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Flat wooden horses made from bamboo and decorated with colourful fabric and paint, are iconic props of a traditional dance form known as the kuda kepang. True to its name, which means woven wooden horses in the Malay and Indonesian languages, these horses are ridden like hobby horses, usually positioned between the legs of practitioners, and secured with a strap slung on one shoulder.
Although the beautifully ornamented horses provide an aesthetic that makes it visually appealing, kuda kepang as a cultural form is far more intriguing and holistic as an experience: it encompasses auditory, visual, spiritual and communal dimensions, making it an event that is experiential rather than just performative.
It is believed that kuda kepang as a cultural practice was brought to the shores of Singapore by Javanese people who settled in Singapore. It is documented that the earliest official kuda kepang troupes were formed by Haji Dahlan in Raden Mas (1948-1968) and Ahmad Arjo Sentono in Jalan Cenderai (1968-1974), who started performing the dance with other Javanese performers.1 The kuda kepang practised in Singapore, although it generally adheres to other similar Javanese forms (e.g. jathilan, jaranan, kuda lumping), has been localised to reflect the Singaporean Malay community with intercultural nuances of the Malay archipelago.2 This is best seen in the music of the kuda kepang. Although it may vary with the many different groups in the island-nation, the gamelan is the mainstay of the music ensemble, including Javanese or Sundanese two-headed drums played physically by slapping the drum’s skins, and the bass jidur, a large double headed cylindrical drum played with mallets.
There are multiple reasons for the horse becoming a key symbol of the dance. Historically, it was seen as a marker of Javanese gentry and was believed to be the animal rode by certain important personalities such as the revered saints of Indonesia (to whom the spread of Islam in the archipelago is attributed).3 Horses are culturally seen as creatures submitting their wills to their riders, the idea of which becomes symbolic when the woven horses become effigies for acts of trance that forms part of the practice.4
Kuda kepang used to be a ceremony featured at communal events within the Malay community in Singapore such as weddings, circumcisions and birthday parties. It has even made an appearance in Chinese religious ceremonies.5 However, its practice has received backlash from various authorities such as the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, which issued an advisory upon consultation with the Police (Licensing Department) and Media Development Authority, stating that the practice contains elements “objectionable to Islam” (such as “trance, performing feats like chewing/eating glass and drinking lots of water”) and advising that Muslims avoid it at all times.
The advisory, despite its cautionary nature, provides the basis for a kuda kepang performance to be better understood as a ritualised event. This will help one to understand it not merely as choreography and to appreciate the many different aspects that work in tandem to make the kuda kepang ritual an all-encompassing practice rather than the sanitised art form that it has gradually had to conform to. Like any ritual, the creation of an environment to cater to the series of activities involved in a kuda kepang event is important.
The buka gelanggang, or the opening ceremony, is a prayer led by an elder or the leader of the group to protect them from evil spirits. Offerings in the form of assorted flowers, incense, food and spices are prepared to initiate the prayers. The leader is usually male and well adept to manage the trance event that will occur at the peak of the ritual. All the props such as the wooden horses, whips, masks and other materials used for the ritual are laid before him to mark the beginning. Performers are most often male with little female involvement. Female performers are most often featured in the opening dances and senior female practitioners would participate in the trance as well.6
Upon finishing the prayers, an opening dance is presented, wherein dancers are dressed in costumes with glittering headpieces, embroidered vests and batik cloths adorning their hips, holding scarves alongside their ornamented wooden horses. A simple back and forth rocking motion of their feet gives the impression of warriors riding their horses. Their arms move with their scarves, with subtle hand gestures likened to that of silat arm movements, or are placed on the top of the horse's head, occasionally hitting the rattan prop to show a symbolic harnessing of reins. Performers will encircle each other and eventually create a larger circle which performers orbit till it gradually becomes smaller, converging in the centre.
Performers will dance to repetitive phrases of gamelan playing, layered with interlocking drums. Music also helps to signal the heightened state of trance that gradually occurs when performers, with the aid of burning scented woods, become intoxicated. As described by anthropologist Patricia Hardwick, the dancing in an intoxicated state is termed “tarian mabuk” wherein performers themselves feel as if they have been transformed into horses, enacting the movements of the creature and responding wildly to the different musical instruments played. It is in this trance-like state that spectators will witness the bizarre acts of performers eating glass or tearing open coconut husks. The horsewhips will then make an appearance, used by other group members to demand the discipline of the horse-like performers and show their tolerance of pain. The ritual ends when a performer, drawn to the elder of the group, is released from their trance-like state when the elder whispers prayers into their ear. This moment is marked by a sudden jerk of the performer's body, usually stiffening, signalling a sudden exit of the horse's spirit. They are laid on the floor to gradually come to their senses.
In recent years, conversations regarding the diminishing practice of kuda kepang have been highlighted by various media outlets and current practitioners.7 The concern that its practice is not Islamic and the trance element potentially unsafe, continues to be the main hindrance to its continuous practice. However, practitioners are finding more acceptable means to describe the occurrence of trance, particularly the mystic aspects that have received much negative attention. Iswandiarjo Wismodiarjo, a fifth-generation leader who heads Kesenian Tedja Timur at Malay Village / Geylang Serai (2001- present), has envisioned an alternative way to practise kuda kepang. He differentiates between kebatinan (mysticism), the often-told reasoning behind the trance, and keyakinan (self-confidence) which is the mental, physical and spiritual training that allows performers to perform their superhuman feats. He accepts that both modes of practice exist within the scene, but the latter has become a more appropriate way to dispel the negativity surrounding the practice today.
1 Hardwick, Patricia,“Horsing Around Melayu: Horsing Around Melayu:Kuda Kepang, Islamic Piety, and Identity Politics at Play in Singapore’s Malay Community", JMBRAS, VOL. 87, Part 1 (2014); verified in 2023 with personal communication with Iswandiarjo Wismodiarjo.
3 Jákl, Jiří, “The Loincloth, Trousers, and Horse-riders in Pre-Islamic Java: Notes on the Old Javanese Term Lañciṅan,” Archipel, 91(2016)
4 Rapoport, Eva, “Jathilan Horse Dance: Spirit Possession Beliefs and Practices in The Present - Day Java,” IKAT: The Indonesian Journal of Southeast Asian Studies Vol. 2, No.1 (2018)
5 Hardwick, “Horsing Around Melayu”.
6 Not much has been written about the gender dynamics of the form. However, anthropologist Eva Rapoport has written about female participation in Jathilan, a kindred hobby horse form practised predominantly in Java.
7 Hardwick, “Horsing Around Melayu”.
Noramin Farid (Soultari) is a choreographer, arts educator and maritime Southeast Asian performing arts researcher. A recipient of the 2017 Singapore Youth Award and the 2018 India-ASEAN Youth Awards, Amin is the curator of an online portal, ARKITARI, which documents maritime Southeast Asian dances. He is also the current president of a dance organisation, DIAN Dancers, and the founding member of Arki-Gen, a group focused on promoting discourse and research about Southeast Asian performing arts. He holds a PhD in Theatre, Drama and Dance Studies from Royal Holloway, University of London, UK.