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Seminar on “How to Practise Trance Dance and Survive: The Growth and Place of Jathilan in Yogyakarta”


Politics of Arts in Southeast Asia

Friday, 30 August 2019 – Ms Eva Rapoport spoke at a Politics of Arts in Southeast Asia seminar on Indonesia’s New Order policies regarding everyday folk and art forms, and how Jathilan, a traditional Javanese horse dance, has grown in popularity in Yogyakarta over the years. Jathilan is also known as kuda kepang or kuda lumping in Malaysia and Singapore, and the dance can also be found in South America’s Suriname, where a sizeable Javanese population exists.

Ms Eva Rapoport (right) talked about the tensions inherent behind Jathilan. Dr Benjamin Loh (left) moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute)

A slide show of Ms Rapoport’s photographs from her fieldwork in Yogyakarta was shown before the seminar. The photographs were detailed visual studies of the Javanese dance – which included not only the performers but the profile and reactions of its audience – that has been described by Ms Rapoport as “a performing art of the people and for the people”. The photographs were a selection of her works entitled “Facing Trance in Indonesia” which was exhibited at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre in February 2017.

Describing the carnivalesque process of Jathilan in rich ethnographic detail, from audience participation to trance development, Ms Rapoport talked about the tensions inherent behind this traditional practice. Despite the pervasive influence of modernisation in changing the ways of daily village life, Ms Rapoport said that Jathilan remains unyielding and has taken modernity by its reins. For example, some Jathilan practitioners use YouTube to learn rare dance steps that has not been taught to them by their dance troupes.

A slide show of Ms Rapoport’s photographs from her fieldwork in Yogyakarta was shown before the seminar. (Credit: Eva Rapoport)

Jathilan has also seen the struggle between religion and tradition. A major part of the dance involves trance, where dancers invite ‘spirits’ in a ritual to enter their body to do superhuman feats, like eating glass or walking on coal, to entertain the crowd. According to her, these rituals are contradictory to Islam, which is Indonesia’s most adhered to religion. The tensions between tradition and religion, Ms Raporport pointed out, has resulted in creative solutions, like the construction of an Islamic basis for Jathilan or the renaming of the dance as culture rather than religion to prevent it from coming under the religious ministry’s purview.

During the question and answer session, the audience engaged with the speaker on a range of topics, including the unique cultural conditions in Yogyakarta that allowed Jathilan to flourish, the extent the dance is performed by the Malay and Javanese community in Singapore, the challenges of including local performing arts as part of the Indonesia’s national cultural development, and how Jathilan has been used for political mobilization during the New Order period. 

This seminar is supported by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

Some of the audience at the seminar. (Credit: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute)