Arts |

“Ontology of Ken Dedes” Forces Us to Examine the Role of Women in Javanese Folklore

Arts | 13 March 2019

A contemporary play on Javanese folklore, directed by, produced by and starring women, tackles issues of patriarchy and subservience among Javanese women.

The play combines theatre and contemporary and performed by Karina Sokowati and Sasqia Ardelianca who illustrate the duality of Ken Arok’s consort, Ken Dedes. Photo by Ihsan Ahmad/NOW!JAKARTA

Two identical women appeared.One wearing black and the other in white Javanese dress - playing a character from Indonesian folklore, queen and seducer, Ken Dedes. “Ontology Dedes” is currently at Galeri Indonesia Kaya. It is a play produced by a group of women from Fat Velvet who adapted Dedes’ character for the modern stage and showcased the duality of women in Javanese tradition.

The performance is adapted from the historical narrative from Javanese literature about Queen Ken Dedes, a wife of Ken Arok, a leader of the Singhasari Kingdom in East Java around the 1200s. The play which combines theatre and contemporary dance is performed by Karina Sokowati and Sasqia Ardelianca who illustrate the duality of Ken Arok’s consort.

Directed by Ayda Khadiva “Ontologi Dedes” (Ontology of Dedes) is a collective work, a collaboration of Bandung-based art collective, Fat Velvet with Rumah Kedua, Dissa Kamajaya, and Uvisual. The result is an interdisciplinary performance involving elements of visual projection, live scoring, and interactive installation.

The production focuses on Ken Dedes rather than the men in her life. Historically, Ken Dedes is not identified in complete narratives. Her character can only be found in the book of Pararaton and Kakawin Negarakertagama. She’s only defined as the first lady (Ardanareswari), as the story predominantly focuses on Ken Arok and Tunggul Ametung. But she’s more than that, a mother who gives birth to the next powerful king, the great empress of the Rajasa dynasty, a royal family that ruled Java from the Singhasari to the Majapahit era.

The production focuses on Ken Dedes rather than the men in her life.
Ken Dedes exceptional beauty was famous throughout the land but people also notoriously described her as one who constantly seduced men.

The daughter of a Buddhist monk, Mpu Purwa was considered a beautiful woman but an individual who never owned her individuality. Her exceptional beauty was famous throughout the land but people also notoriously described her as one who constantly seduced men. Ken Dedes was kidnapped and forced to marry Tunggul Ametung after the leader of Tumapel, established that he was attracted to her persona. She also had no control over her life when her next husband, the first leader of Singasari, Ken Arok made her his queen, took her away from Ametung and then murdered the Tumapel leader.

Dedes’ character reminds us of the 2019 Oscar-nominated movie, “The Wife”, starring Glenn Close who depicts the woman’s role as kingmaker, submissive, dedicated to her husband, but at the same time never feeling liberated. Her success is owned by her husband.

“Ken Dedes is more than the helpless wife, more than a seducer who married his husband’s murderer, and more than just a mother or just a queen. It encompasses the journey in which Dedes’ personality develops,” said the director of Ontologi Dedes, Ayda Khadiva.

Here, the collective from Fat Velvet linked the historical narrative with today’s socio-cultural issues. The play notes that women are never a major story in Javanese history. The Majapahit Kingdom was known for its kings.

Through the performance, Fat Velvet criticises the long history of patriarchy in Javanese culture where women are valued only for their domestic labour, much of which still exits today.  

Ontologi Dedes contains a message that is relevant to today’s social context regarding women. Khadiva noted that women today should empower themselves, create fresh perspectives about themselves and their surroundings. This performance may not only be significant in the arts, but also in today’s contemporary socio-cultural climate.

“The duality in Dedes’ personality is important, because it humanises Ken Dedes as a character. This is because the portrayal of the female in art, literature, and music, and performances places women as objects or one-dimensional characters,” Khadiva added.

The daughter of a Buddhist monk, Mpu Purwa was considered a beautiful woman but an individual who never owned her individuality.

Fat Velvet was been selected to perform at Ruang Kreatif 2018, the creative programme organised by Galeri Indonesia Kaya in collaboration with the Garin Workshop and Bakti Budaya Djarum Foundation.

Later this month, a documentary version of the work will premiere at House of The Suns, Bandung, West Java as part of the ontology series.

Performances from other the 13 selected finalists of Ruang Kreatif 2018: Seni Pertunjukan Indonesia will be featured at Galeri Indonesia Kaya’s auditorium every weekend until April 2019.

For more information and the performance schedule, visit https://www.indonesiakaya.com/galeri-indonesia-kaya