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Excerpts from "Averting Falling Popularity of Masked Dances," The Jakarta Post, Sunday, September 25, 1994

Text by Hartoyo Pratiknyo. Photos by Arief Hidayat. The photos (not included here) show the five masks representing the five stages of life which are used in the topeng babakan dances.

I don't normally include extensive quotes from other sources, but since this article would be hard to find, I hope that the author will not mind.

...Toto Amsar Suanda gazes at the unfinished wooden mask he is holding. From under its protective coating of gray lead paint the mask stares back at him with a face that despite its grin is void of expression.

In a few weeks, however, in Toto Amsar's caring hands the gray coloring will disappear under a coat of bright white paint. Touches of back, red and gold paint will complete the features and the lifeless chunk of wood will be transformed into the radiantly smiling face of Panji, the embodiment of youthful virtue and innocence in one of the most enduring tales of Javanese folklore.

Working during spare moments in between his chores as an instructor at Bandung's state Dance Academy, it has taken Toto Amsar more than two weeks to transfigure the block of raw jaran wood (Dolichandrone spathacea) into the unpolished countenance of Panji.... his mentors can finish a mask in a few days, but to Toto, the main interest is not so much in becoming a master carver himself as acquiring the knowledge and skills that are necessary to gain insight and to propagate a wider appreciation of Cirebon's topeng heritage.....

"This one will probably be the first to go," Toto says.... "Before very long, all the old masters of the Panji dance will be gone....."

....Toto explains that in the most common topeng dance, known as topeng babakan or topeng barangan, a dancer performs a series of five different dances in succession within a span of seven to eight hours. In each dance, the dancer puts on a different mask and, through the dance, brings to life the character which it embodies.

The first dance is the Panji, which symbolizes purity and youthful innocence. Next comes the Pamindo or Samba, which portrays the stage of adolescence in which the human passions awaken and the lust for life begins to assert itself. And so all the stages of the growth of the human character from birth on to old age are portrayed in natural order through the five sequential dances: Panji, Pamindo, Rumyang, Tumenggung and Kelana.

A special form of the topeng babakan is the kupu tarung, which literally means fighting or cavorting butterflies. In this context, however, it applies to a form of topeng in which a dancer from two, or sometimes four or even six different outfits simultaneously take the stage. As Toto points out, it often happens that at kupu tarung events nowadays only one dancer appears on the stage during the Panji episode of the dance. Invariably, he or she is a veteran dancer well in their fifties or over.

"The younger dancers can't do it anymore. Either they don't have the persistence to learn it or they have not undergone the emotional and corporeal rigors which the Panji dance takes," he says. "But besides, even if they did, today the public wants more action on the stage and, at least in its outward appearance, that is the one thing the Panji dance cannot give them."

"The Panji is actually a form of meditation," Toto says. "When a dancer is dancing the Panji his thoughts must be empty. In such a state of incorporeal emptiness he will feel the earth's gravitational pull working through his legs and body. He stands as if nailed to the earth. His feet can hardly move.... It is said that in such a state it might appear to a spectator as if the dancer was standing perfectly still and yet the moments later he could be standing right in front of him," he adds.

"Among the things that are imperative for a Panji dancer," Toto continues, "is that he has a complete control over his breathing. Like a yoga practitioner, the Panji dancer must train himself to breath in and out at precisely calculated moments and his chest must not show the slightest movement while he is dancing. All his movements must be under his absolute control."

In order to gain such perfect hold over their minds and bodies Panji dancers in the old days were quite willing to deny themselves many of life's pleasures. Long periods of fasting and self-denial were an accepted part of their training. They often went for months or even years without eating any rice. Sujana, a master topeng dancer who is now 55 years old is said on occasion to still have assistants step on his body to condition it and harden it against the rigors of dancing....

Precisely how Cirebon's topeng legacy began is not really known. Given the central position which the Panji figure takes in the dance, it seems reasonable to assume that the tradition has its origin in East Java, where the Panji cycle of folk tales originated.

Scholars, citing the Old-Javanese text Tantu Panggelaran, have suggested that in the beginning masked dances could have been part of Hindu-Javanese religious rituals designed to avert misfortune. Once upon a time, according to the ancient manuscript, the frightful god Batara Kala was wreaking havoc on the earth. In desperation, the gods Iswara, Brahma and Wisnu arranged to descend onto the earth. Iswara turned himself into a sori, Brahma into a pederat and Wisnu into a tekes and so they went around, looking for Kala. They wandered as drifters, singing songs and ever since then the bandagina songs have been known.

Although there are a number of words in the text whose meanings are uncertain, the word tekes as it is known at present stands for the horse-hair head-dress which is used in the topeng dances of Cirebon, the Panji dance in particular.

So, masked dances as an outflow of religious practices were apparently already know in Java around 1000 A.D. Also, in the 13th century A.D., during the heyday of the East Java-based Majapahit empire, masked dances and wayang shadow plays were part of certain death rituals.

At present, even without the sacral element, topeng performances are still capable of attracting crowds.... However, the popularity of the Panji dance in particular -- the most soulful of Cirebon's masked dances -- is on the wane....

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Artifacts on this site were collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. Background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. by Carolyn Leigh is licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0