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Panji, a shared legacy

I Wayan Juniarta

The Jakarta Post

Denpasar  /  Thu, July 12, 2018  /  09:09 am
Panji, a shared legacy

Javanese style: A masked dance drama performance based on a Panji story by a Surakarta-based troupe underlines the refined and graceful style of Javanese traditional dance. (2018 International Panji/Inao Festival/File)

Apparently, a good love story — one in which the protagonists are granted a happy ending after overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles — knows no cultural or geographical boundaries.

Two dance dramas on Thursday night offered strong support for that notion. Both were performed by foreign troupes — the first from Thailand and the second from Cambodia — with glittering costumes and gorgeous dance moves.

For most of the spectators packing the Ksirarnawa stage at Denpasar’s Werdhi Budaya art center that night, the songs the performers sung, the maneuvers and gestures they made, and the accompanying music were a tapestry of unfamiliar esthetics.

Yet, foreign as the performances might have seemed, their beauty did not escape the ears and eyes of the spectators, who are more accustomed to the esthetics of traditional Balinese dance dramas.

Furthermore, despite the cultural barriers, the gist of the performances — a poetic journey of a young prince in search of true love — resonated well with the audience. They knew a good love story the moment they laid their eyes on it. Naturally, thundering applause marked the end of both performances.

Another surprise awaited the spectators when the night was topped off with the performance of Gambuh, the Balinese classical dance drama often dubbed “the mother of Balinese dances” for its rich and complex repertoire of gestures and body movements. That story too revolves around a young prince.

The surprise lies in the fact that the stories featured by the three performances were all inspired by Panji, an ancient Javanese romantic tale reportedly dating back to pre-Hindu times before it gained widespread popularity in the 14th century during the peak of East Java’s Majapahit Empire.

Exquisite: The Kakul Mas troupe performs the exquisite gambuh dance drama.Exquisite: The Kakul Mas troupe performs the exquisite gambuh dance drama. (2018 International Panji/Inao Festival/File)

A mighty thalassocracy, Majapahit’s realm of influence spanned present-time Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia, a fact that may explain the Panji-inspired stories found in the traditional arts of those countries. In Thailand and Cambodia, the character of Panji is known as Inao.

The performances were the first leg of the International Panji/Inao Festival. It is held in eight cities across Bali and Java, starting in Denpasar (June 28-30), then moving to Pandaan in Pasuruan, East Java (July 1), Malang (July 2), Blitar (July 3), Tulungagung (July 4), Kediri (July 5), Yogyakarta (July 6-8) and finally Jakarta (July 10-13). The National Library and Ministry of Education organized the events in cooperation with the respective regional administrations.

The festival features at least 15 troupes from Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia and various forms of performing arts inspired by Panji/Inao, ranging from dances and dance drama to the rare wayang beber, in which the storyteller narrates a story depicted on a scroll of paintings.

The festival also encompasses workshops, exhibitions, seminars and film screenings.

“Panji is a shared cultural legacy of these countries […]. This is the beginning of a closer Panji cultural cooperation between Southeast Asian countries. This cooperation aims at promoting cross-cultural understanding among the participating nations,” the director general of culture at the Ministry of Education and Culture, Hilmar Farid, said.

One of the brains behind the festival is Wardiman Djojonegoro, the former minister of education and the man who led Indonesia’s successful campaign to enshrine Panji in the Memory of the World register.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) included the Panji manuscripts in the register on Oct. 30, 2017.

“Panji is unique, because it was created in East Java and was not influenced by Mahabharata and Ramayana, and later on was adopted and assimilated by other regions,” Wardiman said, referring to the two great Hindu epics that heavily influenced the archipelago’s political and cultural landscape prior to the emergence of Islam.

Affection: Panji/Inao (right) comforts the heroine Bussaba before their temporary separation in the performance presented by the Sukhothai College of Dramatic Arts.Affection: Panji/Inao (right) comforts the heroine Bussaba before their temporary separation in the performance presented by the Sukhothai College of Dramatic Arts. (2018 International Panji/Inao Festival/File)

Panji narrates the trials and tribulations that Panji Inu, the young prince of Kahuripan, must overcome to reunite with his true love, Chandra Kirana, the princess of Daha. The challenges the young prince faces range from rampaging demons and violent criminals to an elusive tiger, distressed peasants and vindictive gods.

It holds major import in Javanese tradition, because Panji is believed to be more than just an ordinary prince. He is the ideal knight, who steadfastly defends the weak, pursues the truth and remains faithful to his love. He is also the ideal nobleman, who cares for his subjects and excels at both governing and pursuing artistic endeavors.

Moreover, Panji is credited with creating the first Javanese theater and gamelan orchestra as well as forging the first kris, the iconic wavy dagger that symbolizes gallantry and spirituality in the Javanese tradition. Panji is also known as the protector of batik.

 “The way the character has influenced and was influenced by the values and norms of different eras without compromising its core traits of righteousness and fidelity to a large extent mirrors the journey of this archipelagic nation, which for centuries has embraced foreign influences and transformed them into its own rich and diverse culture that stays faithful to its core values,” said one of the festival’s principal scholars, I Made Bandem.

He noted that innumerable versions of the Panji story were found across Java, including Kuda Narawangsa, Angron Akung, Panji Cakel Wanengpati and Serat Kanda.

“The differences from one to another are minor, and the principal theme is always the same,” Bandem said.

These stories have been passed on through generations mainly via traditional performing arts. In Central Java they have been passed down through the wayang gedog shadow puppets, the nearly extinct wayang kelitik wooden puppets and the wayang topeng masked dance drama. In West Java, Panji stories reached the masses through wayang orang and topeng babakan masked dance dramas.

In Bali, Panji stories have become the backbone of some of the island’s most important performing arts, including gambuharja opera and legong keraton, arguably one of the most beautiful Balinese dances.

“Through this festival, we strive to once again popularize this story as well as the norms and values embedded in it among the younger generation of this region. At this time of divisiveness, Panji tells us about a shared legacy that covers different nations and countries,” Wardiman pointed out.