islamic law.

In Tasikmalaya the government implemented a project to introduce perda syariah (regional regulations based on Islamic law) project in 2001, and subsequently branded the city as an ‘Islamic city’. Komunitas Azan (The Azan Community) led by Acep Zamzam Noor, and Komunitas Cermin (The Mirror Community) led by Ashmansyah Timutiah, are the most active of a number of cultural groups promoting traditional performance genres, negotiating between Islam and Sundanese culture in the current political context. As illustrated above, Acep stages old performances in Islamic environments. Komunitas Cermin, meanwhile, brings traditional performances, mostly based in villages, onto city stages to perform together with modern genres and groups. 

Opposition to exclusivist Islam   

Acep Zamzam Noor is a well-known figure in Tasikmalaya. As a cultural activist, he positions himself in opposition to government policy, especially the emphasis on exclusivist Islam. This opposition has taken shape in a number of projects of cultural activism. He promotes the slogan Islam santai, Sunda santai (a friendly Islam, a friendly Sunda) as a counter to Islamic regional regulations and the strengthening of Islamic symbols in public spaces in Tasikmalaya. 

Acep is a vocal critic of religious actions that are motivated by economic or political aims. In 1999, to forcefully express his critique of unethical behaviour amongst politicians in the new democratic era, he established a group called Partai Nurul Sembako (PNS/The Party of the Light of the Nine Basics). This parody of a political party held cultural carnivals to promote golput (golongan putih/white group), a designation for Indonesians who refuse to vote or vote informally. In other words, Acep’s ‘political party’ encouraged voters to vote informally in elections at local and national levels, as a critique of the political process, but also as a public education project designed to raise accountability amongst politicians.

Acep’s cultural strategy included the initiative described at the beginning of this article of bringing together traditional local performers to perform in the Cipasung pesantren. Along with pantun beton, old performance genres (seni buhun) not widely known in contemporary Tasikmalaya  such as, calung tarawangsa, beluk, terebang gebes, terebang sejak, genjring ronyok, and ronggeng gunung were presented. Acep uses the label of ‘Islamic’ for these performances, based on their characteristics and values as well as cultural background. He argues that Islam and Sundanese culture have long interacted together in performance. 

In 2003, Acep held a halaqoh budaya (a cultural meeting) in Cipasung pesantren in collaboration with the Desantara Institute for Cultural Studies, a non-profit organisation based in Jakarta. He brought local performance groups to the seminar to promote the understanding that ‘Islam is friendly to local cultures and their arts’. This activity was part of Acep’s efforts to bring together Islam and Sundanese culture in a friendly way, cementing a better relationship between them, and, in doing so, to resist the Tasikmalaya government’s homogenising idea of an Islamic city. These efforts appealed to the younger people, mostly from around Bandung and Tasikmalaya, who predominated in the audience. 

Mirror Community

Another group playing an important role in redefining traditional performances for city audiences of Tasikmalaya is Komunitas Cermin (Cermin community). Founded in Tasikmalaya in 1998, this community has its home-base and wide networks in the city. Consisting of young cultural activists interested in Sundanese traditions and performances in their broader context, it is a private initiative empowering local traditions and generating new meanings for local identity. This is in contrast to previous control of such activity by the government, as a broker of regional culture within the national arena. One of Komunitas Cermin’s activities involves empowering young people by encouraging them to develop skills in Sundanese tradition, focusing on children in and out of school. They have weekly meetings at which they hold regular practices, monthly performance activities, and also contribute to calendrical celebrations. 

Cermin is also very active in supporting traditional village arts. The leader of the group, Ashmansyah Timutiah, nicknamed Acong, says, ‘In every performance activity, we always give priority to traditional performance groups to perform. We also recommend to other organisers of cultural events in Bandung and Tasikmalaya within our networks that they should involve those traditional performances in their cultural and performance activities.’ 

Candralijaya is one of a number traditional performance groups brought by the community to perform for urban audiences. It is based in the village of Cikeusal, Tasikmalaya, where it previously performed as part of family and community rituals. However, in the village the performances have lost their function in recent years, replaced by readings from Islamic texts. Thus, the old performances have moved from village to city to find new stages. 

Cermin community considers Candralijaya to be an asli (authentic) Sundanese group faithfully playing old arts. It places priority on supporting the group by providing spaces in city performances and other activities. Acong considers the mentoring of local performances as one of Cermin’s missions, along with supporting the emergence of new art forms. He and his friends also regularly visit Cikeusal village, to support the continuation of performances in the village. Cermin has become a new patron for Candralijaya. In this context, Cermin does not explore Islamic aspects of the performances, instead focusing on what they see as  ‘authentic’ expression of Sundanese culture. 

With Cermin’s support, Candralijaya has performed in festivals and events in Bandung and Tasikmalaya including New Year celebrations. A big event that attracted a massive youth audience was a concert by Iwan Fals held in 2010. Iwan Fals is a nationally popular artist with a huge number of fans. Candralijaya received special attention from the youthful audience as they mounted the stage and performed traditional art forms, beluk and terebang, in harmony with the modern guitars of Iwan’s group, accompanying Iwan’s renditions of a number of his songs.  A fuller account of beluk-terebang performances on city stages is given in my previous article in edition 115 of Inside Indonesia in 2014.

New meanings

The activities described above are part of democratic processes of the regional autonomy era in which defining local identity is a major issue attracting widespread public attention. Recent political changes have given an opportunity to people from different backgrounds to attribute new meanings to local performances. In the past, cultivation of the traditional arts was dominated by the government as part of overall control of cultural activities institutionalised in its official role as Pembina Kesenian (developer and cultivator of the arts). 

Now, a variety of groups are active in this field, promoting interpretations which might sometimes clash with the stance of the government and other authorities, including religious bodies. In this way, people have multiple choices in deciding where to position themselves. At the same time groups in society such as young activists gain more power, a stronger bargaining position, more voices than before as creative initiatives coming from society become more acceptable in the new democratic environment. 

Neneng YK Lahpan is a lecturer at ISBI (Institut Seni Budaya Indonesia/the Institute of Indonesian Art and Culture) in Bandung

Twitter handle:  @nengyantikho


Inside Indonesia 126: Oct-Dec 2016

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