Mask Dance

The Mesmerizing Mask Dance of Cirebon, Indramayu, and Losari

Topeng dance (topeng is Indonesian for “mask”) is a dramatic form of Indonesian dance in which one or more mask-wearing, ornately-costumed performers interpret traditional narratives concerning fabled kings, heroes and myths, accompanied by gamelan music. The form arose in the 15th century in Bali and Java where it remains prevalent, but it is also found in other Indonesian islands – such as Madura (near East Java). The well-developed topeng technique is now studied in universities of Europe and America.

Indonesian masked dance predates Hindu-Buddhist influences. Native Indonesian tribes still perform traditional masked-dances to represent nature, as the Hudoq dance of the Dayak people of Kalimantan- or to represent ancestor spirits. With the arrival of Hinduism in the archipelago, the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics began to be performed in masked-dance.

Cirebon mask dance or tari topeng Cirebon is a local original art of Cirebon, including Kuningan, Indramayu and Jatibarang, West Java and including Brebes, Central Java. Cirebon mask dance has a lot of variety, and experienced growth in terms of dance, as well as stories to be conveyed. Sometimes the mask dance performed by solo dancer, or can also be played by several people. Cirebon mask dance might take story of Prince Panji from 15th century East Java, and also other Majapahit story. Topeng Klana Kencana Wungu is Cirebon mask dance in Parahyangan mask style, depicted the story of Queen Kencana Wungu of Majapahit being chased by grotesque and rough King Minak Jingga of Blambangan. The Sundanese Topeng Kandaga dance is similar and influenced by Cirebon topeng, where the dancer wearing red mask and costumes.

Graceful hand and body movements, and musical accompaniment dominated by drums and fiddle, are hallmarks of Javanese mask dance. The dance is performed on special occasions for local officials, or for other traditional celebrations.

The one of mask dance maestro is Mimi Rasinah, an active dancer and teaches studio art at the Tari Topeng Mimi Rasinah located in the village Pekandangan, Indramayu. Since 2006, Mimi Rasinah suffering from paralysis, but she was still excited to performing, dancing and teaching dance mask until the end of his life, Mimi Rasinah died in August 2010 at the age of 80 years.

Among Indonesia’s masks dances, the Tari Topeng from Cirebon is one of the most renowned.

The town of Cirebon, once a thriving kingdom and busy harbor town, lies on the north coast of Java, right on the border between West Java and Central Java. Its culture, therefore, mixes West Java’s Parahyangan elements with traits inherited from the Central Javanese Mataram kingdoms.

In the Cirebon district, the most wellknown are the Mask Dances from Cirebon, from Indramayu, – another port northwest of Cirebon, – and from the town of Losari, east of Cirebon almost into Central Java.

Here Tari Topeng or the Mask Dances are performed at harvest festivals and in village celebrations. Its origins are immersed in mysticism and magic where the dances were originally used to collect then disperse negative supernatural powers.

Masks are believed to contain magic, which is transferred to the dancer who wears it. Old masks are particularly valued since through age they are believed to have more powerful magic, and the dancer who wears it will thus give a more powerful performance.  Dancers can be either male or female

The costume of the most well-known Kelana Mask dancer is usually bright red with gold borders, wearing a long batik cloth around the waist that is used in the dance. The mask is that of the ogre Rahwana taken from the Ramayana epic.  The red mask signifies greed, lust and anger, all negative emotions that made humans ugly.  When he struts across the stage roaring out his seedy laughter, the audience goes into shrieks.

Most distinguishable is the high head dress on top of the golden crown, where two long strings of pom-poms hang on each side.

Although a complete repertoire consists of 22 characters in the Topeng Besar (or the grand Mask drama), however, nowadays only the short version or the Topeng Kecil is performed. Each color of the mask represents a different emotion or character.

The most popular mask dances today are the Panji, Samba, Rumyang, Temenggung and Kelana.

In the first part of the drama, the dancer does not wear any mask. At a certain point the dancer takes up a mask, places it on the face and the real drama begins.  In an instant the magic of the mask exudes its power and the dancer immediately takes on the character of the mask: it may be a beautiful and coquette woman, a noble prince, or even a clown.

Ibu Irawati, a well-respected dance teacher in the ASTI academy of Arts explained that “ a dancer must know the character very well so as to give the mask life. All the power must surge through the body to come out in the mask, giving energy and power to a performance. It is not enough to just dance”.

The Cirebon Mask Dance is accompanied by the typically loud Cirebon gamelan music, where dances are performed in sharp movements.

In Indramayu, the Kelana Kencana Wungu Mask Dance originating in the Parahyangan kingdom of West Java, was created by Nugraha Soeradiredja.

This dance tells the story of Prince Menak Jingga or Prabu Menak Jingga who had fallen madly in love with the beautiful Princess Kencana Wungu.

In this dance, the mask of Kencana Wungu is blue, expressing her noble but spritely character, whereas the mask of Menak Jingga, also known as Kelana, is red, denoting his very temperamental and impatient character.

This dance Kencana Wungu moves in lithe, feminine choreography, accompanied by the gamelan music, which is dominated by the small drums and the rebab, a musical string instrument.

The prima donna of the Indramayu mask dance was Mimi Rasinah, who danced to an old age, but passed away in August 2010. Her dance is now perpetuated by her granddaughter Erly.

The Losari Mask Dance, on the other hand, is more agile. The Losari Mask Dance is unfortunately fast disappearing, but a descendant of the famed “dalang” or mask dancer Sumirat, named Nur Anani M Irman, better known as “Nani”, hopes to revive this by staging performances in Jakarta, Bandung and other parts of Indonesia.

In her latest performance, Nani presentated three dances: the Topeng Pamindo, Topeng Jingga Nanom and Tumenggung Magangdiraja, and the Kelana Bandopati.

The original drama inherited from Dalang Sumirat consists of eight dances and three Acts.

Unlike the Cirebon Dance, the Losari version emphasizes on agility with difficult techniques. One of which is called the gantung sikil, or hanging the legs in a cross posiition for a duration of 20 minutes. There is also the pasang naga seser where the body bends backwards in the dance.

Being closer to Central Java, the Losari Mask Dance version is more influenced by the Panji Mask Dance from Central Java, said Nani.

At the Purwa Kencana Topeng Losari studio led by Nani, there are 80 masks of different characters that are already over 200 years old.