The beat of our souls: Kuda Kepang and the spiritual self

The flat, stylised horse of the Kuda Kepang is a well-touted symbol of Malaysian culture. There are two very large ones on the wall of the Johor Bahru airport to greet visitors. For Malaysians generally, this traditional symbol comes complete with recollections of an affable dance, some young people in colourful costumes and the pleasant enough sounds of gongs dinging and donging. Agreeably Malaysian.

The more complex rituals of the Kuda Kepang, as practiced by skilled performers, go beyond the colour and the delight. They demand our intellectual attention for something deeply rooted in our primeval past.

Cultural anthropologists refer to simple repetitive movements, circles of energy and percussive sounds as “humankind’s oldest patterns.” The Kuda Kepang performance is, as Frederick W. Turner writes, a “celebration of all life that is the essence of a living mythology, one that sends spiritual energy shooting through the veins of the group.”

Kuda Kepang performances strike at our souls, expressing the relationship of the individual to both a wider universe and the depths of his/her inner self. The Kuda Kepang of the village communities reflects the same joy and fun as its touristic cousin, but retains a special connection to other-worldliness.

“When you touch the celestial in your heart, you will realise that the beauty of your soul is so pure, so vast and so devastating that you have no option but to merge with it. You have no option but to feel the rhythm of the universe in the rhythm of your heart.” – Amit Ray

In Malaysia, Kuda Kepang rituals are practiced mainly in the state of Johor by communities whose ethnic Javanese roots and agrarian customs tie them intrinsically to Malaysia’s history, mythology and belief systems. Pusaka, a non-profit organisation dedicated to highlighting Malaysia’s cultural traditions, has recently been working with Kumpulan Kuda Kepang Parit Raja from Johor. It was through their efforts that I was introduced to the roots of the Kuda Kepang tradition.

Kuda Kepang is rooted in ancient Javanese rituals and traditions still found in Indonesia today.

Kuda Kepang is thought to have originated in the storytelling that accompanied the spread of Islam into Indonesia. It speaks of the strength of warriors, the forces of good and evil, and beautiful princesses and their suitors. When Kuda Kepang is performed now in local communities, young men (and increasingly, women) re-enact elements of the old stories. The performances also include a time when the performers enter into a heightened state of awareness that connects them to the deeper depths of their souls.

The sounds of Kuda Kepang – the gongs, the kenong, the gendang, the whispers, the cracking whip, the melodic invitations of the Badal – mingle with the rhythmic movements of the dancers, with the light and the dark, with the clouds of incense and the energy of the audience. Pauline Fan of Pusaka has written much about the semangat or “spirit” of traditional cultural performances in Malaysia and of the angin or “wind” within us that manifests itself in expressions of art, music and dance. Angin is the fluttering of our souls, of our senses, that drives us to connect to our past, to be in the moment and to be part of what lies ahead. It is this semangat that one feels so strongly during a traditional Kuda Kepang performance.

Kuda Kepang performers dance themselves into a state of kayangan – a kind of “celestial reality” in which they undergo an emotional and physical transformation. Some take on the characteristics of animals – monkeys, snakes, birds, tigers – and some become part of the mythology, donning the masks of heroes and villains. These transformations and the undertaking of the whole ritual performance are under the constant watch and gentle guidance of members of the community.

Some movements in the Kuda Kepang rituals are based on traditional silat.

When he weaves the rattan horse on which our minds will travel, as he caresses the mask of Bujang Ganong, we connect to bigger ideas.

One particularly important role in the Kuda Kepang ritual is the Badal or guard figure. When the Kumpulan Kuda Kepang Parit Raja performs, a refined young man, who goes by the name of Casper, controls the space as the Badal by evoking a spiritual communication with the ceremonial space. The traditional horses and the barong masks used in the performance are his creations, imbued with his angin. Throughout the performance, his persona becomes more and more playful. As he dances wistfully, floating among the other performers, his movements are supple, his touch light and his melodic incantations gentle. He encourages all present to feel the energy of the space and to experience the beauty of the kayangan that is in us and around us.

“All things join in the dance! Ye who dance not, know not what we are knowing.” – Gustav Holst

The Kumpulan Kuda Kepang Parit Raja will perform at George Town Festival 2014 as part of the celebration of Malaysia’s rich cultural traditions. Check the George Town Festival calendar of events and watch for the photography exhibit “Dancing with the Kuda Kepang”, presented by Pusaka, during the festival.

Cheryl Hoffmann is a freelance photographer based in South-East Asia. She specialises in photography of cultural and religious traditions. Hoffman participated in last year's George Town Festival with an outdoor exhibit of Nine Emperor Gods Festival photos on Lebuh Hong Kong. She currently assists Pusaka with the documentation of Malaysia's cultural heritage. Her work can be viewed at www.cheryljhoffmann.com



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