RECALLING ANCIENT WISDOM FOR MODERN LAND CARE
© Duncan Graham 2007
It has to be one of East Java's most extraordinary sights; after hairpinning up and down serpentine laneways on the flanks of Mount Arjuno, through tiny villages and thick forest, to come across a 5,000 square-meter palatial Italian-style mansion.
Finding Villa Leduk is a bit tricky. This multi-columned celebration of the Renaissance, looking like the ultimate in standout opulence, is the rural estate of Jakarta architect and designer Bagoes Brotodiwirjo. But it's tucked away behind a conservation and education center that's also part of his grand design.
The Kaliandra Sejati Foundation that Bagoes chairs is a collection of Javanese bungalows set into the contours of the mountain slopes. Many have been built in the pre-European way – no mortar between the flat red bricks, shuttered windows, carved teak furniture and fittings, and terracotta tiles. Verdigris verandah posts; ochre walls and green swing doors; shade and cool breezes – it's a place for contemplation.
Although constructed only a decade ago the cottages look centuries old. The only giveaways are flush toilets and electric lights.
It would be difficult to find a starker contrast with the big Tuscany-in-the-Tropics palace next door.
Within the foundation's complex are restaurants, high-roofed meeting halls, richly manicured (but seldom geometric) gardens, riverlets and ponds. Gamelan music (there are three sets of instruments) slips through the drooping branches, the rain splashing in tune off the glossy leaves.
Kaliandra will be a principal location for the five-day Panji Festival scheduled for the first week in September, just before the start of the fasting month of Ramadan.
The Panji stories date back 700 years to the Majapahit era and have influenced many aspects of Javanese culture, including the way crops are grown and harvested, forests maintained, sickness cured and relationships organized. (See sidebar)
The Panji festival is an international initiative. It started in August 2004 with a meeting at the French Cultural Center in Surabaya. Present was East Java activist and educator Suryo Prawiroatmodjo and Javanese arts scholar Lydia Kieven. Originally from Germany she's currently in Australia studying for a doctorate.
Artist Suprapto Suryadarma was another key participant. He's a spiritual dancer and wayang choreographer from the Padepokan (art center) Lemah Putih in Solo, famous for having developed a Wayang Buddha performance.
Others at the original meeting included traditional and contemporary artists, farmers, doctors and educators. All agreed that Panji culture could help recover local identity and counter globalization.
The committee has now been joined by Agus Tinus, a lecturer in tourism at Surabaya's Petra University, and puppet master and choreographer M Soleh Adi Pramono. He's based at Tumpang, a village outside Malang.
With such a diverse and dispersed group it's no surprise that the ambition to stage a festival has taken longer to achieve than first expected. Sponsors have been found and the show will at last hit the road. Or in this case, the mountain.
Apart from theatre, the idea is to recall the Panji cultural practices in land husbandry, batik design, architecture, music, medicine (through the use of herbs) and food. Organizers hope the past can teach the present much about conservation and living in harmony with nature.
Another expectation is that the festival will boost pride in the history of Java before the 1945 proclamation of the Republic, the point where much official teaching starts.
Activities have expanded to include an international seminar on Local Wisdom from the Panji Era at Merdeka University in Malang (on 5 and 6 September), theatre at Soleh's Mangun Dharmo arts center and land care studies at Kaliandra.
The name refers to a clever American acacia-like tree (Caliandra calothyrsus); it's smart because it can fix nitrogen in the soil and – unlike many foreigners - is happy in humidity.
At 850 metres above sea level Kaliandra is a top location and not just because of the elevation. It can accommodate 120 people and is billed as a center for studying the environment, culture and community development. Last year 20,000 visited, mainly school and university students.
Because the area is so well watered the statuary and buildings have been draped in a patina that disguises age. Are the Majapahit images squatting in the foliage priceless relics from a millennium ago, or concrete copies from an antiques-while-you-wait workshop?
If the design is the same does it matter whether it has been chiseled by an iron adze or an electric-powered angle grinder?
"This is an ideal clean and relatively unspoilt location for festival participants to learn about our culture and study East Java flora and fauna," said Suryo. Seventeen years ago the former veterinary surgeon established Indonesia's first outdoor environmental education center at the nearby village of Seloliman.
"Panji isn't just about mask dancing. It represents a way of life that includes recognizing local wisdoms and respecting nature.
"In the past rural people understood the importance of working within the cycle of nature. Now clear felling of forests, locating noxious industries in farm areas, land and river pollution by chemicals and waste are upsetting the balance and killing the environment.
"Through this festival, and the young people who will participate, we'll be able to reinforce the need to care for our resources, reforest for the future and reconnect with nature. This is everyone's responsibility."
ONCE UPON A TIME …
The Indian epics the Mahabharata and Ramayana are reasonably familiar to literati in the West where they've been infrequently performed. The Panji legends, once well known throughout South-East Asia, are now foreign outside Java - and to much of the present generation of Indonesians who prefer TV to live theatre.
As in all good yarns that don't fade with fashion the tales are about love and adventure. It's the evergreen theme: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again. He gets her and the throne and she gets him and the status.
The heroes in this home-grown saga are Prince Panji (who could also be the Hindu god Visnu), and Princess Candrakirana. The tales are set in the 11th century and became popular during the following 200 years of the Majapahit era, though some claim the Panji period spanned the 8th to the 15th centuries AD.
The Majapahit era was the golden age of Java when the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom is believed to have controlled much of lower South East Asia through trade and conquest. So revisiting the Panji stories is to celebrate pre-Islamic Javanese triumphs and values.
(For more information see postings on: http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/vicindonblog/ For details of the academic program contact Dr Gunawan Wibisono email@example.com )
(First published in The Sunday Post 2 September 07.)