Healing prayers for Durga the monster goddess!

Bima fighting some soldiers. The soldiers are all from the Paguyuban Wayang Orang Bharata as their sideways movements and dance are technically difficult to perform. (photo: Sanggar Budaya Monas)

A Wayang Orang Performance by the Monas and Bharata Performing Groups

IO – “Your kindness is not as great as your beauty!” cried Batara Guru the supreme god as he caught his wife in an act of unkindness to Nandi or Andini the sacred cow of Shiva, and in a rage he cursed his wife Dewi Uma turning her into the monster goddess Durga.

“Can I ever be exorcized and return to the form of Dewi Uma again?” cried Durga in deepest despair.

“First you will have to accept what has happened to you with sincerity and grace. Then, know that only Sadewa, the youngest of the Pandawa clan may pray for your healing and exorcise you of your sins so that you may be pure again as a goddess.”

The wayang orang performance “Durga Ruwat” at the Gedung Kesenian or Cultural Theater in Pasar Baru on the 17th of November 2018 centered around the story of how Durga was exorcized or healed through the prayers of Sadewa, one of the twins and youngest son of the good Pandava clan in the great Indian epic the Mahabharata. Such cleansing and healing prayers or exorcism is known as “ruwat” in Javanese. Ruwat is a Javanese tradition or belief whereby a person may be cleansed of their sins or faults that are causing ill luck and psychological stress in their life. By performing a ruwat the person becomes pure in spirit again. The ruwat is carried out through a ritual that in the Javanese tradition uses wayang as its medium. At the Gedung Kesenian last week the story of the monster goddess Durga’s ruwat was taken from a story in that great Sanskrit epic of India: the Mahabharata or The Great Tale of the Bharata Dynasty.

The Mahabharata is the story of a great war made all the more traumatic and painful because it is a war between cousins and family. The legend is that Bhagavan Vyasa dictated the Mahabharata to Ganesha, the mighty elephant god who broke off one of his tusks to use as a pen to write that renowned Indian epic poem which still holds sway over so much of Indonesian art and culture. The Mahabharata is full of entrancing stories and wayang orang performances are each centered around a different one of the stories.

Indonesia’s literary and perhaps also psychological contribution to the great Mahabharata epic has been to insert into the stories contained therein the Punakawan or four clowns. This was said to have occurred during the 12th century CE. The Punakawan represent the ordinary man in the street and frequently act as critics of social and political injustices and sources of wisdom and truth; especially, the figure of Semar who although not a king or a god is very wise and has a wide world view. Therefore, at times Semar advises knights and kings. The Punakawan are also used to provide an interlude of light relief to relax the audience from the serious teachings and turn of events in the Mahabharata. In Durga Ruwat, the four clowns also make their appearance and Semar duly proffers his wisdom and advice. Semar was portrayed by Kis Selamat of the Paguyuban Wayang Orang Bharata. “Kis Selamet is one of the most famous wayang orang dancers of Indonesia. He has often been invited to perform abroad representing Indonesian dance. His portrayal of Rahwana is the epitome of the Indonesian Rahwana,” declared director Nanang Ruswandi of the Bharata group who worked together with the Sanggar Budaya Monas in directing the performance at the Gedung Kesenian.

Wayang orang or human wayang is a very formal and highly cultured Javanese dance theater with stories from and it involves dance, drama, music, literature, language as well as the visual arts. This form of art is closely connected to the Javanese courts in Jogjakarta and Solo although wayang orang also exists in the Balinese and Sundanese traditions. Sultan Amangkurat I who was the last king of the Mataram sultanate is credited with having created the wayang orang dance drama in 1731 and at first this art form was only performed within the palace walls but later it also became very popular amongst the ordinary people.

The dance drama production on Saturday was conducted by the Sanggar Budaya Monas or the Monas Cultural Studio and the Paguyuban Wayang Orang Bharata or the Bharata Wayang Orang Community. Sanggar Budaya Monas is an amateur group set up as the cultural division of the Lions Club branch at Monas, central Jakarta. The Lions Club is an international non-political organization with over 1.7 million members in 196 countries. Their mission is to empower their members to act as volunteers that serve their communities, meet humanitarian needs, encourage peace and promote international understanding through the clubs. This is why the performance started with a lady pushing a handicapped child in a wheel chair. The Monas branch of the Lions Club tries to provide support including moral support to handicapped children.

The cast with a painting of their patron Mrs Sukardini Bustanil Arifin. (photo: Sanggar Budaya Monas)

The handicapped child in the wheel chair was accompanied by a smattering of children dancing and then followed by two opening dances performed by very small children. The youngest dancer among them was only two and a half years old and is the sprite little great granddaughter of Mrs Sukardini Bustanil Arifin, wife of the former Minister of Logistics and Cooperatives, the late Bustanil Arifin. “It is important that children are taught language and the arts such as traditional dancing from a very early age as it influences their whole character. What I find lacking in modern education is that children no longer are taught what we call budi pekerti in Indonesia namely character building and courtesy or good manners. In every story of the Ramayana and Mahabharata there are ethics and morals so that traditional dance and drama are a very good way for children to learn budi pekerti,” commented the ninetyyear old lady whose granddaughter-in-law, Sara dances wayang orang as do her two great granddaughters Sabia and Sheila.”

Ibu Bus as she is popularly known is just as active as her husband was. She is a leading member of the International Lions Club at the Jakarta Monas branch where she founded the Sanggar Budaya Monas which was created to promote and help preserve Indonesia’s cultural heritage especially Javanese dance. After it was created its members began by commencing dance practice and preparing a wayang orang performance. While other wayang orang groups have fallen along the way last week’s Durga Ruwat performance has been their tenth production and Ibu Bus considered ending the activities of the Sanggar Budaya Monas. However, the out cry of protests from members of the group who practice every Saturday at Ibu Bus house where her ample living and dining room have been turned into a permanent dance studio – caused her to reconsider and the dancing and performances continue. “Our branch of the Lions Club and the members of the Sanggar Budaya Monas have become one large family that cannot bear the thought of breaking up,”  commented the matriarch of that family with quiet satisfaction for few peoples are as fond of family life as Indonesians.

Some Indonesian women such as Moeryati Soedibyo who has just finished producing her first epic feature film Sultan Agung at the age of ninty-two – seem to reach their prime at the age of ninety. Ibu Bus who turned ninety this year seems to fall within that category. Besides the Lions Club and the Sanggar Budaya Monas she also built up the Al-Izhar schools and the Nusantara Flower Park. Her house is full of happy young women busy fund raising, practicing dance and drama or organizing events and part of that joy is that Ibu Bus is the mother of that happy family.

In the its productions from the start the Sanggar Budaya Monas has had a cooperation with the Paguyuban Wayang Orang Bharata which is the leading professional wayang orang group in Jakarta. This legendary professional wayang orang group was created in 1972 and is one of the few wayang orang groups that has managed to survive in Indonesia. The Bharata theatre and studio are located in Jl Kalilio no 15, Senen, central Jakarta in an old former film theatre building. “The performers who must be able to dance, sing and act – all in Javanese,  receive very little pay despite a little funding from the City of Jakarta Cultural Service; some receive as little as Rp40.000 per performance but do it as a form of service to keep the art of wayang orang which they love, alive. They are all very proud to perform with such a respected dance group,” disclosed Nanang Ruswandi who first met the Bharata group when he moved with his family from Surabaya to Jakarta and his father who was a carpenter began to make lockers for the dancers.

Fortunately, the dancers are often able to earn extra money by performing outside the Bharata theatre with other theatres or dance groups or at special events such as weddings or birthdays and are even invited to perform at times abroad. However, only about sixty percent of the dancers are able to obtain work outside the group. These are usually the more well-known dancers. Nevertheless, every Saturday evening they all loyally come to Bharata to perform. They love the Bharata group which (as with the Sanggar Budaya Monas) is considered another family by them and with Indonesians love of family – that means a lot. They obtain new dancers from the children or their senior dancers. There are seldom any auditions for outside dancers. When their parents perform children watch from the outskirts of the stage and this is how they develop their love of wayang orang and performing. In 2013 the Bharata theatre was restored mainly through funding from the City of Jakarta Cultural Services as well as the support of several amateur wayang orang groups. Nanang Ruswandi is now a director and choreographer whose favorite character is Ravana, the demon god. I like dancing his character because his aim was simply to find and capture Sita and he was so determined in his efforts to do so and I admire such determination,” explained Nanang.

“During the performance most of the dancers were from the Sanggar Budaya Monas with the dancers from the Paguyuban Wayang Orang dancing the most difficult pieces such as the soldiers who did a very complicated dance moving sideways like lots of little crabs. They also danced the parts of the female genies come to tempt Arjuna away from his meditation and prayers. They are after all professional dancers,” disclosed Iqbal Prasetya who danced Sadewa one of the lead roles in the Durga Rawut performance and a member of Sanggar Budaya Monas who in his day to day life works in human resources at an automotive company. He says that there are two types of roles for male dancers: either the beautiful, refined role of figures like Arjuna or Sadewa which he likes to portray as they must also sing; or the very strong rough heroic figures like the role of Bima for example. “But I have played the refined roles so often I would love to try the role of hanuman the monkey god. That would be a challenge as it would be neither refined nor rough but with the gestures and characteristics of an animal instead!”

There is currently pressure against traditional cultural groups from some religious groups. Ibu Bus quietly expressed regret with regard to this. Resmia Hidayati, dancer who plays the leading role of Durga can trace her family descent to Mangkunegara I in Solo as well as the Sumenap kingdom in Madura.

Later the Sunan Kalijaga, one of the nine guardians who spread Islam to Indonesia used the wayang and especially the figure of Semar to spread the teachings of Islam. She is one of the best dancers in the Sanggar Budaya Monas and has danced frequently in the Ntherlands, Australia, Hawaii and other places in the world. She likes the challenge of performing an antagonistic role such as Durga and is outspoken about her love for her Javanese cultural traditions and her dislike of a trend towards Arabization that some display. “I am a religious person but I have the right to practice the culture and traditions of my ancestors,” she said firmly.

The peacock feathers and tiger’s head of the Reog
Ponorogo and Durga with Sadewa in the Minang Sraya Forest. (photo: Sanggar Budaya Monas)

Meanwhile. on the stage Sadewa prepares to fight the genies sent by Durga. A dancer appears with an enormous harness consisting of hundreds of peacock feathers and a large tiger’s head appears resembling the figure in a Reog Ponoroggo dance from East Java. It is heavy to carry this and the dancer from Bharata who is extremely talented suddenly roles on his back carrying the harness in front of him.  Finally, Sadewa defeats the genies and performs a ruwat for Durga who then returns to the form of Dvi Uma.

The audience give a deep sigh of satisfaction and a man sitting behind me contentedly pronounces, “Wis.” Finished.


(Tamalia Alisjahbana)