Thursday, May 12, 2011

Indonesian Culture

    Indonesian culture, like Indonesia itself, is a fascinating blend of indigenous, Malay, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic elements. Indonesia is a country of great diversity and its national motto is "Unity in Diversity." This diversity is also found in all aspects of culture: language, housing, cuisine, dance and music, artistic expression, etc as each has many local variants.
    However, Indonesia is also noted for several distinct and national cultural expressions. These include the Wayang shadow puppet theatre, the gamelan orchestra, Balinese and Javanese dances, batik cloth making traditions, and rice based and spicy cuisine. Indonesia, like much of Southeast Asia, has adopted and adapted the great Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and uses these stories as the basis of many dance, musical, and puppetry performances.

    Wayang (puppet plays)
    Wayang is one of the oldest and best developed story telling traditions in Indonesia. The word means shadow or ghost and is used to refer to dramatic performances using live actors or puppets. The most common type of Wayang is that which uses shadow puppets and is called Wayang Kulit. These puppets are two dimensional creations, carved from buffalo or goatskin parchment into exaggerated human shapes. These puppets have moveable limbs and are manipulated by sticks attached to the limbs. Each puppet is a distinct type and the various types: the hero, the villain, the lovely girl, etc, are well known. These plays are performed in villages and towns on special occasions such as a wedding, a public holiday, celebration of birth or circumcision or, in Bali, for funeral cremations. The puppets are manipulated behind a large white screen which is lit with an oil or electric lamp from behind, causing the puppets to cast shadows on the screen. They are manipulated by a puppet master, called a Dalang who also speaks for the puppets, sings, and taps out signals to the accompanying orchestra. He must be able to imitate many voices, from that of a princess to a noble hero.
    Many stories are performed in these shadow plays but most of them derive from the two great Indian epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Brought to Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia by Indian merchants, these stories have been popular since their introduction in the 1st century A.D. Over the centuries, these stories have been changed and modified until they have become an intimate part of Indonesian heritage and have particular Indonesian attributes. Rather than referring to Indian kings and deities, they often refer to Indonesian royalty and deities. The Ramayana refers to the cycle of stories about King Rama, the ideal king and the series of trials and tribulations he and his family underwent to demonstrate the ideals and ethics that make him the perfect king. Stories of his marriage to Sita (Indonesian Sinta), their banishment to the forest, Sinta's abduction by the demon Ravanna (Indonesian Rahwana), her eventual rescue by Rama with the aid of the monkey god Hanuman, and their reinstatement as rulers, are some of the most popular and most frequently performed.
    The second epic, the Mahabharata, tells the stories of the fratricidal war between two groups of kinsmen, vying for the throne. The rightful rulers, the 5 Pandava brothers, are cheated out of the throne by the 100 "evil" Kurava brothers, their cousins. This struggle is resolved by a bloody war resulting in the eventual triumph of the Pandavas. In the process, there are many stories of nobility, evil, love, humiliation, etc. The Pandava brothers represent justice and right and are the descendants of Hindu Gods. In Java, the kings claimed descent from Arjuna, the central one of these brothers and the essence of nobility. His elder brother, Yudhisthira, is the epitome of wisdom and honesty, while his second brother, Bimasena represents physical and moral strength. These stories have remained popular in spite of the acceptance of Islam as the main religion in Indonesia.

    Gamelan Orchestra
    The shadow plays are accompanied by the gamelan orchestra which also plays independently in concerts marking important events. The gamelan orchestra consists of a large array of bronze and percussion instruments. Instruments are tuned in two ways which are similar to the minor and major keys of Western music and a complete orchestra contains two sets of instruments, one tuned each way.

    Batik refers to the technique of creating beautiful designs in cloth by covering parts of the material with wax and then dying the material. The dye, of course, clings only to the parts of the material not covered with wax. Designs to be created are either drawn onto the material with a hot wax pencil or stamped onto the material with a copper stamp. The cloth is then dipped into the different colors of dyes, and the wax removed, creating a vast array of stunning patterns. Batik is made throughout Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Thailand; Indonesian Batik has particular designs and different areas specialized in different color combinations.
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    1. Wayang Purwa symbolizes human life in the world. Basically, the genealogy of wayang is rooted in the gods named Hyang Manikmaya and Hyang Ismaya. They are sons of Hyang Tunggal. In the wayang performance, Hyang Tunggal is not visible. The two sons emerged as lights simultaneously. Manikmaya's light was glowing brightly. Ismaya's light was dark. Both of them competed to proclaim that they were the older of the two.
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    2. Then, Hyang Tunggal stated that the dark light was older, but he was predicted that he could not have the god's personality. He was given a name Ismaya. Since he had the human personality, he was asked to stay in earth to take care the god's descendent, the Pandawa. Then he was sent to the world and named Semar. He has the ugliest human being outlook.
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    3. The spark light was named Manikmaya, who lives in Suralaya (the kingdom of gods).
    Manikmaya is so proud to himself since he perceives himself to have no weakness and to be powerful. That kind of attitudes makes Hyang Tunggal give him some weaknesses.
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    4. The two events are symbols. Ismaya symbolizes the body of human being. Ismaya symbolizes the soul of human being (inner body). The body (Semar) always takes care of five senses (Pendawa): sense of smelling (Yudhistira); sense of hearing (Werkodara); sense of seeing (Arjuna); sense of taste (Nakula); and sense of touching (Sadewa).

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    5. The task of Semar is to take care the wellbeing of Pendawa, in order to avoid the war with Korawa (sense of Anger). However, Hyang Manik Maya always persuades them to fight. Finally, there is Baratayudha where Pandawa become the winner.
    Javanese Gamelan Music
    Gamelan is a percussion-dominated musical ensemble. It is also known as a Gong-chime musical ensemble. This musical ensemble consists of bronze gongs and metallophones. Besides Indonesia, gamelan is played in Malaysia too.

    Gamelan music is in polyphonic stratification structure. It means the music are composed by layers of simple melody lines or rhythm patterns. There are five categories in this polyphonic stratification:

    1. Nuclear Theme
    2. Elaboration
    3. Punctuation
    4. Counter-Melody
    5. Rhythm
    You can find out the instruments in these different categories at Function of Instruments.

    Gamelan music is in cycle, or in musical term, ostinato. Usually the music will repeat over and over, until the drummer give a signer to end the performance. Also the music often performed in interlocking style.

    There are two tuning system for Javanese Gamelan:

    1. Pelog - This is a seven tones scales, involving half steps.
    2. Slendro - This is a pentatonic (five-tones) scales, without half-steps.

    These two sets of tuning system are played by two different sets of gamelan metallophones.

    What is batik?

    The word batik is thought to derive from the Indonesian word "tik" which means dots-- denoting a certain method of applying colored patterns or designs to finished fabrics.
    Picture credit: Dr George Henry

    The process of making batik.

    The process of batik is simple but tedious. Finely woven cotton and occasionally silk are used to make traditional batik. There were two parallel traditions in batik, one for the royalty and one for the common people.
    The first step is to apply the hot wax. There are several methods of waxing. The most popular methods are canting method and cap method


    After the initial waxing, the cloth thus prepared is then dyed in indigo vat anddried in the sun on long sticks. The oldest and first dye to be applied in classical Indonesian batik was blue made from the leaves of the indigo plant. Indigo dyeing was usually done by men.
    The cloth is first pulled through a chemical agent which helps the dye to bond to the cloth. It is left to drip and is then pulled through the dye.

    Batik Creating an Identity -- Lee Chor Lin.

    Chemical dyes produce more predictable results and offer better resistance to sunlight and frequent washing. After the colors are obtained, the fabrics is rinsed thoroughly and it is then transferred to boiling water. The finished products are brilliant in both design and color. Producing a high quality batik may take anywhere from five weeks to over a year.

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