Kasenian Réak: the Sundanese horse dance between artistic performance and ceremonial possession (I)

Luigi Monteanni spent a year in Indonesia to study Kasenian Réak, the traditional Sundanese horse dance, during which the participants in the ritual are possessed by spirits. What we propose in two episodes is a full-bodied extract from his master's degree thesis born from this experience.

text of Luigi Monteanni
picture Marco Maculotti

Archipelago is a term that in ancient Javanese literally means the word "archipelago". In ancient times this term was used by Malaysians and Indonesians to indicate the exquisitely maritime part of Southeast Asia. What other term at a glance can actually best describe the Indonesian nation and its more than 17.000 islands? On these 17.000 surfaces made up of both jungles and metropolises, deserts, fields and volcanoes, more than three hundred different peoples speaking about 700 different languages ​​have enjoyed their own insularity and contemporary proximity to other ethnic groups, in a process that at first glance always seems to have allowed both the conservation of traditional forms and an extreme dynamism of the same, which was able to make the extreme mobility of the peoples inhabiting Indonesia the main tool for the continuous creation of new forms of art. The uniqueness and spectacularity of the arts have always represented not only a leitmotif of the brochure travel agencies, but also a fundamental part of the political, religious and existential life of each of these ethnic groups.

In this case, Nusantara, after having been part of the so-called "East Indies" at the hands of the Dutch, became Indonesia in 1945, at the end of the Second World War. Made independent, the archipelago faces seven presidents, who will always hold a close, sometimes too close relationship with the arts and different cultures, the main weapon of identity legitimation in front of a world that until then had only seen colonies, savages, fruitful trade routes and millions of people scattered over almost two million square meters divided between land and sea. Since then, the idea of ​​a pure and purely traditional art haunts the minds of tourists, thanks to foreign policies, while in the suburbs the modern and simple everyday life of some of these arts remains hidden.

In August 2017, I was taking a plane to Jakarta, West Java, headed to Bandung: capital of the land of Priangan and stronghold of the Sundanese ethnic group; I was going to see for the first time a small and local new variant of a musical performance and possession ceremony called jaranan: the dance of the horseThe phenomenon, probably born around the eighth century as a propitiatory dance in which hunters asked animal spirits to possess them and assist them in the hunt, indicates nothing more than a choreographed performance in which male boys with bamboo horses fall into a trance, possessed by low-ranking sprites coordinated by a handler, a figure that, as we will see, is close to that of the shaman. Spreading from East Java, the dance then resulted in various versions of its radical form; Il reak, or the Sundanese dance of the horse, is the equivalent of West Java. reak, which originated, according to research, no more than a hundred years ago, does not seem to be only one of the oldest versions of dance, but also, at least in my experience, the most extreme.

All the photos in this report are to be considered the property of AXIS mundi.

Geertz (1976) has already shown how in Java the arts can be divided into beer (refined, graceful) e rough (crude, crude). Il réak, with his performance that makes chaos the central element of interest and entertainment, can undoubtedly be placed in the second category. [...] Il réak it is usually a morning show which in its classic form lasts about eight hours (9 - 17). Although the performance officially begins at around nine, some members of the group always meet at least a couple of hours before to go to the venue where the performance will take place.hair - usually an empty and unused space between the dense network of houses in the villages - and preparing the offerings to the spirits of the Karuhun, the amplification and the instruments. [...]

The Karuhun are offered food by inviting them through fragrances, smells and products of various kinds, which can also be personal and personalized. As also reported by Wessing (2016: 11), the offers they are consumed by the ancestors, who feed on rasa, (the essence [103]) of things. [...] Concluded this first phase, after an optional speech by the leader aimed at thanking and congratulating the family who organized thehair and when the birthday boy or girl are celebrated, the real show can begin. After a common look i performer they form a circle in the designated area, which will be dedicated to the exhibition and which serves to divide group and audience.

The percussionists begin to ring the dogdogs, breaking the silence with their rhythmic patterns and thus beginning the first dogcing, kirata [104] (Sundanese acronym) for dog dog cicing, literally dogdog on site. This part, lasting from half an hour to an hour on average, is meant to be an introduction to the show (beginning), almost an overture. It serves a continue what the ritual of sasajen started and to give a first demonstration of what will happen during the rest of réak. The tarompet joins the percussion starting to sing one of the songs of the repertoire; usually one of the five pieces specifically used to invite the Karuhuns to take part in the show. In a short time the crowd gathers around the small and dusty patch of land.

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While music powerfully occupies the air, the leader or ma'alim moves to the center of the stage and begins to dance to honor the ancestors and people flocked to see the show. The dance is relatively simple and does not have a real structure: the gestures, coming from a fixed repertoire of movements and vaguely inspired by the moves of the pencak silat [105], follow each other in a completely improvised chain according to the taste of the individual. At the end of this short dance the possessions can already take place. At this point, in fact, the Bangbarongan dance and the first adorcisms occur in free order. Normally the Barong dance should take place earlier than the adorations; the truth is that in practice the two events are absolutely interchangeable and after the start of the music the ma'alim he can practice adorations as much as he can have the Barong costume spread out on the ground to begin the dance.

The Barong dance

Let's start by describing the Barong dance: Bangbarongan - literally the representation of the Barong - it is the costume of an anthropomorphic character of mythical origin very common between Java and Bali, but also in the rest of Southeast Asia, whose representations may have existed since ancient times (Beatty 2003) whose origins are still largely unknown. It is generically described as a dragon, although in reality it can appear in the forms of various other animals: the boar, the tiger, the buffalo, the snake (sometimes assimilated to the dragon) and the lion. [106].

This mythological figure is present in its many forms in most of the declinations of the dance of the horse. In the specific case of kasenian réak, Bangbarongan is considered an icon for obscure reasons [107]; something that can also be deduced from its constant presence in the logos of groups and festival flyers dedicated to the genre. The Barong costume is made up of two parts created separately and then joined together: a lot of goni (similar to jute) unstitched at the bottom or alternatively of the kaen (fabric), in which one slips to wear the costume, and a head carved from hoe wood and then painted red [108].

In turn, the head is processed by obtaining two separate pieces: the lower jaw and the upper part of the head. These two components are then assembled using an internal handle. By inserting one of the two hands up to the head in the costume, the performers can move the jaws of the Barong making them click loudly and giving the character a more intense semblance of life.. The bag of goni (then glued to the base of the head) and the head of the Barong can be freely modeled and decorated in various ways, using accessories and additional colors of various types. […] Although groups can order a Bangbarongan from a craftsman [109], many of them pride themselves on having an internal member of the group who takes care of it personally.

The Barong costume is placed on the ground with the jaws open and placed on the ground perpendicular to the ground. Care is taken that the bag is well stretched without any ripples, after which any tail is placed on the back, pointing towards the head. The Barong dancer, who is usually always the same, approaches the center of the stage by putting a double bamboo reed in his mouth; this is the means by which the performer later produces the typical Bangbarongan squeak, through which he communicates with the audience, emits rhythmic sounds to accompany the music and asks for offers passing among the spectators as the show goes on (Duit! Duit!). Donations are stuffed by people directly into the open jaws of the Barong.

When the performer is ready to enter the costume and some members of the group are in position to facilitate entry, the tension becomes perceptible. [110]. The ma'alim opens one of the two hands, staring at the gap between the performer and Bangbarongan. It begins to tremble and the man begins to recite the Sundanese prayers, the jampe-jampe. A spirit is brought into the costume by invitation or alternatively by being "taken", if he is not a Karuhun but a jurig jarian. The tremor is due to the energy that the individual collects and redirects towards Bangbarongan. Commenting on how the spirit is determined to enter the Kalamenta group R costume [111] says:

“It depends on his Karuhun. We cannot choose. [Hesitates] Yes, it could be, but in my group it may depend on the spirit coming in and being tested [inside the costume]. When the Bangbarongan is built we still don't know what spirit it is [inside], but when someone performs inside it then you can understand what the costume is about. »

During this procedure the ma'alim he gestures to the ensemble to increase the rhythm of the music with their free hand, doubling the tempo following the low and powerful sound of the bedug and the pounding sound of the tilingtit, thus reaching the climax. This change in speed occurs every time a spirit is brought into a body. As the music reaches its peak, the performer enters the costume in a position on all fours known as asup kana kodokong [112], helped by some members and / or by the ma'alim. Once the costume is put on, the performer begins to move with it.

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The Barong dance is always one of the most exciting moments of the show. An expert performer manages to move with total harmony and fluidity, coordinating his movements together with the costume, making it an extension of his body and making it appear alive. The rhythmic gestures, which also here can emulate combinations of moves by pencak silat, involve the entire body of the dancer, allowing to obtain poses in which the human figure and physicality are totally transformed into those of another being. If it weren't for the legs always visible from the shin down - often fitting very normal jeans but always strictly barefoot - we would be sure to observe a mythical being. [...]

The first part of the dance usually ends with the possession of the performer. He, taken by the spirit made to enter the costume from the beginning ma'alim, falls on the ground in convulsions [113]. If and when this happens, some assistants promptly pull the individual out of Bangbarongan, who routinely refuses by holding the inside handle firmly to the jaws. This last detail is due to the fact that the spirit does not want to leave the costume; for this reason he will later push the possessed person several times to try to re-enter it. On the contrary, the assistants' task will be to prevent him from doing so.

Depending on the determination and strength of the spirit, it can take from two to five people to free the possessed from the costume and prevent him from accessing it again. When the performer is finally detached from Bangbarongan he exhibits the typical traits of the possession trance réak (kasurupan): on the ground, with empty and wide-open eyes, he begins to act according to the behavior of the spirit that the body contains [114]. Subsequently, the possessed will again be allowed to enter the costume, if the spirit requires it. He will follow thearak-arakan performing and asking for offers until the end of the parade [115].

Possession, adoration and exorcism

Having introduced them above, we can now begin to talk about characteristics of possession. To do this we begin to delve into the second event that takes place before or during the Barong dance: the first adorcisms. For adorcism, a term recently coined and used in anthropological and religious studies, that is the equal and opposite practice of exorcism.

If the latter term derives in fact from the late Latin exorcism and, even earlier, from the Greek ἐξορκισμός (derived from ἐξορκίζω), meaning the "Conjuration by which the person invested with a sacred power declares himself capable, by virtue of this power or the invocation of a supernatural being, adverse or evil power, with words (formulas), actions (gestures) and objects " [116], in adorcismo the officiant - in this case the ma'alim - instead of causing an entity to leave a body subject to it, it carries out the opposite operation, inviting, through prayers, objects and various mediums, a spirit to enter it. The adoption of a specific term for this type of procedure is chosen to emphasize the independent nature of the practice, as well as its analogous and opposite structure to that of exorcism.

For this second procedure the ma'alim he is once again at the center of the stage, ready to call the first spirits. Anyone in the group who feels ready (installment-rata anu kasurupan), approaches the man. The ma'alim he nods to the musicians, who, attentive to man's instructions, double the time. The ma'alim, with one hand wrapped around the performer's neck and the other half open on his neck, he whispers in his ear some mantra of power in Old Sundanese (ajian-ajian), the content of which is still obscure to me for the reasons already clarified. The performer's body becomes progressively tense and at the same time paradoxically more relaxed, abandoned to the practice of ma'alim. When this is completed, the officiant releases the man from the grasp.

The possessed performs acrobatics and movements of various types depending on the spirit that he hosts, which constitute the main attraction of the show together with Bangbarongan and music. In this first series of adorations, on average and depending on the groups, two to five performers can be possessed. At any moment, further possessions can occur, independent of the will of the ma'alim. First of all, possessing spirits, if they are Karuhun, are in turn capable of performing adoration on other individuals, transferring (nepakeun) the spirit in them.

Secondly, physical and visual contact with the possessed or with the objects with which the latter interacted and the music can generate possessions in the spectators, without any warning. Regarding these eventualities ibu M by Dangiang Mitra Pasundan [117] he explains:

“Yes… It works like this: [pretends to be the spirit] if I go to a place for the first time and bring a friend, he'll want to come. So I touch someone so that friend can come with me too. Since there is an invitation, many spirits will want to come. "

The entities invited to the réak, just like in the braid described by Mauricio (2002: 61), they see bodies as a concrete opportunity to participate physically in the event to which they have been invited, thus rediscovering the lost pleasure of moving on the body level.

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In general, for the phenomena of possession within the réak, at least three determining factors must be kept in mind: the role of the will, lo ngélmu of individuals and the possibility of having an empty mind (leumpeuh yuni). As for the will, I have seen several times some spirits ask or order an individual to lend themselves to adoration and be refused. Excuses could be of various kinds, including the fatigue and the imperfect physical shape of the refusal. As for the last two factors, they depend on the spiritual and mental preparation of an individual and the consequent accumulation of ngélmu. Translated from the vocabularies and used by the common language in the sense of "science", in reality theknowledge (sundanese bahasa indonesia ngélmu), in line with what Geertz (1976: 88) says can be understood as some kind of abstract knowledge or superhuman skill [118]. For some, the term specifically covers the meaning of: "noun magic power" [119]. It also takes on the broader meaning of know how to accumulate power.

What can you do with theknowledge depends onknowledge itself: although what we have outlined are its general characteristics, some types of knowledge they are specific to communicate with the invisible or to know where some objects are in space without seeing them (ibidem). In the specific case of the réak, if well trained, one's faculties can, through the absorption of power coming from acquired wisdom and spiritual knowledge, act as a mechanism for controlling the energies and therefore for managing one's own passivity with respect to entities. These same faculties can prevent our mind from emptying, leaving us at the mercy of spirits. Daydreaming (ngalamun) with an empty head (blank) in fact allows the entry of the latter without the need for adoration practices or mantras.


(end I part - continue to part II)


[103] Although the word rasa is used in Indonesian to indicate flavor, in the ritual context it takes the meaning of essence. After all, it is good to remember that in itself that of rasa it is a term coming from Sanskrit and conceptually very dense, on which rivers of ink have been spent. For an interesting theming of the concept of rasa in Hinduism, read at least Hindu Images and Their Worship with Special Reference to Vaishnavism: A Philosophical-Theological Inquiry (Lipner 2017).

[104] I kirata they are what Zimmer (1999) has defined an ethnolexychological art. They consist in attributing each syllable of a word to another word so as to form a complete sentence that explains its broader meaning (Spiller 2004). Although these etymologies are usually demonstrably false, as well as different from individual to individual, the operation of the kirata, halfway between a play on words and indigenous etymological research, it is one of the ways in which some particularly complex terms are given a meaning and which allows us to take a look inside the set of ideas that gravitate around a word.

[105] To be precise there is a difference between pencak silat e pencak. While the first is the real martial art, the second is the dance inspired by his moves and combinations.

[106] In Bali we can also find Barong costumes with human features by the name of Barong Landung, which perform in pairs. For a description of Barong Landung read Volker Gottowik's article: Transnational, Translocal, Transcultural: Some Remarks on the Relations between Hindu-Balinese and Ethnic Chinese in Bali (2010)

[107] I say obscure simply because my interlocutors, although they have always told me that it is the icon, have never been able to clearly explain why.

[108] Alternatively, it can also be painted black. This latest coloring is much rarer.

[109] Unfortunately, it was not possible for me to know the average cost of a Barong.

[110] Sometimes I have even seen some people praying before entering it.

[111] Kang R. Interview of 13/1/2018.

[112] The literal meaning is unknown to both me and my interlocutors.

[113] One way to understand the process could be that the spirit initially enters the costume and then passes from the costume to the individual who dances it. Unfortunately mine is just a hypothesis and I can't be sure.

[114] The decision to express oneself about the body as a container will be clarified later.

[115] Unfortunately, in the course of my short field it was not possible for me to clarify why there is a specific moment after the exit from the costume, during which the performer / spirit is allowed to re-enter.

[116] This definition and etymology were drawn directly from the Treccani encyclopedia. Available from http://www.treccani.it/vocabolario/esorcismo/.

[117] Interview of 13/1/2018.

[118] Translation by Geertz of: “supernormal”.

[119] Translation by Geertz of: “substantive magical power”.

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