Grown men prancing on cardboard horses: Kuda Kepang

14 06 2010

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 …

A Kuda Kepang performance seen in Woodlands - my first experience of Kuda Kepang was more than forty years ago in the setting of a coastal Malay kampong that has long disappeared.

Masks that are used in the later part of the performance.

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.

My first impression of Kuda Kepang was that it was grown men engaging in child's play.

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.

Dancers are seen to go into a trance like state and make movements that seem to be guided by another force.

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.

The movements of the dancers is guided by the dizzying strains of the accompanying gamelan.

A few more photographs of the Kuda Kepang performance that were hastily taken in the rain:

About these ads

Actions

Information

49 responses

14 06 2010
noelbynature

The Javanese version is called Jaranan, and is very similar to Kuda Kepang – but these days practioners in Malaysia (Johor, mostly) tend to downplay the trance aspect of the dance. I’m not sure about Singapore, but I they they still maintain the trance tradition here. There should be a copy of the Jaranan in Select Books.

14 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks Noel … I guess the trance aspect has had to be downplayed due to religious considerations – although I suspect that it still is being practiced. Thanks for the tip on the book – it should be interesting reading!

15 06 2010
Riz

Hi,

The Kuda Kepang is indeed not in the teachings of Islam religion…its rather of a ritual practice by different Ethnic groups within the Malay Society.

Old folks believe that when Kuda Kepang is being performed to the climax where glass is eaten & etc…they can see the spirits (evil) wondering around the performers & the attendees.That’s why kids,toddlers & babies are advise to keep their distance.

But sadly nowadays, this performance are sometimes overdone & the performers don’t know what is against the teachings of Islam.My wife came from a Boyannese background but never once I see her family members practise this in any weddings.

Anyway I never failed to check your webpage every week…Its been great to relive those past memories that I’d back in Kampung (I used to stay in a Kampung behind Changi Prison).

Keep it up…

15 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

Hi Riz, thanks for your very informative input and your kind feedback! :) You mentioned being from a kampung behind Changi Prison – would you be familiar with the coastline around the Tanah Merah, Ayer Gemuruh and Mata Ikan area?

15 06 2010
Riz

Hi,

Yup..fairly familiar around that area…My kampung or rather my grandparents kampung was known as Kampung Darat Nenas…oh how i miss those times…

But my dad is more knowledgeable around that area all the way to Changi Village…He always share with his kids about what used to be there 30-40yrs back…as he used to stay in Kampung Ayer Gemuruh.

If you are about to ask me if i do have any photos…nahhh back then a camera is a luxury item to have…pictures are all kept in our brains…

15 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

Hi Riz, interesting … didn’t realise that there was a kampung behind Changi Prison called Darat Nenas! Your Dad was from Kampung Ayer Gemuruh? Awesome! I am looking not so much for photos … I guess it would be hard to come by, but more memories to help me connect what I can remember together. I have taken breaks with my parents around the area around Mata Ikan and near Kampung Ayer Gemuruh when I was very young – there were a couple of government holiday bungalows nearby called Plymouth and Newquay – I remember that you had to go downslope before turning upslope to reach the bungalows and I have some photographs of myself outside the Plymouth. Not far from Ayer Gemuruh – there was also a villa that was owned by David Marshall – I am trying to piece together where all these were in relation to each other. I also remember the school at Ayer Gemuruh – that I can place with the help of a map another reader sent me. Do you mind if I email you?

6 08 2010
JR

Riz- Sori 2 say tis, tis k.kepang is a javanese dance nt boyanese dance & fyi nowadys most boyanese ppl anticipate in tis dance..k.kepang is actually a cultural dance..i dnt agree with u saying they cn c evil spirits wondering ard the performers & the attendees..Me & my hub were in k.kepang group 4 over 20yrs & my children too r playing k.kepang nw..So far i dnt c any pirits tat ur saying…so plz if u dnt knw anyting abt tis cultural dance dnt say anyhow..tankiu…

15 06 2010
Daily SG: 15 Jun 2010 « The Singapore Daily

[...] Life, the universe and everything – Dee Kay Dot As Gee: So Long For Now: The Fire Fight Says Farewell – The boy who knew too much: Ridzwan Dzafir, Mr. Asean, Pondok Boy. – Eco Walk The Talk: Being a Locavore in Singapore – The Long and Winding Road: Grown men prancing on cardboard horses: Kuda Kepang [...]

15 06 2010
Riz

Oh not at all…I think my dad can recall those location vaguely.

As for the kampung well its not exactly behind CP…its located just behind the old Prison Quarters (My dad is a retired Prison Officer)..there’s a small path linking to that Kampung Darat Nenas & from there you can go to Tanah Merah,Somapah,Ayer Gemuruh & other kampungs around that area.

I c what & how I can help you in getting together your jigsaw puzzle.

16 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks Riz! Will send you an email! Much appreciated. :)

16 06 2010
azman

Hi there, its surprising there are still people remembering my old kampong darat nanas. I grew up there until we are asked to move out in 1984. Everyday we had to walk through changi prison to get to the bus stop. I think the kuda kepang group which you saw belongs to almhm. lek yatiman. He is the lead man who runs the kuda kepang group. Now the group is taken over by his relatives and still active performing @ malay village. For me i have my own gamelan orchestra but not kuda kepang…………http://azman45.multiply.com/..

17 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

Hi Azman, thanks for your comments and information! It is nice to know that you are also from that area … would you also be familiar with the kampungs around the coast, including Ayer Gemuruh and Mata Ikan? Great that you have a gamelan orchestra – where do you perform? I love gamelan music! :)

17 06 2010
azman

SAd to say my x gamelan group(Krida Taruna Gamelan Group) was disbanded due to my health. I’m now visually handicap due to gluakoma. So all my instruments were sold off to a kuda kepang group called Priwosari. But now I’m teaching a kk group called Jaran Sembrani how to play gamelan the correct way by using javanese notations. Last time i also taught gamelan @ a mind school for a yr. Now that i’m with the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicap(SAVH) I hope to conduct a gamelan for the blind people here.

17 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

Sad to hear that Azman. But it’s nice to know what you are doing and what you intend to do. You seem to be very knowledgeable about the kuda kepang scene in Singapore. How many groups are there today? From what I have read, I understand that are four categories that were prevalent here: Kuda Kepang Dor, Kuda Kepang Sandor, Kuda Kepang Riuk, and Kuda Kepang Jadilan. I am not sure if they would still be categorised in the same way and what types exist today. Perhaps you could shed some light on this? :)

17 06 2010
Eileen

I was kinda afraid to watch kuda kepang.. the accompanying music is usually quite repeatiative.

just to side track… i am in a gamelan group.. :) but we do not perform for any kuda kepang … i love wayang performances though :)

17 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

Somehow I always seem to be spellbound by the music … Great to know that you are in a gamelan group – where do you perform? When you mention “wayang” Eileen, would this be the Chinese opera? I remember the Chinese opera troupes that used to come around in the early days in Toa Payoh, together with the pasar malams which had lots of food and this guy on a bicycle who sold paper masks and swords, which I always looked forward to seeing. My grandmother was fond of watching the wayangs and what it meant was that I always was in for a treat when I accompanied her! :)

18 06 2010
Eileen

oh… pardon me.. i should have been clearer. .. i meant wayang kulit :P am not the biggest fan of chinese opera :X call me bad but besides the painted faces and pretty costumes .. i don’t like the chinese opera at all :P

18 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

I love wayang kulit too! Did you read my post on Wayang Kulit and the Ramayana? :)

18 06 2010
azmankrida

I understand that are four categories that were prevalent here: Kuda Kepang Dor, Kuda Kepang Sandor, Kuda Kepang Riuk, and Kuda Kepang Jadilan. I am not sure if they would still be categorised in the same way and what types exist today. Perhaps you could shed some light on this?………….Sorry bro, I myself don’t know very much about KK bcoz i never learnt KK before.What i know is only gamelan. I’ve never heard of KK Dor & Sandor……..As for reog is a form of art whereby 1 person has to carry a large replica of a lion face by only using his mouth accompanied by KK dancers.This is an art from jawa timur.In java their are different names for KK. Some call it kuda lumping, kuda sembrani, jathilan, jaranan or jaran kepang. In singapore people will associate gamelan with KK. Actually KK only uses a few instrument to accompany their dance.Gamelan is usually used in wayang kulit, wayang wong(orang)…ketoprak…ludruk…tarian…wedding ceremonies & many other rituals ceremonies. In Jogjakarta where I learnt gamelan they have this gamelan festival every yr. July 16/17&18 2010 will be the perfoming days for groups from all over the world.Jogja is a city for history,arts, tourists, students & not to forget shopping. There are so many things to talk about jogja.

18 06 2010
azmankrida

Here’s a video i would like to share with u people. These was recorded when i was in kaliurang or the foot of gunung merapi. Coincidently there was a group of KK performing @ one of the villagers house So we stopped by to watch for free.This happened in 1994…………16 yrs ago…..now that i’m 48…..watch here……http://azman45.multiply.com/video/item/59/Kuda_kepang_kaliurang.mp4

18 06 2010
Nora

Wow…I saw someone mentioning Darat Nenas and that got me excited. I used to live in the quarters at Changi Prison and remembered the kampong though I was very young when it was erm, gotten rid of. However, the authorities kept the surau(small mosque) and I had my religious classes there. Oh dear, I can’t remember the name of the mosque though.

Anyway, I really do like your site. Thank you for helping us relive memories of the past.

19 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

Wow! It’s amazing that now we have three who are somewhat connected with a forgotten Kampung! Thanks for you comments and for your kind feedback Nora. What was life like “in prison”? :)

12 11 2010
Hamidah Buang

Nora,
If you went to the Madrasah there, then it was Madrasah Al-Azamiah. The mosque was Masjid Al-Azamiah. Which year were you there?

My siblings and i I went to school in Ah Chik’s van. We would gather around the blocks of the prison warden’s quarters for him each morning or afternoon and got dropped off at the same spot too…for 6 years.

The memories of the ‘gurkha’ way up in their ‘watch station’ brings a smile to my face. They were serious-looking all the time but if you’re lucky you might get a cheeky smile out of them.

I had many friend who lived in the prison quarters who went to the same school from primary all the way through to secondary school. I have found some of them from the fantastic Facebook network.

19 06 2010
Nora

Yeay! Uber-cool. Heh.

Life in ‘prison’ was brilliant. Spent 19 years in there. Was like a kampong minus attap housing. The kind where everyone knows everyone else and playtime could stretch to midnight coz parents weren’t concerned about our safety within the walls. And u cd have like mass blackouts and everyone wd then sit along the balconies and chat with candles being the only source of light. That kinda thing. Heh.

And of course, what is changi without ‘incredible tales’.

20 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

Nice to know that Nora! Blackouts were usually fun where I was as well – it was always nice to sit in the dark with only the flickering light of the candle to give us light in the evenings … that was until I had to make my way up 19 floors of stairs with a bicycle! :)

22 06 2010
dahlia

experienced it myself too.. when we had to buy candles.. lighted it up.. we kids just looovveeeeeee it! :)

24 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

And our parents always told us not to play with fire! :)

20 06 2010
azmankrida

Hi Nora, FYI Cp is now memories including the mosque/madrasah which u attended. Now Cp has a totally new look……..according to someone i know who is still working in the new Cp now.OOHh…how i miss the roti prata & satay wak parjo infront of Cp. U still remember?……..free movies in the open space next to the mosque provided by the prison authorities.

20 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

Somehow, we always miss the makan! Same with the folks who lived in old Chong Pang who miss the food around the Sultan Theatre. :)

22 06 2010
dahlia

your first impression of kuda kepang really makes me laff! hahahahaha…

24 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

glad to know that :)

23 06 2010
azmankrida

Check this out guys………http://www.sfogszero.com/news/fear-and-worry-over-teen-girls-who-go-trance-class…………..this is the group i’m teaching now on how to play gamelan the correct way.

24 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks Azman! :)

25 06 2010
peter long

Stumbled on you site quite by accident. Found it very intriguing! So long back in those days I used to sail my sailboat from Kallang Basin to Changi over what today is probably the ECP. Sailed past Tanah Merah and Ayer Gemuruh very close by usually at night when the sea was calm and the only sounds you would hear is the sound that the boat makes gliding through the water. It was the best! After I married in the 1960s, my wife and I went house hunting. I saw an ad in the Straits Times of a school building that was for sale at Ayer Gemuruh. We went to see the cuilding. It was right up close to the sea. I remember it was a wooden building on stilts with long classrooms, maybe three of four rooms in all and it seemed the most attractive place to make a home, right next to the beach with coconut trees around and you had to drive through a small village where they burnt sea shells to make kapor. Very idealic but sadly a bit impractical for a young couple who had to go to work everyday.

Great to read your blog and its focus on our history…..now sadly gone in the interest of progress.

28 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for your kind feedback Peter! Certainly appreciate them. It’s great to know that you have an affinity for the Ayer Gemuruh area as well! The seaside villages were wonderful and it’s something we won’t ever see and feel again :(. Would you be familiar with the area? I am trying to pinpoint the location of some of the government holiday bungalows in the area and need some help.

12 07 2010
Carol & John

Azman
We visited our amah Sabinah binte Laiman who lived at Jalan Darat Nanas in the late 60’s. We would love to know what happened to her and where she had to move to. Lovely memories of Sabinah and Satina (her daughter). Fascinating reading your blog and all the replys re: Changi prison, etc.

12 07 2010
azmankrida

hi carol & john, sorry i can’t really recall names especially during kampong days we usually call people by nick names.Furthermore it has been a long time since we all left darat nanas but some of us still keep in touch with each other. We’ll meet up when there’s a funeral or wedding invitation by ex darat nanas residents.

12 07 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for your feedback Carol and John, great to see more connections with the forgotten kampung! Maybe someone reading this post might remember your amah and her daughter! :)

16 08 2010
Page not found « The Long and Winding Road

[...] Kuda Kepang [...]

10 11 2010
Hamidah Buang

Hi!
I find your blog really fascinating! I actually googled ‘ Jalan Darat Nanas’ and was drawn to your site.
I was born in Kampong Darat Nanas ( this was how the road sign-post was spelt actually).
Our house was the first one on the right when you enter the gate dividing the CP compound and the kampung. I remember the mama shop, we used to call it ‘Kedai Haji’ or ‘Kedai Brahim’ . Ibrahim was the shopkeeper..tall, handsome man. Haji owned the shop. Due to the close proximity of our house to the shop..we were in there “24/7″. It drove Ibrahim mad half the time! But we loved Ibrahim.

Well, my 2 older sisters went to Ayer Gemuruh Primary, along with my cousin. I haven’t seen the school personally because I was too little then. I do remember going to the beach and playing in the water. It was one of my fondest memory as a child. I had a friend whose grandparents’ house were the last one on the edge of the kampung, overlooking the T1 runway before it was demolished. They were a Eurasian family with 3 Dobermans as guard dogs.

As a teenager, I always got into trouble with my very strict mother for breaking my curfew, which at that time was before the evening prayer. Walking along the tall CP walls, I would think of a million excuse to tell my mother why I was late ..this time! It never helped, cos she’d be waiting in the verandah with a cane in her hand, ready to wollup my behind everytime!

As kids, my younger siblings and I really looked forward to weddings. Especially when KK would be performing. Yes, we’ve been warned many a times not to go..but since when did we listen?

I remember watching KK perform from a safe distance and would freak out and sprint everytime the KK stared/looked/ran in my direction. I was also careful not to wear or have anything red on me cos it would catch their attention , we were warned. I loved watching the KK being eased out of their trance by the group leader towards the end of the ‘show’. Chewing glass, eating flowers and dancing on broken glass/nails were truly awesome stuff, I thought then!

I remember the house where the owner of the KK group was. It was opposite Cik Ramlah’s house, where my mother would send me to buy home-made lontong some Sunday mornings. I recall coming for a closer look at the KK being stored in the fenced basement of the house. They were not made of cardboard, rather they were made from ‘tikar’ mengkuang material..it was woven in colourful patterns and finished with bamboo strips and coloured ropes.

From Darat Nanas, I have walked all the way to Tanah Merah using the back dirt road and would often wander all the way to the Women’s Prison. If I carried on to the right, I bet I would have ended up in Changi Beach…that would really have gotten me in BIG trouble with my mother!

When T1 first opened, we could here the tannoy ” Announcing the arrival of SQXXX”..it would echo through the night, it was so cool!

I went to Madrasah Al-Azamiah every afternoon after secular school, just next to my house. My Ustazahs were halimah & Azizah. I wonder where they are right now. The mosque is Masjid Al-Azamiah.

When the CP’s fences were ‘see through’, we kids used to gather by it in front of the mosque and watch the prisoners being inspected in front of their ‘quarters’…yes, ‘pull your shorts down and do the squats!!’ Yikes!! I’m traumatised for life now because of that! Haaa..haaa. And every Friday morning when there was a ‘hanging’ a sombre siren would go off after the Fajr prayer call. I would see family members coming in and out of the visitors entrance every day…some wailing, some sniffling..some, just fed up!

The shops outside the CP compound was called ‘Kedai Luar’ i.e. ‘outside shop’. Yes, Wak Parjo’s famous Mee Rebus and satay…who could forget? He was our neighbour, you see? The mamak stall served our favourite Mee Goreng and prata!! I used to get buses No. 9, No. 2 and 12, if I am not mistaken to get to the ‘outside world’ i.e. secondary school in Bedok.

We moved to Tampines in 1982, I was in secondary one then. I’m now 41 and living in Perth, WA. How time flies eh?

12 11 2010
The wondering wanderer

Wow Hamidah! What wonderful memories from another resident of Kampong Darat Nanas! Thanks so much for sharing … it certainly was a different world back then wasn’t it? Most of what I remember of the area was the prison and the prison walls as well as the area further up the road at Tanah Merah Besar and I am certainly glad that all got connected to the area around CP … I have a few friends in Perth … nice part of the world … yes, time certainly flies … :D

12 11 2010
Hamidah Buang

Now..I blame you for my nostalgic bug!! Haaa..haaa
I could go on for days re-living my childhood days. Perhaps I should start a blog of my own! haaa..haa. I shared your page on my FB, and was amazed at my friends’ input abt Kuda Kepang in modern Singapore and my dear old kampung.

BTW, I’m new to Perth..still discovering new places of interest at my own pace. Been in ‘Bonny’ Scotland and ‘dreary’ London for too long! What wonderful weather we have here!!!

12 11 2010
The wondering wanderer

Glad I’ve infected you with the bug!! :D Yes, why don’t you start a blog … and maybe a FB group for your old kampung? Which part of Bonny Scotland did you reside in? Spend my undergraduate days in Glasgow and also some time after in London … actually loved the cold – but guess it could have been more pleasant …

18 03 2011
Susi

Hei ! Thanks for dropping by and take some of our pic . Bdw some of d info is totally wrong . We didnt possed spirit . We train all that dance . Soo yah . We are from jogoh doyoh . :)

18 03 2011
The wondering wanderer

Hi Susi, thanks for the performance! Kuda Kepang has always fascinated me … how many troupes are still performing this in Singapore? :)

24 03 2011
susi

probably 30 plus . wanna watch ? just come malay village every ssaturday and sunday aite . =)

27 03 2011
The wondering wanderer

What time are the performances at the Malay Village?

11 01 2014
Yohanna

Hi susi, do you have any kuda kepang/kuda lumpings available for rent? My club wants to learn and perform the dance :) Do contact me as soon as possible if you have them :)) You can contact me at yohana_1992@hotmail.com. Thanks so much!

28 03 2011
mankrida

@Susi… sorry to ask u this question, hope u ara not angry……I understand that MUIS has labelled kuda kepang as SYIRIK & all the town councils had stopped issuing permits for kuda kepang performances @ void deck or public places…how come ur group still can perform @ malay village?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,397 other followers

%d bloggers like this: