At a street market in Kota Tua, North Jakarta, earlier this month, food vendors peddled fried meats, juices and ice creams. Rows of bicycles covered the main square, arranged like the colors of the rainbow, and each with a matching helmet to boot. I heard music, saw a crowd gather and pulled out my camera to capture the fun.
Small children were performing acrobatics. To my surprise, a man walked into the fray with a whip. He said something to a child, who retorted. Crack. Another child chimed in. Crack. I looked around the circle — no one seemed surprised.
A small boy on a colorfully painted cardboard horse began to jump around, whipping himself. Two children began to beat a third, who struggled to free himself from a basket. I watched bubbles rise from the audience. The noise of the whip echoed through the square. I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
At the time, I was shocked. Later I found out I had seen a performance of kuda lumping, a traditional Javanese dance, according to Bambang Paningron, former chairman of the Jogja International Performing Arts Festival in Yogyakarta. “Usually they use magic to perform that kind of performance,” he said. The dancers enter a supernatural state, explained by spiritual possession, in which they can eat glass, open coconuts with their teeth and be whipped without feeling pain.
But in a Jakarta Globe article about kuda lumping two years ago, some quotes from performers stuck out: “I feel fatigued and my body aches,” one said. “[I cut my lips on the glass] sometimes, but the wound is usually gone after a week. … And when it happens, I can only eat porridge,” said another.
And then from their master: “I don’t think it’s abusing the children because it’s just a game. Besides, they don’t feel pain because they are possessed by a spirit that protects them. No one has ever said that it is a form of child abuse.”
But they do feel pain, if not during the trance, then afterward. They said so.
I asked Bambang how many people take part. “Many people,” he said.
I asked the friendly workers at my kost , or boarding house, what they thought about it. They told me it was a nice, very powerful tradition and directed me to several places where I could watch it again.
I know that as an American looking into a culture very different from my own, I have to be careful with my assumptions, but this is a hard tradition for me to swallow. Even if the whips do not hurt the children, even if they’re doing it of their own volition, what is it about us as people that draws us to watch this sort of spectacle?
And does my opinion about this, as a foreigner, carry any merit?
This reminded me of the Lady Gaga controversy a month ago in Jakarta. Lady Gaga was forced to cancel her tour after the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) threatened violence if she performed as planned, saying her show would corrupt the morality of Indonesian youth. There were also protests against her shows in South Korea and the Philippines.
Foreign media have reported on these events, and there has been plenty of condemnation of some Indonesians’ intolerance of free expression, and plenty of support for Lady Gaga and her artistic choices. But my question for my fellow Americans is, as we watch protests across the world unfold, have we paused to consider what is it about Lady Gaga that draws us to watch her sort of spectacle?
There’s no denying it: Lady Gaga is a sex icon. She embodies not just the ultimate in individuality, but also the ultimate in sexual liberty. We listen to her music on the radio, filled with insinuations or blatant references to drinking and sex. What message does she give about American values? And do the opinions of the protesting Indonesians, South Koreans and Filipinos carry any merit?
I don’t think any religious organization should threaten violence against Lady Gaga, and I don’t support government censorship of art. But to entirely dismiss these protests against Lady Gaga’s revealing costumes and risque dance moves, not to mention her sexual lyrics and music videos, without thinking critically about her stage persona and the message she sends, does a disservice to Western culture.
What kind of entertainment do Westerners support, and what does that say about us? I mean, even civilized Rome had its Colosseum.
Karis Schneider is a Jakarta Globe intern from Princeton University.