The Bull Whisperer
Anytime before Independence Day 1993, Takim Priyono was just another seemingly feckless ill-educated hanger-on, one more pair of hands for hire among the millions.
You might have caught the 22-year old with his mates sucking smokes at the crossroads of Tumpang, a village on the flanks of Java’s highest volcano, Mount Semeru.
Once the flag raising and marching is over 17 August celebrations usually turn into an afternoon of do-it-yourself jolliness. Kids bang plastic water drums and parade in fun costumes.
Also there on that day were older men performing kuda lumping, the East Java trance dance involving flat-sided hobby horses.
Takim had seen them before because Tumpang, 22 kilometers east of Malang, is a center for East Java culture. But this time something else happened.
“When the procession passed I heard a voice whisper in my ear,” he said. “It was an old man speaking in ngoko (Javanese used by superiors to inferiors, or to intimates). He told me I had to make seven heads of banteng (the wild ox of Java). So I did.”
With no knowledge of carving other than idly watching a few artisans chop away at blocks of wood, like an Old Testament figure he set out to obey the command.
The first bull head was called Sampar Keling. “I had to ask in a special ritual,” he said – but doesn’t elaborate. Apparently the name came in another whisper and no meaning was forthcoming.
He still hangs in a dark nook of Takim’s cavernous workshop, his nose draped in hide, a rope around his horns as though ready to be led, or perhaps to lead. On the surrounding walls are scores of other banteng. Later versions, almost all life-sized, have painted faces and are more decorative. Not all are intimidating.
Also there are the gaudy clacking-jawed demons used in dances, masks and more kuda lumping with broomstick tails like flying witches from European mythology.
On the floor is a slab of what Takim called dadap or cangkring, a solid but workable local timber often used for shade trees. The ones he uses come from a border with a graveyard, adding another spirit layer.
The wood has been only partly carved. The outline is there, but not the soul. No horns either, which come from slaughtered animals. “I’m waiting for inspiration,” he said. “I haven’t had the calling. When can it come? Anytime and anywhere.”
Do the bulls talk? He hesitates, smiles, scrutinises the questioner and thinks awhile. “No.”
And the old man? Is there a conversation? The reluctance returns, jarring an otherwise fluid and open conversation. Another pause and a glance into the darkness. “No.”
Many people are reluctant to be near such objects because they fear the creator can infuse the heads with spells and black magic, known as jampi-jampi. Is this the situation with his artefacts? Smiling again. “Yes. All of them.”
Fear of spooks wasn’t the only hazard to be confronted. At the time President Soeharto’s authoritarian government was facing other demons, the ghost of the man he deposed reincarnated as a rival politician in the shape of the first President’s daughter.
Megawati Sukarnoputri’s star was rising and her Partai Demokrasi Indonesia, later to add Perjuangan (struggle) to its title, had chosen a horned beast as its symbol.
Obviously a man making such splendid models must also be a political activist, maybe even a provocateur.
Then there were the religious worries. Many modern Muslims strongly oppose Javanese mysticism. Directly opposite his driveway is a mosque, its speakers strong enough to blast away any malevolence, whatever its source.
Takim was tolerated. “I was brought up here, everyone knew I wasn’t political,” he said. “Fortunately by then the government had more serious concerns. I was never visited by Intel
“This area is rich in Javanese culture and Nahdlatu Ulama (a major traditional Muslim organisation in East Java) accepts this.”
So how did a man who says he had no formal training become not just an overnight skilled technician able to carve symmetrically but also a creative artist?
The theory of his friend, artist and author Bambang Adrian Wenzel – who verified Takim’s epiphany - is that his origins are with the Tenggerese who live on the slopes of nearby Mount Bromo. They are believed to the remnants of the 15th century Majapahit people who fled (or were driven out) from East Java and into Bali.
The number seven features in mythologies across the world.
Takim says he won’t sell his art because the prices are too high for locals. Pushed he refused to name a figure, though later revealed his work can now be found in 22 overseas countries.
Three years ago he built a separate workshop with sculptures of bulls and other symbols on the walls.
His wife Sri Hardayani is a professional traditional dancer who performs at weddings. Their son Agung Wahudi, 11, spends time watching his Dad cut and chop and drill.
Just down the road, squashed among the tiny houses is the 14-meter high Candi Jagu, a temple believed built in 1268 during the Singosari period when Java was still Hindu-Buddhist. Weathering on the andesite walls are complex 3D scenes from life and the after life.
Two bulls feature among the many animals, ferocious and assertive, ready to gore, fighting tigers, at the gateway to hell.
Although the temple is classified as a heritage site visitors scramble over its stones unchecked. Local children use it as a playground, couples court in its shadows. It’s been a stage for traditional theater and is part of the village.
“There’s been a long close relationship between cattle and people,” Takim said. “They give us milk and meat and skin. Banteng are symbols of energy and action.
“I don’t want to hold exhibitions or move from Tumpang. I do not want the younger generation to loose our culture. I feel grateful that God has given me this opportunity – it’s the calling of my life.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post, Monday 7 Jan 2013)