Those wrinkled fingers gradually unfolded the red sash previously neatly folded inside a white plastic bag. They spryly spun the sash above the left shoulder to the left. Without being accompanied by the sound of calung (xylophone made of bamboo) and tembang (vocal music), the owner of those fingers danced, occasionally nodded or opened both arms wide, showing off long tapering fingers.
The owner of those fingers is not young anymore, but the hip swaying and steps performed remained showing the lengger dance skill on that person, whose golden era was since the mid of 1940s until 1965s. That person is Dariah, as known by people of Plana and Somakaton villages, Somakaton subdistrict in Banyumas, a regency of Jawa Tengah Province.
In a glance, people wouldn’t realize that Dariah is a man. Born in 1928, his parents named him Sadam. But, during his puberty, something changed. He, who loves Javanese dances and songs since his childhood, felt an agony.
“I left home and brought a little money with me. I wandered aimlessly from Banyumas to Banjarnegara, Purbalingga, until I arrived at the grave of Panembahan Ronggeng. After I calmed down, I returned home,” said Dariah in Banyumas accent. In 2011, Dariah was listed as one of 2011 Traditional Art Maestros.
In his journey home, Dariah bought a set of ronggeng dance equipment. Arriving at home, he told his family about his experience. He got positive responses and his career shone ever since.
Atmo Sumitro, an activist of Padepokan Seni Banyu Biru Desa Plana, proclaimed Dariah as the symbol of traditional art wealth in his village. Even though Dariah is a man, he owns the stage. “Beforehand, if Dariah performed, spectators were not just crowded, most of them fell in love with him,” said Atmo.
Atmo recalled that Dariah’s golden era was started in the mid of 1950s. “I know Darsiah well because he used to live with my family. Every day he dressed up like a woman, yet we didn’t feel uncomfortable,” he said.
Even though a lot of female lengger dancers of neighbour villages rose to stardom, Dariah remained the idol. “Competition among female dancers and Dariah was never obvious, but it was there, inside them,” said Atmo.
Dariah’s charm was even able to put men under his spell. Men falling in love with him came from various social circles, such as the rich people, village’s officials, and common people. “A lot of men used to stay overnight in our house. There was even an overnight schedule. Because at that time, I admit, Dariah was very beautiful. A lot of men were willing to spend their money just to be with Dariah,” narrated Atmo.
His beauty remains obvious. The feature of his face radiates so. At that time, Dariah served well the men staying overnight. “If they stayed overnight, we didn’t sleep in the same room and they knew that I am too a man,” said Dariah who loves chewing betel.
All this time, people of Banyumas perceive lengger lanang (a male dancer performing lengger) as an interesting traditional entertainment, without any judgment. The lack of prejudice or negative opinion thus omits the stereotype there.
The Art of Agrarian People
Ahmad Tohari, an expert on Banyumas literature and culture, said that lengger is basically a popular art having lived for a very long time in Banyumas’ agrarian society. Banyumas culture is substantively orientated toward a dynamic and simple art since it is part of mass culture set different from fine art known by the nobles.
As a form of entertainment, lengger is favoured by the community. It is as well a part of agrarian ritual. “Lengger becomes a medium to symbolize a goddess of fertility in an agrarian society,” said Tohari.
According to Tohari, every village in Banyumas used to have each lengger lanang as a symbol of fertility. “In my village, Tinggarjaya, lengger lanang did exist. It is even recorded in the book of History of Java.”
History of Java, written by Sir Thomas Raffles, mentions various art known all over Java Island. Lengger, it claims, is not so different from ronggeng, tayub, and several other forms of pop art.
Nevertheless, Ahmad drew a fine line between lengger performed by a male dancer and ronggeng by female. So did Atmo Sumitro, who indicated that the word lengger comes from two words of Banyumas language. “Lengger comes from ‘leng’ meaning hole and ‘jengger’ meaning the comb of a rooster.”
The positive acceptance of Banyumas people makes lengger able to break the gender boundary in common social structure. The renowned dancer Didik Nini Thowok said that lengger lanang is a high value art if seen through the paradigm of world art studies.
“Cross-gender dance I have been performing is a serious art. When I was studying in Japan, a lot of artists from other countries, such as China and India, were astonished by me performing cross-gender dance comically,” said Didik in Padepokan Payung Agung, Desa Banjarsari Nusawungu, Cilacap, not so long time ago.
After he explained to those artists, they could understand the root of Indonesian tradition. Cross-gender tradition has a deep root in Indonesia, tracking back to the 18th century. “Serat Centhini talks much about this kind of art performed inside the palace that obeyed Islamic teachings, hence it isn’t surprising that female roles were played by men,” told Didik. Serat Centhini is an ancient Javanese literature, which is considered as Javanese Kama Sutra by many people.
It was to follow one of Islamic rules prohibiting a man and a woman to touch, except with their mahram (unmarriageable kin). Women performing art was considered taboo back then. “But it stopped in the 20th century. So, a cross-gender art, such as lengger, is part of written history, not a random one,” argued Didik.
Didik Nini Thowok hoped that the successors of lengger lanang learn the art seriously. Rudi Lukmanto, a lengger lanang dancer from Sumampir village, Purwokerto, claimed of eager to dance lengger since his childhood, when he often watched lengger performance.
“My dream came true few years ago. My life now depends on lengger,” said Rudi, currently part of Sanggar Kesenian Lengger Gita Budaya, Bantarwuni village, Kembaran subdistrict, Banyumas.
For him, lengger dance is not solely swaying hip and charming spectators. It is an expression of soul and feeling. “I can say that I dance from my heart. I do what Mbok Dariah does,” said Rudi, father of a child. “Mbok” is a Javanese form to address an older woman.
Rudi’s experience is similar with that of Dariah. Temptations come from women and men. “A lot of male and female spectators are indeed spellbound. But they know that I am a man, so it isn’t a problem. Banyumas people, up till now, still accept us well,” said Rudi.
The presence of Dariah as the elder of lengger art in Banyumas has become an inspiration for Rudi. “I learn a lot from Mbok Dariah and I consider him as my teacher,” he said.
Dariah has inspired Banyumas’ female lengger dancers as well. Sri Multiyah Susanti, a dance coach in Sanggar Sekar Santi, admitted of learning lengger dance movement from Dariah. In fact, Sapanyana, a tembang written by Dariah, is a mandatory in every lengger performance in Banyumas Raya, along with Ricik-Ricik, Sekar Gadung, and Eling-eling. “Mbok Dariah has become an inspiration for every lengger dancer in Banyumas. The Sapanyana tembang is very popular among lengger dancers,” said Sri.
Sapanyana was a compulsory entertainment for audience watching Dariah. The tembang was sung as a form of respecting the spectators. “Sapanyana, sapanyana. Krungu lagu banyumasan. Wiwit kuna wis ana lagune ra.. lagune ra… sapirah. Wiwit kuna wis ana. Saking joget ora kerasa. Egat, egot, egat, egot. Jebule kaya wong gila.”
The legendary tembang and sound of calung accompanied Dariah dancing on stage. His lengger spirit remained strong when he was singing Sapanyana that reminded him of his birthplace and love toward Banyumas’ art.(E3)