Kuda kepang

It's a controversial art form that was usually performed away from the public eye. 

This, especially after the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore released a scholarly opinion in 1979 branding the dance as "unIslamic". 

That's because its dancers often go into a trance-like state, performing superhuman feats like eating glass. 

But "kuda kepang" has made a comeback over the last few years. 

It is now regularly performed on weekends at events like weddings and places such as the Malay Village at Geylang Serai. 

The art form, which originates from Java, is performed by a group of dancers who stand astride a two-dimensional painted figure of a horse. 

They are accompanied by a gamelan orchestra - a Javanese percussion ensemble. 

Shaffiq Alkhatib finds out more about the dance and the reasons behind its comeback. 

Hypnotic gamelan music filled the air as the musicians, dressed in traditional Javanese costumes struck their instruments in unison. 

The ensemble made up of young men and women were part of an arts group known as Sri Ulan. 

Four male kuda kepang dancers were seen standing nearby, putting on the finishing touches to their elaborate costumes. 

One of them's 32-year old Rohman Samad. 

"I'm a Javanese and I am interested to learn about my culture. Who else will continue this tradition if it weren't for people like myself?" 

Mr Rohman and the other dancers soon took their places in an open space in front of the musicians. 

They stood astride their horses and seemed to be in deep concentration. 

Incense was burning in a brazier beside them and the area was soon filled with sweet-smelling smoke. 

The dancers began to move as the music changed tempo....

And the audience watched as the men fell into a trance-like state. 

Watching the performance at the Malay Village that Sunday evening were about two hundred people. 

Twenty-seven-year-old Iswandi Arjo Wismodiarjo is the leader of one of Singapore's oldest kuda kepang groups known as Tedja Timur which was formed in 1948. 

He says, kuda kepang performances are usually dance dramas based on Hindu epics like Ramayana. 

"There are a lot of kuda kepang dance dramas but a very popular tale comes from Kediri - which is located in East Java. It's about two kings who fought over a princess called Dewi Songgolangit. But a lot of kuda kepang performances are based on Hindu epics. These beliefs predate the coming of Islam to this part of the world. Before Islam came here, many locals in countries like Indonesia were Hindus." 

Mr Iswandi also says that in recent years, an increasing number of people have shown interest in the dance. 

"In 1995, there used to be only five kuda kepang groups. But the number has gone up in 2008. There are now about 40 groups with about 1,200 members in all. One of the reasons behind this increase is due to internal conflicts- power struggles among members of the original five. Some decided to break away and create their own groups. Thankfully, the tension has since subsided. Some newer groups are also formed by former kuda kepang performers who just decided to jump onto the bandwagon and set up their own troops." 

Video-sharing portals such as YouTube has also played an important role in promoting kuda kepang, attracting the young, says Mr Iswandi. 

To address the art form's rising popularity, Mr Iswandi says he is in the process of setting up a governing body to look after the interests of local kuda kepang groups. 

"To address this, my group has already applied with the Registry of Societies. We have also applied to register ourselves as a company. The company will look after the kuda kepang groups. I've talked to the leaders of other kuda kepang groups and they support the idea of forming a kuda kepang federation. It will be known as Tedja Timur Performing Arts. We submitted our application last month and will know the results next month. So far, most of the groups support this possible new federation. - nearly 70 per cent of them. Those that don't are usually the older groups and there are also other leaders think they do not need to be part of the federation." 

Mr Iswandi says kuda kepang is so popular now that it has even attracted those from other ethnic groups. 

He knows of at least two non-Malays and one of them is a member of his group. 

Twenty-three year old music teacher Alicia Joyce De Silva is part of Tedja Timur's gamelan ensemble. 

"People are captivated by it. It's amazing to watch every Saturday, you just have crowds - throngs of people gathering and watching. They get so fascinated and excited. I'm interested in music and instruments of other cultures. So, it's this aspect that draws me into kuda kepang. I'm also a composer, the different cultural aspects of different music gives me inspiration for my work." 

Some members of the Malay-Muslim community, though are concerned about the rising popularity of kuda kepang. 

This is mainly due its its perceived unIslamic elements - especially the frenzied trance-like state the dancers often get themselves into.
Som Said is a renowned local choreographer who received a Cultural Medallion in 1987. 

"I like to see kuda kepang Singapore style, of course with the influence of Javanese or Indonesian culture - but without this element. It is this issue that makes it controversial" 

However, hypnotherapist, Alden Tan says, there's a logical explanation as to what happens to a kuda kepang dancer when he or she enters a trance-like state. 

"I would say trance can be considered as a form of hypnosis. Hypnosis has been defined as an altered state of consciousness. The mind becomes open to suggestions because the conscious mind has taken a back seat- so the subconscious becomes more accessible. The effect is real." 

The sound of the gamelan and the smell of the incense could have also contributed in lulling the dancers into a hypnotic state, says Mr Tan. 

Kuda kepang will continue to be a point of contention among many members of the Malay-Muslim community. 

But the art form looks like it's here to stay given the recent proliferation of kuda kepang groups. 

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