Dancing for Islam
Cirebon dancer Mimi Dewi Savitri died as the last century vanished into history. But her art survives. She was 82 and had been performing till ten days before her passing.
Her granddaughter and legatee Nur ‘Nani’ Anani wants to leave this temporal existence in much the same way – and preferably on the stage. She says this cheerfully. When you have yet to complete four decades on this earth the final curtain seems far away.
“I have much to do in maintaining and demonstrating Indonesia’s traditional culture,” she said. “Fortunately it’s still alive and in good health, though no thanks to the regional government which does little to support the arts.
“When I say this they get angry and I’m not popular. If we had to rely on politicians the arts would not survive. Fortunately some people still like our work - in fact interest is strongest overseas.”
Nani, whose full name is Nur Ananai Maman Irman, spoke to The Jakarta Post in Wellington after a solo performance at the Indonesian Embassy.
She was in a contingent of 50 creative Indonesians in New Zealand for a course in arts management organised by the Auckland University of Technology. This included a tour of facilities in the South Pacific nation’s capital.
The NZ government offers artists and producers subsidies, courses and awards to encourage participation and growth in all disciplines.
In January Nani will be in the US on her third visit, then again later in the year. Emil Kang, Executive Director for Arts at the University of North Carolina said the dancer would be on campus for a season on sacred /secular boundaries in Islam.
“We are using Sufism as our lens in four non-Arab Muslim-majority nations (Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Senegal) as a way of debunking false notions of a monolithic Islam,” he said.
“Nani will participate in workshops, classes and conversations on religious studies, Southeast Asian studies and costume design, and dialogues in our center for Muslim civilizations.
“We are keenly interested in having her share the balance between the preservation of tradition and modern day relevance, and understanding the gray areas of cultural versus religious traditions.”
Nani has also danced in Japan and Europe at venues like the Frankfurt Book Fair adding mystique and movement to events which would otherwise be static.
Nani’s performances set up the audience to expect difference. Elaborately and colorfully clad with an ornate and regal headdress she mounts the stage as though on a casual stroll, but then kneels and faces away from the auditorium.
For a few minutes of silence all that can be seen is her back wrapped in splendid batik. She says she is contemplating, entering the spirit of the character she’ll portray. The mask she later dons has been infused with magic by its long-gone maker.
Some masks she uses have no holes for eyes making the dancing even more difficult.
The gamelan begins. Curious melodies that swirl like moving water, never stopping long enough for a take-home tune as in Western music. It’s not just a dance, but a ritual “between God and earth.”
“I’m the seventh generation of artists and started the dance exercises when I was three,” she said later, not to brag but as a matter of fact. “I didn’t come from a rich family. We had to borrow and get donations so I could go to university in Bandung.
“Dancing is something I have to do and want to do. It is my choice and joy, but also a compulsion. The spirits of my ancestors are here. They must be kept alive for this and future generations.”
Not all in her family agree. Those who follow a more austere version of Islam from Saudi Arabia disapprove of women on stage and claim that the ancient arts are idolatrous.
Some dances are considered erotic; Westerners would find this difficult to accept as there’s nothing bawdy or revealing, though red in the costume indicates “the madness of desire”.
Nani, who is now divorced, said she is more flexible in her beliefs. She cites the Walisongo (nine saints) who brought Islam to Java as acceptors of indigenous arts who didn’t try to stamp out ancient beliefs. These included dances celebrating weddings and harvests – and to guard against supernatural forces.
Supporter Daniel Haryono sometimes asks her to perform at his Ullen Sentalu Museum of Javanese Arts and Culture in Yogyakarta. This draws around 15,000 visitors a month; less than ten per cent are foreigners – a number he’d like to see increase.
His museum specialises in preserving ‘intangible heritage’ such as folklore and music along with the artefacts normally found in collections.
“Nani is one of the most successful performing artists in the country,” he said. “She is keeping the traditional dances of Losari in good health.”
Losari is an old village outside Cirebon and closer to Central Java and its influence, particularly the Prince Panji stories which feature in Nani’s dances. She runs her Purwa Kencana studio with about 80 students.
She said the style of dance, costumes and masks differs from those in West Java. The movements are also said to be more agile, though such comparisons are best left to the keen eyes of choreographers.
“Losari style is different from Cirebon mask dancing in every way – history, choreography, costume, music and presentation,” she said.
“The dance of King Bandopati Klana reflects aspects of human nature like egotism and arrogance, illustrated by the color red and the mask’s bulging eyes. The message is that these aspects of human nature are not morally good and should not be imitated.
“The Losari mask dance styles were created by the local Prince Angkawijaya about 400 years ago to spread Islam. So this is what I’m doing while preserving the skills of my Grandmother and all her ancestors.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 January 2017)