4. The Dance of the Cosmos: Spiritual Backdrop and Meaning
As with other ceremonies and celebrations in Indonesia, in tarawangsa clothing is a key symbol. Therefore, each scarf seems to be linked to a different natural element represented by its relative color – a frequent element in the Sundanese symbolism. Fire is linked to the color red, sun (or air) to the color yellow, and water to the color white. Normally, one would assume that the final element – which is earth – would correspond to the color black. This final element emerges from the color symbolism of the black pangsi. In fact, the traditional Sundanese clothes are black because people are considered to be from and returning to the earth and soil. Nevertheless, according to Teguh’s experience, in recent years another scarf has been added – green colored – which represents the acceptance of Islam within the community.
Each role is rigorously organized and co-related with each other; particularly, the role of saehu – one of the most important roles – cannot be played by anyone. Being a saehu requires a certain level of physical and spiritual development, wisdom and gracefulness in sending the messages to those present. Sometimes, during the dance, the messages delivered by the spirits can be unpleasant; those must nevertheless be conveyed to the concerned person or to the audience in the best way possible, so that good intentions can be sent in a positive way, despite any bad news being delivered. A saehu must be able to monitor the emotional level of the audience. In fact – in a light and convivial way – it’s always loaded with a certain amount of tension and sadness. Almost in every performance, the women start to weep in a collective, cathartic hug, wailing and lamenting together. In essence, the saehu must be vigilant throughout the show, until it ends.
The paibuan – the “saehu’s wife” – is the leader of the female dancers’ group, while the piramaan, the leader of male dancers. As with the saehu, both figures receive messages that they will later deliver to those concerned, either through direct oral speech, a particular handshake or a complex system of sign language. Shaking one's hand has a deep meaning and can be declined into various specific messages. Using both hands means greeting in friendship, while using just one hand implies a more personal meaning, referring to another, more specific message.
This peculiar body language is still not widely understood. Its ambiguity is a coherent part of the process in the individuals’ meaning construction of the event. Therefore, the specific role of the saksi is to interpret and explain the real meaning of the bodily actions.
The saksi is first and foremost one of the musicians. A second saksi is a guest from the audience, comprising of someone older and experienced enough for the task. In short, someone who is considered to have the ability and maturity to interpret the dancers’ – and the spirits’ – signs. He is an individual with special abilities, able to mediate the visible and invisible world and therefore responsible, with the other roles outlined, for the ritual parts of the event.
The juru kunci (or key keeper) is the individual responsible for opening spiritual communication. He sits cross-legged beside the parukuyan (the clay container where charcoal is used to burn incense for the ancestors) both during the preparation and the performance. A caretaker must know the moments when it is time to burn the incense, so that communication and the nuances of the sacred can be strongly maintained during the event and its progress. Last but not least, we have the nayaga, the musicians themselves.
Dance movements are not strictly designed or directed. They are very fluid, because dance is a medium of personal expression for each dancer. The atmosphere of mysticism in each of them plays an important role in the movements. During the rituals, individuals fall into a trance (complete or partial), perceiving an unnatural emotional transport and the inability to control their movements. The possessing ancestors dance with the community on the earthly plane, delivering personal messages to their relatives through the bodies of the possessed, or implementing – through dance – a complex and ambiguous communication system between the living and the dead.
The area where the performance takes place is literally filled with power and becomes a gathering of spirits and men. The music, the invocations pronounced by the saksi and the offerings made to the ancestors before the show are always placed in front of the musicians and must be carefully prepared, according to specific conditions. Instruments – the jentreng and a few tarawangsa leaning by the wall – are held by the saksi over the smoke and blessed one-by-one.
Tarawangsa presents itself as an opportunity to reflect on one's past and future, on the relationship with one's ancestors and with individuals in the community and a meditation on the cosmological structure of the world and on existence itself.
One last, but not less important information is the one I got from the show, where the dance of the multiple performers was defined as a symbolic diagram of the cosmos and the interacting, orbiting celestial bodies. Even if this information was roughly collected on the field, one can acknowledge that the public aesthetic structure of the tarawangsa performance is a bodily metaphorical replica of the cosmos. If this is true, the dancers would redraw the structure of the macro cosmos in their present performative micro cosmos. This could be confirmed not only by Sundanese people’s core belief of a fundamental interconnectedness between beings and manifestations of power, but also by the bubur suro itself and the one hundred ingredients needed, which represent the wholeness of the earth production given to man.