Rehearsals for the new Reog Bringin
In a village called Bringin, just south of the city of Ponorogo in East Java, the unique local dance known as Reog Ponorogo is enjoying a renaissance. The village’s long-running Reog troupe had disbanded sometime between 2000 and 2002 after funding for their group dried up. But this changed three years ago when the people of Bringin, young and old, veterans and novices, were moved to dust off their masks and peacock feathers and resurrect the group.
This eruption of newfound enthusiasm occurred within months of Reog making headlines across the archipelago as the most recent Indonesian cultural property to have been ‘stolen’ by Malaysia. While these cultural disputes are often framed in national terms, for the people of Ponorogo this was more than an affront to national pride – it was an attack on their very identity.
The case of the 'stolen' Reog Ponorogo
Reog Ponorogo made headlines across Indonesia in November 2007 when it featured in a Malaysian tourism commercial as a part of the 2007 Malaysia Truly Asia campaign. In Malaysia the dance is referred to as Tari Barongan, but certain elements mark it as an unmistakeable descendant of Reog, most notably the use of the dhadak merak mask which most Malaysian groups import from Ponorogo craftsmen. The use of Reog in this commercial without acknowledgement of its origins was enough to cause an uproar in Ponorogo. But the Malaysians made things even worse by emblazoning the word ‘Malaysia’ on the mask in the place usually reserved for the words ‘Reog Ponorogo’.
In the eyes of the people of Ponorogo this was blasphemy. Despite attempts by the Malaysian ambassador to explain that his country had never claimed that Reog was originally from Malaysia, the Ponorogoans saw it differently. Former Reog artist, mystic and warok (traditionally pederasts with an exalted status as powerful men and leaders), Ahmad Tobroni, saw the incident as a way to subtly claim Reog as their own. Like many Ponorogoans, he reacted to the news of Malaysia’s treachery with a spontaneous 'jancuk!' (damn it!), stating that he felt that 'this art from our ancestors was being claimed, just like that, in the interest of tourism’.
Culture and identity
In recent years Indonesia has accused Malaysia of several instances of cultural theft and appropriation. These spats are also mixed with other bilateral issues such as the mistreatment of Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia and the regular border disputes between the two countries. However, for the people of Ponorogo, the theft of Reog was something much more personal. For them, Reog is so much more than a dance.
On the national stage, weekly Reog performances represent Ponorogo at Taman Mini, the recreation park in Jakarta which displays miniature representations of the major cultures of the archipelago. It is promoted as Ponorogo's premier tourism drawcard. As the only art form – perhaps the only product – that can be described as uniquely Ponorogoan, it is the only way to express local identity. The great dhadak merak mask, which performers hold by biting down on a concealed wooden bar, appears on billboards, bumper stickers and in statue form throughout Ponorogo. In fact the correlation between dance and region is so strong that, in the words of Reog coach and elementary school curriculum coordinator Jarumi, ‘Ponorogo is identified with Reog, not Reog with Ponorogo!’
The attitude in Ponorogo towards Reog reflects a wider trend in Indonesia, where art forms emerge from their traditional roles in local cultures and become a symbol for an ethnic group. This trend is strongly influenced by an understanding of culture based on its physical elements, which is promoted by sites such as Taman Mini or the representation of local cultures in school textbooks. The national motto, Unity in Diversity, is often graphically expressed as members of various ethnic groups, each in their traditional costume, standing together smiling, the diversity element reduced to fabrics and feathers. Consequently, traditional dress, dance and architecture are a means of expressing a local identity and to understand one’s place in the great national project that is Indonesia.
The accused thief
What, then, to make of Malaysia’s role in all of this? It would be negligent not to emphasise that Reog, like many other cultural practices, has been practised in both Indonesia and Malaysia for at least several decades. Groups of Indonesian immigrants in Malaysia have established their own communities and in some cases have brought their traditions with them. This is certainly what happened in the case of Reog. Given this history of cultural exchange, why is Indonesia so sensitive to the use of Reog in a
Anti-Malaysia sentiment on display
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Malaysia can apparently put these arts to better use. While the people of Ponorogo are confronted by commercials featuring Reog from across the Strait of Malacca, they are all too aware that no local marketing exists to attract tourists to see Reog in Ponorogo. Many people perceive this as a kind of exploitation from their neighbour, who they often refer to as Malingsia, a play on the Javanese-Indonesian word maling, which means thief. As Head of the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at Muhammadiyah University Ponorogo, Yusuf Arsono, sums up this view: ‘Malaysia knows that Indonesia has it all, but that we can’t protect it.’
The controversy surrounding the theft of Reog led not only to an outpouring of anti-Malaysia sentiment but also a backlash against local government. People expressed their frustration that officials have failed not only to protect Reog from the Malaysians but to useit to Ponorogo’s advantage. In Ponorogo, there is a strong push for the government to copyright Reog. Although it is unclear how this would be done, the movement clearly reflects a desire for the government to do more to protect and preserve the dance.
Reflection and revitalisation
Perhaps the only positive impact of the controversy has been that it has reignited interest in Reog amongst a new generation who are discovering exactly what it means to be from Ponorogo. ‘I am proud to be Indonesian, but even prouder to be from Ponorogo,’ declares performer Paniran with enthusiasm. But in the village of Bringin, most people are reluctant to confess to a link between the controversy of 2007 and the revival of their Reog group. Many of the young people who have become dancers claim that they have always felt an undying love for Reog, and that the collapse of the group in the last decade was only for want of funding. However some older members of the community identified a link between the revived interest of the younger generation and the fallout from the advertisement.
In the aftermath of the controversy, the people of Ponorogo are facing a predicament. On the one hand, they express pride to see Reog spreading and developing in other parts of the world. On the other hand, they have become somewhat over protective of it and are fiercely insistent that Ponorogo is always acknowledged as its birthplace. It is a conundrum that is still working itself out, as Ponorogo realises that the dance that they hold up proudly as a badge of identity may just have outgrown them. While Ponorogo may understand Reog first and foremost as a symbol, to the rest of the world it is a vibrant and dramatic performance art that has widespread appeal.
It is difficult to see a resolution to the ongoing cultural conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia. Just last year another case reared its head in the form of the Pendet dance, which was erroneously included in a Malaysian tourism commercial made by a Singaporean advertising agency. It seems that Indonesia will continue to treat its regional arts as if they were static and their origins straightforward, something that can and should be inventoried and copyrighted as if the strong historical and cultural links between the two countries were somehow irrelevant. Malaysia does itself no favours by continuing to ignore the tensions around traditional art forms, which often fail to rate a mention in its own press. As has been the case with Reog, perhaps the best outcome will be greater reflection in Indonesia on the value of these diverse and unique art forms, particularly amongst a new generation of performers who will be their future custodians.
Lisa Mapson (email@example.com) is a graduate of the University of Melbourne. She completed her research in Ponorogo earlier this year while participating in the ACICIS (Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies) East Java Field Studies Program.