Indonesia’s heritage on show in UK
A special report from London and Oxford on the Indonesian Regal Heritage program, to introduce Indonesia to a global audience.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the audience, Fajar, who wore a black beskap, or formal Javanese suit, performed for just over a minute in a spectacle that intrigued the crowd at the auditorium at Corpus Christi College at Oxford University in the UK. Back on stage, one of the organizers, the dancer and impresario Atilah Soeryadjaya, stepped up to the microphone. “Dance for me is to celebrate love and to celebrate life itself. Dancing is a tradition that is preserved by the royal palace as part of an offering to the king. And thus dance becomes part of our daily life.” It was all part of an expedition deemed the UK Art and Culture Trip, part of the Indonesia Regal Heritage program organized by UKbased Gapura Limited in London and Oxford, held from March 24 to 27. The program sought to introduce Indonesia to a global audience. Atilah shared her knowledge on Indonesian heritage at Oxford that day with six other prominent local artists: Fashion designer Ghea Panggabean, Iwan Tirta Private Collection creative director Era Soekamto, batik artisan Benny Adrianto, musician Otti Jamalus, chef Petty Elliott and members of Rumah Pesona Kain, a nonprofit organization that works to protect Indonesia’s textile heritage. Atilah, the granddaughter of the Javanese nobleman Mangkunegara VII, told the crowd how she grew up in the Mangkunegaran Palace in Surakarta (Solo), Central Java, and was taught to dance by men and women who dedicated their lives to the court. “The palace acts as a fortress that preserves Javanese culture,” Atilah said, describing the soulful and delicate royal dances that showcased the spiritual powers of the performers. She then introduced a gamelan orchestra from Solo, who would perform with Peter Smith from the Oxford Gamelan Society. Two women performed the elegant Srimpi dance of the court, moving gracefully to the slow accompaniment of the gamelan and the voice of traditional Javanese singers. In the West, theater audiences look in a single direction during performances, while Javanese audiences watch a pendopo cultural stage, based on a, or circle, that puts the dancers in the center while remaining open in four directions, Atilah told the crowd. Atilah also spoke of a traditional Javanese opera Langendriyan, created by Mangkunegara IV. It was her inspiration for writing and producing Matah Ati, an elaborate stage production widely performed in Indonesia and beyond. Premiering in 2012, Matah Ati tells of the hardships faced by poor Javanese in the 18th century and a rebellion led by a young girl named Rubiyah and a Surakartan prince, Raden Mas Said. An excerpt of the main production,
Samparan Matah Ati, closed the event. “Samparan Matah Ati dancers use masks, as I was inspired by my grandfather who collected masks from all over the archipelago,” Atilah said. “I think his collection is the most complete in Indonesia, up in the hundreds of thousands.” Performers bite down on the masks to hold them in place, which Atilah says forces them to focus and integrate their faces into the show. This is even harder than it looks, considering that dancers also sometimes sing during the performance. In the story presented at Oxford, Rubiyah marries the prince, who gives her the keris, or Javanese dagger, that she uses to lead an army of women warriors to overthrow the Dutch. The performance received a standing ovation. “I’m an Indonesian and I’ve heard about Matah Ati,” Thomas, a student at the university, said. “I felt very lucky to finally get the opportunity to watch them perform here in Oxford.” From traditional to the contemporary Benny Adrianto, who creates art objects based on Indonesian designs using traditional techniques and materials, opened his part of the seminar with a video. “I develop products based on the Indonesian traditional arts, such as batik, wayang golek [wooden puppets] and metal works, turning them into a more modern, contemporary displays,” Benny said in the video. “A classic patterned traditional Indonesian batik, for instance, can be developed with a new color composition to decorate a lampshade, resulting in a lighter and more up-to-date style.” Benny is known for his clever reinterpretations of traditional crafts, such as using natural fibers from Kalimantan or Banten, West Java, to make batik scarves. He’s also used turned banana tree trunks into paper art to decorate lampshades. An advisor for the Indonesian Pavilion at the World Expo in Milan in 2015, Benny speaks passionately about his work. “By maintaining the quality of our products, not only can we increase their value, but we can also attract more attention,” he said. “Hopefully we can help preserve our local traditions and culture.”
Asked about the challenges facing artisanal workers, Benny cited quality human resources and a lack of standards. “I have to provide long-term training myself in order to create good quality human resources,” he said, referring to his workshop in Central Java. One member of the audience asked Benny to collaborate with colleges to inspire students to learn batik. When Benny replied he had done something similar in Thailand, she enthusiastically replied: “Let’s bring it to London!” Reinventing heritage fashion Up next was the well- known designer Ghea Panggabean, who has explored the many faces of Indonesian textiles, from vibrant Sumatran fabrics, such as tenun songket, l i mar and j umputan
pelangi to Javanese motifs that combine famous wayang figures with batik. “All the islands of Indonesia have been my inspiration, but my first love was
j umputan pelangi Palembang– the tie- dye- and- stitch technique from Sumatra.” Indonesia, she told the audience, was a blend of the influences of many cultures, including those of China, Europe, India and the Muslim world, all of who came to the archipelago for spices. Describing Sumatra as one of the most cultured regions of Indonesia, she then introduced a model wearing traditional bridal attire from Sumatra that she had modernized. “It has a Chinese influence. The songket also looks like an Indian sari. It takes six months to one year to make.” Textiles in Indonesia have symbolic and ceremonial meanings, whether for birth, weddings or deaths, and many islands have their own unique traditions, she added. Ghea’s contemporary versions of traditional textiles were then showcased to the audience, with models strolling the auditorium wearing handmade Sumba cloth dyed with indigo, gringsing cloth created using the double ikat method in from Tenganan in Bali, and wayang geber, which has the folktale of Dewi Sekartaji painted on fabric. She herself progressed from hand-drawn fabrics in the 1980s before adopting silk- screen printing in the 1990s and 2000s and switching to digital printing. “I still do the hand-drawn technique but I also utilize newer technology for faster and a more cost-efficient production–to make the products more affordable.” Art of Indonesian flavor Chef Petty Elliott was the next presenter. An advocate of fusion cuisine, as well as the official formal dining consultant for the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, Petty said that she started her career 14 years ago simply to promote Indonesian cuisine. “Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world, but no one knows about our cuisine,” the chef said, adding that fusion food has been popular in Indonesia since the 15th century, thanks to colonization. “Each island has its own flavor,” she told the crowd. “Although Maluku is the one known as the Spice Island, the home of the most complex and intriguing flavors in cuisine is arguably Sumatra, since the region used to host the biggest port for spice trading.” Sulawesi was particularly interesting, Petty said. “In the north, the European influence is very strong, especially from the Dutch and Spanish. Most of the people are Christians and the dishes use pork. In the South, by Makassar, 99 percent are Muslim, thus the cuisine is very different.” Petty also presented images of some of her contemporary dishes that preserved heritage recipes, such as corn fritters, seaweed salad, a deconstructed vegetable salad and a Manado-style risotto. Asked about how Indonesian food might go global, Petty said introducing Indonesian flavors was only part of the battle. “To make it global is easy if we get support from the government.” Petty continues. “It can take two to three years. The Thai government did it 25 years ago; the Malaysian government did it 15 years ago. We need to push–and be bold.” When jazz meets ‘ saluang’ The uniquely exotic sounds of the saluang, a bamboo flute favored by the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, were also heard at the seminar, featuring a live performance led by the singer and pianist Otti Jamalus.
The saluang player, 54-year- old musician named Adrizaldi, hails from West Sumatra and is said to have created the
saluang himself. The flute is made of bamboo that is around three years of age and which is harvested from high areas and cut during the summer, since beetles lay eggs in bamboo during the rainy season. Although a saluang may come in different shapes and scales–and thus produce different sounds–the instrument is generally three centimeters in diameter, three centimeters thick and just over a half meter long. Reflecting its ethnic origins,
saluang flutes typically sport Minangkabau carvings, such as the traditional rumah
gadang, or big house. In the past, saluang were used during traditional performances, such as weddings. “It’s also used to express sad feelings, such as when someone experiences a tragedy,” Otti said. Following a very entertaining collaboration between Adrizaldi and Otti, who performed jazzy versions of traditional Indonesian songs, one member of the audience said he wished he could hear more unique traditional musical instruments from Indonesia used at international festivals, as he had only seen the already popular instruments such as the gamelan on the global stage. Indonesia’s national treasures Next up was the team from Rumah Pesona Kain, a non-profit organization founded in 2005 to preserve and enhance Indonesian textile heritage. The organization’s members showcased several pieces from the archipelago as well as national treasures in collaboration with the National Museum of Indonesia. Among the items brought by co-founder and president Ike Nirwan Bakrie and member Sonny Tjahya were a beautiful songket Klungkung Bali that took one year to make, a songket Payakumbuh that is a heritage piece once owned by a sultan, a South Sumatran batik that showed a strong influence from India and China and previously worn by royalty and a kain dodot (uncut batik cloth) from Java. A replica of the crown of the Kutai Kingdom in East Kalimantan was also shown. “This crown was made in the 19th century during Sultan Aji Muhammad Sulaiman’s era. It has a very intricate design, made by a professional goldsmith,” Ike said. Sacred art of batik “Batik-making is a actually a meditation process,” Era Soekamto, the creative director of the Iwan Tirta Private Collection, said at her part of the seminar. “Batik artisans must reach that perfect harmony between their mood, mind, technique and the batik motif in order to create high quality batik.” Motifs, she says, can convey subliminal messages and philosophy, as well as offer commentary on the connections between God, human and nature. “We’re not only talking about hand-painted encounters,” Era said. “This was the highest civilization we had in the old days.” Era continues. “We had more than 20 kingdoms in the old days, more than six
kraton [palaces]. Much of their artistic heritage is still being preserved today. Every movement of a traditional dance or art performances is part of our worship of God. Batik is the manifestation of that thinking.” As the nation’s most revered batik brand, Iwan Tirta is said to currently preserve 13,000 batik motifs. The brand’s collection is divided into many categories, such as Javanese and Nusantara (archipelago), which include regions like Bali, East Nusa Tenggara, Sumatra and Sulawesi. “We’re currently employing more than 600 artisans who produce up to 1,200 handcrafted batiks per month. It’s quite an accomplishment, since there’s a regeneration issue, where we have to attract young people to manually make batik instead of using gadgets.” Era said that the brand considered batik as something more than fashion. “We want to be able to appreciate batik more and we want to communicate the subliminal message behind it–how batik can actually be a source of universal wisdom.”
Ike Nirwan Bakrie and Sonny Tjahya from Rumah Pesona Kain showcase some prized pieces from the National Museum of Indonesia’s collections.
Adrizaldi plays the saluang, a type of bamboo flute, accompanied by singer and pianist Otti Jamalus.
Models showcase the latest from the Iwan Tirta Private Collection.
A dancer sports a mask while presenting Samparan Matah Ati
in South Bank, London.
Ghea Panggabean ( fourth right), dancers from Samparan Matah Ati and models from the Iwan Tirta Private Collection pose at Oxford.