Thursday, January 31, 2013

Balinese Society and the Functions of Dance in Oka Rusmini’s Earth Dance

In Bali, dances on earth are seen as means to appease Gods and protect villages from famine, epidemics, and other misfortunes. Dancers, as such, perform a sacred role in bridging the gap between the earth and the spiritual world. The aesthetic quality in Balinese dance, in this view, is primarily perceived as an expression of religious reciprocation — that is, to please and gratify the Gods through dance so that they may, in turn, bless the people. Dancing, as an integral part of Balinese culture however, cannot only be seen as a form of religious expression, but also as an activity that entails cultural and even socioeconomic functions — especially for women, the leading performers of this sacred art in the highly hierarchal and conservative society of Bali.  

Oka Rusmini’s Earth Dance depicts these implications of Balinese dance as a cultural activity that fulfills the personal, spiritual, and social desires of the performing women. Examining the lives of three prominent dancers – Luh Sekar, Ida Ayu Telaga, and Luh Kambren – in the story enables us to look at the role of dancing as means for Balinese women to achieve their divergent aspirations toward upward social mobility, pursuit of love, and lifetime devotion for the craft. It can also be noted, in the story, how these women differ in their ways of mastering the art through taksu, the holy inspiration from the Gods, which can be acquired as a result of intense devotion, as a form of gift from the pragina, or as a natural endowment from the gods themselves. 

Aside from being a highly revered art form, dance for these Balinese women also means reverence in the community; the joyful dance joged, for instance, is a social activity that gathers and demands participation from both men and women regardless of social status. As such, for a commoner like Luh Sekar, whose family has been doomed by misfortune, mastery of Balinese dance does not only signify beauty and reverence but also represents an opportunity for upward social mobility of her class. Being a good dancer means attracting attention from men belonging to a Brahmin family who can deliver her from adversity and poverty. Knowing this, Luh Sekar achieved her aim through rigid practice and intense devotion for the Gods to give her taksu so she could one day attract attention of a Brahmana man.

On the other hand, Luh Sekar’s brahmana daughter, Ida Ayu Telaga embraces dancing to generate attention from her occasional dance partner, the commoner Wayan Sasmitha. Telaga receives the taksu from her renowned dance teacher Luh Kambren. For this, she gains the natural ability to dance and eventually learns to master the craft. However, due to her mother’s constant insistence to practice and perform, the dance itself becomes a repetitive activity, if only not only to see Wayan in these performances. Dancing, for Telaga, means breaking down the caste barrier and pursuing love – ending thus her ties with her family, giving up her social privilege as Brahmana, and formally accepting her commoner status through a patiwangin ritual.  

But among these women, it was Luh Kambren, Telaga’s dance teacher, who best imbibed the craft. Despite being a commoner, Luh Kambren is said to have been “born to tend to the spirit of the dance” as she directly inherited taksu from the Gods. Dancing liberated and raised her status as a woman: on one hand, it empowered her to decline a marriage proposal from a King; while on the other hand, her life ends tragically, since being “married to her dances” means being subjected her to poverty and commercialization. As it was said, Bali existed in Luh Kambren’s body: worn-out, abused, commercialized, and fearful of foreign abuse.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Makings of a Javanese "Anti-colonial Gong” in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s This Earth of Mankind

When, in a letter to Minke, Miriam de la Croix recounted how her father had both ordered her and her sister to study the music of Gamelan, it was meant not only to enjoy its sounds, but also to impart comparison between Javanese music and its people. In this traditional Indonesian ensemble, it can be noticed how all the tones wait upon the sound of the gong which, according to Miriam’s father, does not translate to the actual lives of Javanese people because they “still have not found their gong, a leader, a thinker, who can come forth with words of resolution”. 

True, that in the novel’s depiction of colonial Indonesia, the gong in the life of Javanese people has still not arrived; but it is being formed – gradually, in the consciousness of Minke, a Dutch-educated native elite who must confront the political and socio-cultural realities of the Dutch colonial presence and injustice in the Indies. Following Minke’s journey towards his own cultural awakening, one can see the makings of a Javanese anti-colonial “Gong”, one who will, in the future, be loudly heard by his people, and to lead them towards the path of national consciousness and freedom. According to the postcolonial critic Frantz Fanon, the projected pattern of a native subject’s anti-colonial awakening and cultural evolution follows three distinct phases of assimilation, reaffirmation, and, finally, rejection of the occupying power’s cultural influence. 

Following this evolutionary schema of a native intellectual, the book begins by allowing us to see Minke in the assimilationist phase where he, as a product of colonial education, attaches himself, in admiration, to European modernity and civilization. Here, we see him praise Europe for its technological advancement through the invention of zincograph, trains, telegraphs, and soon, oil-powered cars. The assimilationist phase gives proof that Minke can be fully integrated in the culture of the occupying power since his social and intellectual abilities bear resemblance to that of a learned European. This is profoundly evident in Minke’s ability to write fluently and creatively in Dutch, a feat which earned admiration from his Dutch teachers and newspaper editors in Surabaya.  

With this, Minke’s colonial education has alienated him from his own culture but even so, he still admits feeling hurt and offended whenever “the essence of Java is being insulted by outsiders”. Here, we see how Minke takes it to heart, though subconsciously, the plight of his people and their weakness which, according to Robert Suurhof, is that “there is no European blood running through their veins”. From this, we can only infer that Minke’s thrust to excel in academics and write about the Indies, its people and society, is somewhat driven by his consciousness and defense of their subjugated existence as natives. We can see from here how Minke enters the nationalist phase of his intellectual journey, equipped with awareness about the richness of Javanese civilization – their centuries’ old chronicle Babad Tanah Jawi, for instance, and their majestic temples of Prambanan and Borobudur – shows how, in that era, Java was more advanced than the Netherlands.  

Even with his feats as a young native, Minke’s aspiration, as he confessed to his mother, was not to become a priviliged Bupati but “only to become a free human being”. When this desire, however, was curtailed due to the vicious imposition of colonial laws – that invalidated his marriage to Annelies, who would be sent to the Netherlands under her legal, Dutch guardian – Minke finally decided to fight colonial injustice, ironically through writing – the product of his own colonial education. We see how, by the end of the novel, Minke, the native intellectual, enters the fighting phase as he prepares to strike the gong – whose sounds shall shake and awaken his people – towards, as Max Lane puts it, their revolutionary future.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The State of an Emotionless State in Gopal Baratham’s A Candle or the Sun

Seeing Singapore through Hernie Pereira’s eyes reflects and affirms the country’s reputation for being the world’s least emotional state. Just last year, a Washington-based research group, Gallup reported that only 36% of Singaporeans recounted feeling positive or negative emotions – an ironic result in a society that is supposed to enjoy one of the lowest unemployment and highest GDP per capita rates in the world.

Reflecting on this study as a Filipino living in what is claimed to be the world’s “most emotional nation”, I am careful not to equate emotionality with happiness. Being emotionless does not necessarily mean being unhappy, it simply means being in a state where one lacks the capacity to be moved by feelings. This incapacity to express emotions has something to do with whether or not an individual has means or rights to even convey feelings. In other words, being emotional necessitates having first the freedom to express emotions.

Whether this freedom is curtailed or romanticized reflects the respective differences in the emotional landscape between Singaporean and Philippine society. In the Philippines, freedom is an integral part of what is usually characterized as the “happy and resilient disposition” of its people. The country is a big room for exercising the freedom to express and be moved by both positive and negative emotions. Filipinos love freedom – so much, in fact, that we sometimes refuse to be ruled by the transitory nature of time and limiting values of societal laws. 

The effect of freedom, when excessively imbibed, exercised, or idealized, can lead to disorder, chaos, and poverty in society – or at least this is how Singapore, through its state exercise of authoritarian democracy, justifies the surrender of freedom as a necessary trade-off for societal order and economic prosperity of its people. However, for a serious and creative writer like Hernie Pereira, the submission of individual rights and freedom in exchange for “good housing, safe streets, free education, and a colored TV” is no different from what a prostitute does: giving up self-respect for money. It is from Hernie’s comparison of what a whore and a Singaporean writer must grapple with – disentangling temporarily the (writing and sexual) act from its association – which made me understand the state of “emotionlessness” prevailing the country. 

Emotionlessness is embodied in Hernie Pereira – a cold, clever, and emotionally detached character who conceals what is most important to him: his writings and Su-May, his young mistress. Hiding both his deep affair with words and Su-May is the only way by which Hernie can genuinely express himself, without the interference of his wife, family, workmates, and the rest of the society. Being indifferent and staying emotionally neutral to the mass of people around him was his preservation of the littlest freedom and individuality he has. In Singapore, where conformity is expected to push uniform progress, the need to be distinct can perhaps only be found in silent eyes and in the “hidden” activities that people do to make them feel unique and alive. 

Moreover, being emotionless in the country means staying focused to compete and adapt to changes in the global economy. Laying off workers at Benson’s, for instance, is viewed as a sign “progress”, as the company plans to enter the mass market. Since these changes around him threatened the economic stability he once enjoyed, Hernie altogether gave up his writing freedom and betrayed Su-May and the children for “natural conservatism”. However, it was his emotions which, in the end, overpowered him and made him overturn his decision by betraying the state.  He paid thus, the sore price of being physically and figuratively toothless. 

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