Celebrate Asia: Inside a village of mask makers and dancers in Indonesia
In the first of a series of stories looking at unique people, places and food in Asia, CNA Lifestyle visited a village off the Indonesian city of Cirebon, where the art of tari topeng – or mask dance – is alive and well.
On this sleepy Saturday afternoon, Slangit looked like a typical rural village in Indonesia – rice fields on either side of a dusty, narrow and bumpy road, chickens wandering about, and people lazily chilling outside modest, unpainted concrete bungalows.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Until a young girl casually walked past wearing a pink wooden mask with a very dapper moustache.
“It’s nearby,” said my guide, Sutandi.
We had driven three hours from Bandung to the port city of Cirebon in West Java, and another 45 minutes to reach this place, where apparently no one bats an eyelid when girls wearing masks take a leisurely afternoon stroll around the kampung.
And we soon found out why. Walking past a small cemetery and a mini-trampoline cage full of squealing, bouncing kids (a lesson in juxtaposition there), we followed the sounds of gamelan music until we turned a corner to see an open air performance of Slangit’s pride and joy: The tari topeng.
AN AUTHENTIC ENCOUNTER
The tari topeng – which literally means “masked dance” – is a type of performance found all over Indonesia, from Kalimantan to Madura to Cirebon, where I was.
The versions found in Yogyakarta and Bali are probably what many visitors to the country are most familiar with – the full-on exotic-looking costumes and masks worn by dancers depicting tales from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Java’s own Panji stories.
But it’s one thing to see it at a ticketed cultural show for tourists and another to stumble upon an actual performance in a village for villagers.
“We’re very lucky,” said one of my companions, Waryo, who teaches tari topeng as an academic subject and sometimes makes masks himself. These village performances, he said, happen maybe once a year during very special occasions relating to harvest season and are usually done in respect of village ancestors (neither of which explain the trampoline, really).
Such performances tend to go on throughout the day – with tari topeng holding court when the sun is out, before wayang kulit or wayang golek (shadow puppetry) performers step in for the night shift.
It’s no wonder, then, that the place was jam-packed with women and kids (the men were still out working, we were told), whose eyes were glued to the makeshift stage beside a bamboo grove.
As the gamelan performers gonged away – and a woman to the side made sound-effects noises with her mic – a young woman stepped onstage to perform.
For the first few minutes, she danced without a mask, before ceremoniously unfolding a small black bundle I hadn’t noticed. She briefly turned back to the audience and – voila – she was wearing a teeny-tiny red mask.
DIFFERENT MASKS FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS
Figuring out the differences between versions of tari topeng around Indonesia would probably take more than a day, but my companions were more than game to give a crash course.
Cirebon’s version, they explained, was unique in a few ways. While the masked dancers down in Bali, for example, have a stronger Hindu-Buddhist influence, more Islamic elements have found their way to the versions in Cirebon, where the first sultanate in Western Java was established in the 15th century, which was around the same time its tari topeng came about, back in 1485.
And we're not kidding when we say versions. In Cirebon, different villages have their own unique styles of Cirebon Tari Topeng, according to Waryo.
In fact, one of my other companions that day, Haji Mansour, grew up in nearby Gigesik surrounded by dancers. Now 69 years old and a master dalang – or puppeteer – Pak Mansour recalled how his mother would go from village to village as a tari topeng dancer.
Just how hard is it to be tari topeng dancer? He recalled with a laugh that he opted to handle puppets because he wasn’t good enough to dance. “It takes at least five years,” he said.
Another element that makes Cirebon’s mask dance unique is in the mask itself. According to Waryo, they’re smaller compared to the masks in, say, Yogyakarta. And while other masks are usually secured around the head with rubber or strings, performers here bite on a leather strap nailed to the inside.
And performers in Slangit don’t have to go far to buy theirs. A short drive from where the tari topeng performance was brought us to Pak Murani’s house. The 44-year-old is one of Slangit’s two resident mask-makers, and apparently the better one.
Since 2003, the former furniture and door-maker has been making masks exclusively. “It’s simple and not hard to do – and I can take my own sweet time,” he joked.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not hard work. Each mask takes about five days to a week to make, from carving the wood (there’s a pile of timber outside his house) to painting the faces on.
Each mask sells for between IDR400,000 (S$39) to IDR700,000 and, at the moment, he’s busy with orders from Bandung and Solo. When we dropped by, a handful of masks were drying in the sun outside. Business has been good, he said.
A HOBBY TO PROTECT THEIR CULTURE
Going by Pak Murani’s mask-making business and the lively performance we stumbled upon in Slangit, it seems tari topeng in Cirebon continues to have a future.
It is occasionally in the spotlight, being shown on local and national television, and there are regular performances at tourist attractions in Cirebon and Bandung. Troupes have also performed in the United States.
But while it’s thriving, Waryo said, it still needs support from the government to keep things going. And there have been changes to how it’s being performed, too. Pak Mansour said that back in the day, it was also common to see a tari topeng version that had around 15 to 20 people performing simultaneously. Today, most performances are done by just one person.
And that line of kids throwing money at the stage during the show? My guide Sutandi pointed out that most of the performers don’t make much doing the tari topeng, which is why these small gestures of generosity from their fellow villagers are very much welcome.
But the dancers persevere. “It’s a hobby but it’s also a way to protect my culture,” said Singling Habibah, who was the first dancer we saw performing. The 22-year-old high school graduate has been at it for a few years now and said she’ll continue to do it.
“I can do all the different types,” she smiled, before showing me her red mask and flipping it. Written at the back of her mask was her name. She’s in it for the long haul.
To find out more about Celebrate Asia, visit cna.asia/celebrate-asia.