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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Seni Reog: An Epic Battle and a Cultural Dispute

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

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.

Reog Ponorogo
Singa Barong. Courtesy of PUSAKA, Photo by Ahmad Fikri Anwar.

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 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 set out on a journey to the kingdom of Kediri, reigned over by a beautiful princess named Puteri Songgo Langit, admired by Javanese kings and nobles throughout the land. On his journey to seek the hand of the princess, he was attacked by Singa Barong, a guardian of the forest that surrounds 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 impressed 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 sensibility 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.

Reog has become an iconic cultural identity of the people of Ponorogo, and 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.

But this episode sparked another cultural dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia, the home of many Javanese migrants and several Reog groups.

A Majestic Dance

King Kelono Sewandono created the Reog dance based on his journey to Kediri. In another version of the story, Reog became 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.

The centerpiece 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.

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 is usually 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 Javanese

The early 19th century into the 20th century saw waves of migration of Javanese to the Malay Peninsula, particularly to Johor, together with other ethnic groups from Indonesian Archipelago such 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 ‘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.

Among the Javanese migrants who arrived in Johor, many 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.

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. Among other Reog groups that are active today are 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 with the local Malays. Wak Mad had a vision of elevating Reog to an art form recognised and celebrated by all. 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 contribute to the flourishing of the group. Back home in Ponorogo, some of these new migrants had their own Reog groups. In their new home of Johor, they found community — culture offered them a way to integrate into Malaysian society. The connection between Reog groups in Johor with their ancestral land of Ponorogo is thus 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 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.

The Fluidity of Culture

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.

*This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, August 2022.


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