The Dance of the Cosmos: Tarawangsa, the Art of Honoring Gigi Priadji

The Dance of the Cosmos: Tarawangsa, the Art of Honoring

February 26, 2020

Written by:

Luigi Monteanni + Teguh Permana + Gigi Priadji

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It was a weekend in late September when I first experienced tarawangsa, through Teguh Permana and Wisnu Ridwana, commonly known as Tarawangsawelas. We were driving a car towards Rancakalong, a small area composed of few villages, scattered groups of tall palm trees and rice fields outside Bandung – where the genre seems to have developed. We were preparing to take part in “ngabubur suro”: the annual, ritual porridge (bubur) preparation that involves the whole village community.

This particular bubur is so special because it’s made from over one hundred different ingredients, in order to represent abundance granted to the community by the goddess of rice Dewi Sri (Nyi Pohaci in Priangan).

Tarawangsa is organized around and linked to several celebrations: the fertility cycle (human, spiritual and natural), the pact with the ancestors of the community and the rice goddess whom it seems to enchant and invite.
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.

From the Corpse of the Goddess: the History of Tarawangsa

Sasajen and ritual garments. Photo: Gigi Priadji
Sasajen and ritual garments. Photo: Gigi Priadji
Tarawangsa is a highly respected heritage in the village of Rancakalong, thus it is dubbed by the folks as “the art of Ormatan”, the art of honoring. As a term, Tarawangsa can be interpreted as “tatabeuhan rakyat wali nu salapan” (the people of the Nine Saints’ commands) – thereby referring to the Wali Sanga – or “narawang ka nu Maha Kawasa” (to muse God). Tarawangsa is also seen as a special occasion to homage Nyai Nu Geulis (the beautiful woman) – an ancient Sundanese, figurative term for food and especially rice – and Nu Kasep (the handsome man) – a metaphorical expression referring to money. Besides being held at special ceremonies, such as Ngalaksa and bubur suro, tarawangsa is also performed after the annual rice harvest or other related celebrations such as thanksgiving and the inauguration of a new home.

It is difficult to establish when tarawangsa was born precisely. To date, although present, the documentation in this regard is somewhat sparse and almost all in Indonesian. This is due to the structure of the transmission of Sundanese culture, mainly based on orality and the practical diffusions of customs, as well as of critical studies. There are barely a dozen "official" teachers in the area, who, without any strictly formalized teaching method can count on a small group of students who are entrusted with the future of the practice. According to the teachers and the villages, the repertoire is roughly composed of forty-two pieces, which often, even without words, tell the story of Nyi Pohaci (and her legendary suicide to escape an unwanted marriage) and the magical generation of rice and all plants from her corpse* .

Almost all performative arts that have developed in Parahyangan (and almost within the entire archipelago) were heavily influenced by early Islamization of Indonesia. In the legends and founding myths of the people, this was accomplished mainly by Wali Sanga, the nine saints who spread the new religion through the archipelago using arts and culture as a soft power-clothed trojan horse, thus gifting Rancakalong with tarawangsa.

Even if a certain connection between the saints and the appearance of tarawangsa could be attested, it is unlikely to prove that the genre in its core was brought by the holy personalities to the high, cold hills of the regency.

In fact, if certainly one of the central areas for tarawangsa’s development is the Rancakalong regency, we should also mention the Sumedang regency as the other pole of the historical discourse, giving the influence on the genre, by means of geographic vicinity, of the mythical Sunda Kingdom – ruled by the legendary king Prabu Siliwangi, symbol of the originary** Sundanese culture – and its traditions. At this point, for a balanced judgement, we could state that these two cultural currents were equally absorbed and made explicit not only in tarawangsa but also in other performative arts born on the land. In fact, tarawangsa was surely born also in the wake of Sunda Wiwitan: a form of animist philosophy and spirituality that distinguishes Sundanese ancient beliefs and that has now almost disappeared if not for some elements, ideas and rituals which keep on living absorbed in contemporary regional, syncretic Sundanese Islamic practice.

*As with other legends and myths, there are always different versions of the story. While different people in different cultural contexts (i.e. Sundanese, Javanese and so on) may tell slightly dissimilar accounts, the symbolic core is often found in similar themes.

** The term originary is not unproblematic and would place us amidst the complex and quite tedious interplay between the Ur-constructs of exogeny against indigeny. I use this term only in its emic significance, whence it is precisely used in its naive meaning by Sundanese people themselves.
A female dancer greeting a Sepuh. Photo: Gigi Priadji
A female dancer greeting a Sepuh. Photo: Gigi Priadji

Dancing the Spirits: the Performance

The tarawangsa performance and ceremony consists of a musical backbone of long pieces played by two instruments: the jentreng – a seven-stringed harp similar to the kacapi, played with bare hands, and the ngek-ngek, or simply tarawangsa, a fiddle-like stringed instrument featuring two steel or iron strings played with a wood and horsehair bow.

The performance has a strictly determined structure. First, the show is opened by remarks and prayers delivered by the saehu, the event leader, or other elder like the sepuh. The saehu initiates the show dancing to the first piece and starting the communication with the spirits, thus marking the official beginning of the event.

After the ngalungsurkeun (literally “the allocation of elements in some specific place”), phase during which the spirits are welcomed and placed in suitable places for them in the room, the second mother of the saehu takes part in the ceremony, allowing spirits to enter her body. The ancestor is followed by four other female dancers – in relation to whom the first woman dancer acts as the female saehu at the center (Puseur).

After this phase, all female guests are invited to dance. Thereafter, the master piringan (or piramaan) takes the stage until the dance is finished, followed by all male guests who want to join the dance to express their vows. The seventh step is nyumpingkeun: an invitation for the spirits of the ancestors to take part in the event and participate – the apex of sacredness in a tarawangsa performance. After this delicate phase, the ceremony closes with the nginebkeun (storing), related to all the harvested edibles and materials. At the end of the ceremony, the spirits are thanked once more and politely invited to go back from where they came from; namely, the spirit world (alam gaib).

Each part of the ceremony is led by two main figures from the community; one for the men and the other for the women. The male contributors begin by being ceremoniously dressed by the saksi. For each new piece of clothing, prayers are uttered until he is fully dressed with sarung, iket and the ubiquitous scarves used for dancing and placed around the neck. After holding the saksi’s hands and praying for some time together, the figure kneels in front of the offerings and starts praying over the Kris – an iconic ceremonial dagger – picking it up, moving it in various directions and tying it at his waist.

Once the enrobing is completed, water is placed on his temples to allow greater ease for the spirits to enter his body. The man gradually stands up in the center of the room and slowly starts to move, following the music along with gestures of welcoming, directed both to the audience and to the ancestors. His female counterpart – the only one not wearing a hijab – begins by praying. She wears kabayar and sarung, and after another hand-held prayer with the saksi, she dresses herself with a shawl of lace on her shoulders. This female role is fundamental since in that moment she represents and quite embodies the goddess – Nyi Pohaci. The woman picks up various scarves of different colors to be placed around her neck.

During this event, tarawangsa is played relentlessly in the traditional barn known as a bale – made from bamboo and woven leaf walls – by two (or more) nyaga players, who alternate between the two instruments. The performance is broadcasted throughout the village, with means of a system of small speakers installed on trees and houses. During the day, porridge is prepared and later distributed to the community during the last day. At night, people gather where tarawangsa is played to dance together and pay homage to the ancestors.

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.
Female performers dancing. Photo: Gigi Priadji
Female performers dancing. Photo: Gigi Priadji

Music of the Outsiders: Where to Now?

Unfortunately, the childlike dream of pristine purity and ritual sacredness that this musical genre (and this article) may suggest does not respond to reality. The music not only passed through the historical Islamization, but also faced its contemporary movements which slowly changed some of the contents, superimposing new meanings on the original ones. In addition, the Indonesian cultural policies under the first two presidents – Sukarno and Suharto – privileged the genre in front of the masses, seen as a useful tool, along with many others, of national propaganda and governance; new distinctive component of cultural elements’ collage could show that, if properly selected, can give a good image of Indonesia outside national borders.

All this, however, does not inevitably come to harm. The network of such meanings thickens and comes out enriched, allowing tarawangsa to be able to get out of a strictly ritual context that has characterized it for hundreds of years. Because of decimated funds from the state and due to its private, almost secretive and utterly local nature, tarawangsa may slowly but almost inexorably disappear.

Nowadays, tarawangsa is being shared outside the villages where it was born. It is played in festivals, used in various collaborations (see many pieces by SambaSunda) or taken beyond its limits in the experiments of Tarawangsawelas. Released by the experimental music platform Morphine Records, this contemporary manifestation of tarawangsa is able to gather a wide Western audience and involve it in the construction of a new, broader meaning that, hopefully will be able to inspire new young musicians to learn this difficult and almost unknown genre of music.

Tarawangsa has survived several centuries thanks to the corpse of a goddess and a handful of farmers in the mountainous and cold highlands of western Java. It passed through Islamization, the cultural policies of independent Indonesia, a couple of revolutions and the modern developments of experimental music.

NOTE: This article could not have been possible without the collective work of the authors. It should be taken as an information collage of different sources: my personal and quite limited knowledge of the performance, Teguh’s mastery of the philosophical and musical backbone of the style and Gigi’s personal research into Sundanese performing arts, symbols and spirituality, to be found at his blog Trah Documenter.
About the Author

Luigi Monteanni + Teguh Permana + Gigi Priadji

Collective author comprising Luigi Monteanni, Teguh Permana and Gigi Priadji.

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