Seni Reog: An Epic Battle Then, and a Cultural Dispute Now

By Izzuddin Ramli

August 2022 FEATURE
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Photo by: Ahmad Fikri Anwar @ PUSAKA.

IN INDONESIA’S kabupaten (regency) of Ponorogo, people tell the story of the mythical battle between their king, Kelono Sewandono and the magical lion-like creature called Singa Barong. King Kelono reigned over the Bantarangin, a kingdom believed to be part of the ancient Ponorogo. In the vast repertory of Javanese epic dance masks, the king is depicted as red-skinned with prominent eyes, wearing a gold-coloured crown and carrying pecut samandiman, a decorated whip in his hand.

King Kelono sets out on a journey to the kingdom of Kediri, reigned over by a beautiful princess named Puteri Songgo Langit, a ruler admired by kings and nobles throughout Java. On his journey to seek the hand of the princess, King Kelono is attacked by Singa Barong, a guardian of the forest surrounding the Kediri kingdom. An arduous battle ensues between the black-clad warok warriors of King Kelono and the lion and peacock army of Singa Barong.

King Kelono’s troops eventually tame the Singa Barong, and he finally encounters Puteri Songgo Langit. Puteri Songgo Langit agrees to marry him but on one condition: he must present her with a new dance performance that has never been showcased to the public before. King Kelono impresses the princess with the Reog dance, which enacts the battle and his journey to reach her.

Many versions of the origins of the Reog dance exist. Different Reog groups and masters have their own interpretation of the story, contextualised and appropriated according to their sensibilities and social climate. Today, the dance continues to be performed on festive days, for weddings and coming-of-age ceremonies. Driving into the kabupaten, one is greeted by the statues of the virile warok and his alluring boy-lover gemblak, two characters prominent in the Reog dance.

Photo by: Cheryl J. Hoffmann @ PUSAKA.

An Intangible Heritage

Reog has become an iconic cultural identity of the people of Ponorogo, and is registered as one of Indonesia’s intangible cultural heritage traditions. In January 2022, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture, Muhadjir Effendy, supported the proposal for the art to be recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Sadly, this episode sparked another in a row of cultural disputes between Indonesia and Malaysia, the home of many Javanese migrants and several Reog groups.

While one version has King Kelono Sewandono creating the Reog dance based on his journey to Kediri, another makes Reog a central element in the struggle of Ki Ageng Kutu, a servant who fought against the ruler of the kingdom of Kertabhumi in the 15th century. Living in exile, Ki Ageng used the Reog dance as the medium to spread his political message against the corrupt king.

Read also: Dikir Barat: An Evolving Identity Marker

The centrepiece of the Reog dance is the majestic Singa Barong mask, which depicts a lion’s head elaborately decked with peacock feathers. In the Ki Ageng version, the Singa Barong symbolises the kingdom of Kertabhumi. Other prominent figures in Reog Ponorogo performances are the valiant Bujang Ganong masked dancers, who represent cleverness, agility and loyalty, and the graceful jathilan dancers on woven horses, who embody beauty, youth and bravery.

Photo by: Cheryl J. Hoffmann @ PUSAKA.

The Reog dance is accompanied by an ensemble of percussion instruments such as gong, kenong, gendang, tipong, angklung and a reed instrument called slompret. The piercing cry of the slompret casts a hypnotic spell over the dancers and audience, enveloping them in the distinctive sound of Ponorogo.

A full Reog performance unfolds within an hour, but can usually be shortened or lengthened to suit the occasion. The performers traditionally begin with a sajen ritual (feasting) to protect audiences, with offerings of banana, coconut, rice, roasted chicken, kemenyan, perfume, cigarettes and lighters, to respect the village’s penunggu (local spirit guardians).

Originating in Ponorogo, the Reog has now also taken root in communities of Javanese descent in Peninsular Malaysia, particularly in Batu Pahat, Johor.

The Migration of the Javanese

The early 19th century into the 20th century saw waves of migration of the Javanese to the Malay Peninsula, particularly to Johor, together with other ethnic groups from the Indonesian Archipelago such as Bugis, Boyan, Rawa, Mandailing and Acehnese. The Javanese opened up new lands, where they cultivated gambier, coconut and areca palm. The plantations were demarcated by irrigation channels (parit); the new kampungs that sprouted were identified by the parit and named after the founders. In 1894, the number of Javanese migrants in Johor had reached approximately 25,000, spurred by the burgeoning agricultural development under Sultan Abu Bakar.

Many of these were from Ponorogo and settled in areas such as Kampung Parit Warijo, Parit Bingan and Parit Nipah Barat in the area of Batu Pahat. Some of them brought along their customs and traditions such as Reog and maintained strong ties with their relatives in Ponorogo. It was in 1900 that Reog was first introduced in Johor by Saikon Kertos who lived in Kampung Perpat.

Photo by: Ahmad Fikri Anwar @ PUSAKA.

In an effort to strengthen Javanese identity and culture in Johor, some communities formed Reog groups. In 1935, Bingan Abu Kahar, the founder of Parit Bingan, established a Reog group by the name of Setia Budi. In 1970 Mohamad Haji Marji from Parit Bingan founded Sri Wahyuni, one of the most renowned Reog groups in Malaysia. Other Reog groups that are active today include Reog Bestari Tunas Warisan, Reog Seri Warisan Parit Raja, Reog Setia Budi Parit Nipah and Reog Gemala Sari Parit Baru Sri Medan, now steered by the second and third generation of the earliest migrants.

For the late Mohamad Haji Marji, affectionately known as Wak Mad, the purpose of establishing Sri Wahyuni was to forge a bond between the Javanese descendants and the local Malays. Wak Mad had a vision of elevating Reog to an art form recognised and celebrated by all.

The Fluidity of Culture

The members of Sri Wahyuni not only perform Reog, but also other traditional performances, such as Kuda Kepang and Silat. A young generation of Indonesian foreign workers have become core members of Sri Wahyuni and now contribute to the flourishing of the group. Back home in Ponorogo, some of these new migrants had had their own Reog groups, and in their new home of Johor, this culture offered them a way to integrate into Malay society. The connection between Reog groups in Johor and their ancestral land of Ponorogo is thus being renewed through continuous relationships, and exists not simply through bloodlines and history.

The evolution of Reog in Johor has inevitably seen changes, improvisation and adaptation — some organic in nature and others imposed by religious authorities and cultural bureaucrats. The opening sajen ceremony, for example, has been largely replaced by doa in public performances. Most Jathilan dancers in Johor wear the tudung, in contrast to the flowing straight locks of their counterparts in Ponorogo. There was an attempt by state authorities to alter the traditional story of Reog and impose a more Islamic version based on tales of the Prophet Sulaiman who understood and spoke to animals. Many Reog groups in Johor and Indonesia rejected this story and retained the original legend.

Photo by: Novelyn Salvador Patac @PUSAKA.

The adulterated story of Reog was one of the triggers of a cultural dispute surrounding the Reog tradition between Malaysia and Indonesia. In 2007, Indonesians were angered when the Malaysian government featured Reog as one of its tourism products without acknowledging the Ponorogo origins of the dance. In Jakarta, thousands of people gathered in front of the Malaysian Embassy to protest with banners ridiculing Malaysia as “Malingsia” or thief.

While the outrage of Indonesia is justified in the face of the foolish oversight of Malaysian cultural bureaucrats, there should be acknowledgement on both sides that Reog has been a shared tradition for many generations. The practitioners of Reog in Johor are in no way appropriating someone else’s culture — they are keeping alive a tradition that was passed down to them by their ancestors.

Traditions such as Reog embody the fluidity of culture that moved freely across the Nusantara archipelago long before the advent of the modern nation state.

Izzuddin Ramli

is a Kelantanese analyst at Penang Institute. He is a writer who seeks refuge in Penang, and agrees with Rumi that the Earth is not our home, we are just passing through.