Dance of the Divinity: The Bedhaya Ketawang
(Pandji, S. Bedhoyo Ketawang. 2006, Oil on Canvas)
Bedhaya Ketawang is a dance form that has deep cultural and historical roots in Java, Indonesia. The dance is thought to have been created in the Javanese royal courts and was only performed by "pure" women who were considered to be the guardians of Javanese culture, being virgins and not on their period at the time of their performance. A dancer who is menstruating is not allowed to perform on the Sangga Buwana stage at the Surakarta Palace without first getting permission from Kanjeng Ratu Kidul through caos dahar. Caos dahar is a ritual performed to communicate with ancestors, such as by fasting for a few days prior to the ceremony.
According to popular belief, Kanjeng Ratu Kidul attends every performance of the Bedhaya Ketawang Dance and participates as the tenth dancer. According to Javanese mythology, the Nawasanga, or nine gods, reign over the nine cardinal directions, which are represented by the nine dancers of Bedhaya Ketawang. The gods are Vishnu (North), Sambu (Northeast), Iswara (East), Mahesora (Southeast), Brahma (South), Rudra (Southwest), Mahadeva (West), Sengkara (Northwest), and Shiva (Central). The dancers represent each deity, who collectively are responsible for maintaining the harmony of nature.
The first part of Bedhaya Ketawang, bedhaya, refers to a female dancer in the court, while ketawang has the meanings of greatness, majesty, or even refers to the heavens (the sky). Due to its themes of divinity, this performance is held in high regard as an expression of devotion and reverence for the gods and ancestors. Bedhaya Ketawang is only performed at very select events, such as coronations and the Tingalan Dalem Jumenengan Sunan Surakarta, the celebration of the king's ascension to power, because of the dance's sacred nature.
Gamelan, a traditional Javanese ensemble of metallophones, drums, and other percussion instruments, provides the musical backdrop for the performance. The Gending Ketawang Gedhe, a version of Javanese gamelan music played during Bedhaya Ketawang, is widely regarded as one of the most respected and sacred varieties of gamelan music in the region. The dance is slow and graceful, and the dancers move in an intricately synchronized way. The motions are an expression of the fundamental principles of Javanese life philosophy, which emphasize the importance of maintaining a steady balance in all aspects of life.
The elaborate costumes worn by the dancers in Bedhaya Ketawang are one of the most memorable elements of the performance. Like traditional Javanese bridal attire, the costumes are based on a dodotan and are typically made of silk and decorated with elaborate designs. The main performer wears a spectacular headpiece, resembling a tall crown adorned with jewels and feathers. Popular belief holds that the Bedhaya Ketawang dancers' attire resembles Javanese bridal attire and is dominated by the color green, indicating that the dance depicts the romantic relations between Kanjeng Ratu Kidul and the monarch(s) of Mataram.
Bedhaya Ketawang's origin is surrounded by mystery and legends, but it's commonly assumed that it occurred sometime between 1613 and 1645, when Java was governed by Sultan Agung. One account has it that a beautiful goddess appeared to Sultan Agung and told him to choreograph a performance to pay tribute to the gods, and so the dance was born. Another version of this dance's origin tale has Panembahan Senopati meeting and engaging in intimate relationships with Kanjeng Ratu Kidul during a state of meditation.
Bedhaya Ketawang has evolved into a strong icon of Javanese culture over the centuries, earning it the status of intangible cultural heritage in recent years. The dance is still performed in modern times, both in its traditional form and in modern interpretations, and it continues to be an essential part of the cultural landscape of Java. Last but not least, the dance represents an inimitable and hugely important element of Javanese culture that has survived the test of time. Its slow and graceful moves, elaborate costumes, and sacred music make it one of the most impressive and awe-inspiring types of dance to exist, both in Indonesia and around the world. Bedhaya Ketawang is one of the many dances that should be sought out by anyone interested in learning about Java's illustrious culture and history.