In search of the indigenous in Betawi arts
By Ida Indawati Khouw
Most residents of the capital are familiar with Lenong theater, ondel-ondel puppets and the Gambang Kromong musical orchestra. But not many people are aware of their histories or whether they are indeed the original arts of Jakarta. This is the 31st story in a special series on Jakarta appearing in the Saturday edition of The Jakarta Post.
JAKARTA (JP): Most people may not know that the Betawi (native Jakartans) have a wealth of traditional arts and culture.
Those who are worried by this lack of awareness have voiced concern about the "unpopularity" of Betawi culture. However, this perceived unpopularity should come as no surprise, considering that these arts have always been performed and passed down only within those Betawi communities living in suburban areas.
Unlike art created in noble palaces by court artists, the art of the Betawi grew among the native Jakartans themselves, with all their well-known modesty. The Betawi arts also were influenced by the native Jakartans' folklore.
That is the reason why the Betawi do not have a tradition of painting and sculpting, rather their artistic endeavors come in the form of the performing arts.
"This was also influenced by Islam, which forbids its followers from depicting living creatures," said an observer of Betawi culture, S.M. Ardan.
Ardan said there were at one point about 40 different types of Betawi performing arts, "but I think just half of them still exist at present".
However, Ardan said the Betawi had almost no original arts of their own because -- like the ethnic group itself -- most of the arts emerged through the intermingling of various arts from other ethnic groups, including the Sundanese, Javanese, Chinese and Arabians.
If one of those elements in the mixture did not exist, it could not be called Betawi culture, he said.
"A very clear example is seen in the bridal couple -- the bride wears a Chinese wedding gown and the bridegroom wears Arabian cloth. It would not be called a Betawi couple if one of these two elements was not used," he said.
Known as an ethnic group with a strong faith in Islam, particularly the Betawi Kota, who lived near the walled city of Kota in West Jakarta, it is not surprising to find clear Arabian influences in their musical traditions. This includes the Rebana (tambourine) music of Ketimpring, Hadra, Dor, Maulid and Biang.
Rebana music is played during different ceremonies in the Betawi community, including at weddings, circumcisions and births. Rebana also is used during religious ceremonies, accompanying the prayers of the Betawi.
The music also is performed to accompany the Zapin dance, Topeng Blantek folk theater and martial arts performances.
Betawi music, dance and theater also were greatly influenced by Chinese culture. The harmonious combination of Betawi and Chinese instruments is seen in Gambang Kromong orchestras.
Local instruments such as the gambang and kromong percussion instruments, gendang and kempul drums, kecrek and gong, are played in harmonious combination with Chinese kongahyan, tehyan and shukong stringed instruments.
Such musical performances often accompany performances of the popular Lenong theater and Cokek "erotic" dances.
An expert on Betawi traditional arts from the National Institute of Sciences, Ninuk Kleden Probonegoro, said Chinese landlords played a great role in influencing Betawi arts.
"Chinese landlords at that time owned music groups to please themselves. That was how Chinese culture influenced Betawi music," she said.
The Malay Samrah orchestra and the Javanese Wayang Kulit and Wayang Wong also influenced the art of the Betawi.
Meanwhile, the influence of the Sundanese Gamelan Topeng can be seen in the Topeng Betawi.
Although the Betawi were famous for their noncooperation with colonial governments, its Tanjidor and Keroncong Tugu musical performances were influenced by the Portuguese, who colonized the country before the Dutch.
Tanjidor, which is similar to a drum band, first appeared in the 18th century, according to The Jakarta Profile of Arts leaflet released by the city cultural agency.
The art form had some influence from Dutch governor-general Valckenier, who had a group of 15 brass musicians who played with local gamelan musicians, with a Chinese flute and Turkish drum included as well.
Tanjidor was once known as slaven orkest (slave orchestra) because it was originally played by slaves.
Ardan said there was a joke that the slaves once stomped on the musical instruments, "which is why the instruments' voices are cracked".
"Once we had the music played by professional musicians, but it was not like Tanjidor because the musicians played the instruments the 'right way'.
"Tanjidor players have a certain way of playing the instruments which differs from everyone else," he said.
The Betawi also have "original" arts, the Ondel-Ondel, for example, which are large male and female puppets. These existed long before the arrival of Islam on Java. The puppets represent the ancestors of the Betawi, and guard their offspring or the community.
Formerly, the puppet dance was aimed at scaring off evil spirits. Now the performance is simply aimed at adding color and excitement to folk festivals or welcoming distinguished guests, according to the leaflet.
It is, of course, difficult to find Betawi art groups in the city center because most players live in suburban areas.
"For me, it's not surprising that people say Betawi arts are now marginalized, similar to the situation during the Dutch colonial era," Ardan said.
He said Betawi folk arts were mainly performed for the Betawi communities in suburban areas. "People perform them only as a hobby. That's why they are not aware that community members no longer pay attention to the performances."
He added that this led to the arts nearly disappearing in the 1960s. They were "saved" when the city administration, under then governor Ali Sadikin, promoted Betawi arts as part of the effort to find an identity for Jakarta.
But Ninuk said traditional Betawi arts did not belong solely to Jakarta.
"The arts not only belong to Betawi people who live in Jakarta, but also in the neighboring West Java areas of Bogor, Tangerang and Bekasi. Jakarta is still in the process of searching for its art identity," she said.