It may have been just a coincidence, but it was really uncanny that having just got back from a break, just before which some recollections of the first Kuda Kepang performance I had witnessed some forty years back came back to me, that I stumbled upon one that was taking place below a block of flats in a part of Woodlands that I had not until yesterday visited. It was as if the spirits that are said to possess the performers had led me there to feed the memories I was starting to recall of that first moment that I had seen a Kuda Kepang dance. Kuda Kepang is a traditional dance that is performed by members of the Malay community in Singapore using painted cut-outs in the shape of horses. The dance is believed to have some of its origins in the retelling of stories from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in Java, is performed accompanied by the dizzying strains of a Gamelan orchestra. It was at one time, a popular feature at Malay weddings, especially in the kampongs, and it seemed to me to have disappeared from Singapore together with the kampongs that had once been a feature of Singapore life – or so I had thought …
The very first time I had come across the dance was when I was maybe three, in a part of Singapore that we have long lost – the Tanah Merah area, on which I was trying to piece some memories together on. It was a part of the world that I would on occasion pass through – my parents were fond of taking holidays in the government bungalows that were available in the area. What had defined the Tanah Merah area was the hilly ground which overlooked the sea and besides the Malay kampongs present, there were also some magnificent villas, including one owned by David Marshall. It was, passing through one of the kampongs, Kampong Ayer Gemuruh, that, while peering out of the open window of my father’s Austin 1100, what seemed to be grown men playing on what would have appeared to be toy horses caught my eye. My father pulled the car over so that we were able to get out and observe the performance from the side of the road from where we could glance down towards the sandy clearing where there were indeed grown men on painted white horses that seemed to be made of cardboard or plywood. We could see them prancing and twisting around to the strains of the Gamelan that we could faintly hear, each astride a cardboard horse of which my first impression was that they were like the stick horses I had seen at the Robinson’s toy department.
I had, through much of my childhood, been intrigued by the Kuda Kepang. My maternal grandmother, who I was very close to and had originally come from Java, had herself held a fascination for the dance and there were several occasions when we stopped to watch a performance when we did see one in passing by a Malay wedding. That was despite a friend of hers warning us that we shouldn’t watch it. The friend, who we referred to as “Bibik Boyan”, “Bibik” being a term used to address a senior lady, much like the term “auntie” is used in Singapore, and “Boyan” due to her ancestry being traced to the Boyanese as folks from Bawean Island off east Java were referred to, would drop in a few times each week to keep my grandmother company as well as to help her out with the laundry. It was through her warnings that I first heard of the association of spirit possession with Kuda Kepang. This somehow only served to heighten the sense of intrigue that I had for the dance, and it was only when going to school kept me busy that I stopped taking notice of it, and slowly over the years, the memories I had of it had been stored away until the recent recollection that I had.
Watching a performance of the dance, it isn’t difficult to imagine it having a spirit possession dimension. The dance involves movements that have symbolic values that would have originated from the animistic practices of the people of pre-Hindu Java. Throughout the dance, the performers seem to move in a trance like state, their movements guided seemingly by a force other than their own. It is said that in some of the forms that Kuda Kepang takes, dancers are fed with pieces of broken glass, grass and other objects which do them no harm. In some cases, the dance is said to even be able to heal the sick. Whether or not this is true, the dance is certainly mysterious as it is captivating and watching a little portion of it yesterday, I felt like that three year old boy again, staring down at the fascinating scene before my eyes.
A few more photographs of the Kuda Kepang performance that were hastily taken in the rain: