SENDRATARI ! An introduction by choreographer Matheus Wasi Bantolo


The Panji Story: A Javanese Tale

The Panji story is native to Indonesia, specifically to East Java. Unlike adaptations from India such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that play such an important role in the Javanese performing arts, the Panji story is originally a Javanese tale, a story of our own ancestors. But the story has also long been known in several countries of Southeast Asia and even further abroad in Asia. In Thailand, it is called Inao. As such, it is an example of Indonesian national culture that has spread beyond the archipelago.

The story centres on Panji Inu Kertapati, Prince of the Kingdom of Jenggala, who is portrayed as a down-to-earth local character, a simple and humane ruler. Engaged for political reasons to Dewi Sekartaji, princess of the Kingdom of Kediri, Panji is also already tied to another woman. Sekartaji learns of this, and chooses to leave Kediri, first transforming herself into Panji Semirang, a ksatriya (knight) of great spiritual power. Because of her (now his) broken heart, Panji Semirang sets out to conquer all the kingdoms of the world. Among the people he battles is the red-masked King Klana, who has come to Kediri to seek Dewi Sekartaji’s hand in marriage. In the midst of the battle, Panji Inu Kerpati emerges to fight Panji Semirang, but something feels quite strange. The two souls are intended for each other, and that attraction and love is felt by both of them during the fight between the two knights, both seemingly men. Overtaken by the holy love flowing between himself and Panji Inu Kertapati, Panji Semirang retakes her original form as Dewi Sekartaji.

Several historical sources suggest that Panji tells the story of the kingdom of Kediri in the 12th century. The Kakawin Smaradahana Mpu Dharamaja, a sung poem that can be traced to that time, mentions the story of Panji. The Smaradahana names King Kameswara, the red-masked monarch of the Panji tales, as the king of Kediri from 1115-1130 AD, also noting that he was the third incarnation of the God of Love, Bathara Kamajaya (Purbacaraka, 1966: xi). In addition to the fabric of the story, the tale also opens a discourse on the concept of universal humanism: issues of politics, governance, religion and (plural/cross) genders are all raised in the tale. And not to be forgotten, of course, is that most human of problems, “love”.

One element that can not be separated from the history of the Panji storyin the archipelago is the use of masks in performing the tale. Masks appear as part of the performing arts in an 11th century manuscript from the royal court of Jenggala, which mentions a performance in which the artists’ faces were covered, using the word tapel (mask). From various hikayat (royal “histories” in poetic form,) we know this was a forerunner of performances of the Panji tales, in which the performers wore masks (Sugeng Toekio, 1996: 58).

Because of the richness of the values they expressed, Panji masked dance dramas became part of the cultural and ritual life of the Javanese Palaces. They were also evidently present in Klaten and in the inland folk art communities of Tutup Ngisor, Dukun, and Magelang in Central Java. Other forms of the Panji story using masks can be found in reog, wayang beber and wayang gedhog, with wayang beber being assumed to have played a role in the development of the Panji story.

Kayungyun—The Topèng Opera: Form and Meaning

Kayungyun—The Topèng Opera developed from another piece, Topèng Panji, that was staged at the Esplanade in Singapore in 2009. In further development, Topèng Panji underwent a creative reinterpretation of its ideas, content and form, which was then presented as Kayungyun Topèng Panji in Thailand in January 2011, and performed on May 2012 at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta as Kayungyun- The Topèng Opera.

Our interpretation of the Panji tale does not simply present it as a “love story” between Panji and Sekartaji, which has been a prevalent interpretation of the story. Rather we always keep an eye on what we feel is the story’s “higher” subject: humanity. Throughout our creative process, therefore, the larger cultural symbols central to Javanese thought that are reflected in the Panji narrative—the concept of four basic human characteristics [keblat papat], the interplay of micro-cosmos and macro-cosmos, the worldview deriving from agrarian culture, and the art and cultural role of carving and painting masks—served as important sources for our creative ideas.

Kayungyun explores the condition of being ensnared by personal feelings, whether that be missing someone, feeling in love or dreaming of revenge. In our interpretation of this work, these are the conditions that drive the story. Our version of Panji does not merely symbolize the feelings of the platonic love between a man and a woman, cast in tones of melancholy atmosphere. Rather it is a quest, an exploration of the “empty space” of humanity. Imagination, fantasy and the imitative representation of other figures play important roles in this quest. The situation resolves itself through the coming together of two people—”two complementary sides of one space”—in the form of real human figures whose increased maturity and wisdom allows them to address and understand the variety of conditions around them.

The work is based principally in elements drawn from three different artistic forms: masked dance, theatre and opera. These are united through the common thread of dance movements drawn from court styles, wayang topeng (masked folk dance theater) and from popular traditions associated with the Panji stories that have been updated and stylized. We have also included innovations of our own, such as the sharing of masks between multiple dancers. The story is told through poetic forms including both sung poetry (tembang) and monologue. Together, these various formal elements “re-format” Western opera into a style more “fitting” to our own Javanese performing arts traditions. This artistic approach has been the foundational ingredient for preparing the work.

To mask can mean to hide one’s face face, or to wear a different face, an imitation. It is an image whose symbolism is illusive. A mask can be the personification and representation of a certain personality. But in a broader context, it can be representive of a community or a cultural system whose values are represented within it. It can be seen as an artistic achievement or an entryway into the work socio-cultural study. In our work, we hope that by wearing masks,rather than hiding, we can expose and explore something about the reality of the human condition.

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